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What's wrong with the Democratic Party?

By Don Hickey
web posted November 8, 2004

The elections are now over, and the Republicans have won an impressive victory. President Bush won more than 51 percent of the popular vote, and the Republicans made significant gains in Congress, even knocking off Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. The Democrats were unable to take advantage of the poor communication skills of the President, the administration's missteps in Iraq, soaring fuel prices, and the general uncertainty of our post-9/11 world. They have failed in spite of a powerful assist from the mainstream media, which has run an endless series of stories highlighting all the bad news (and little of the good) and suggesting that most Americans are much worse off under the Republican administration.

The attempt of the Democrats and their media allies to focus on job creation and outsourcing, instead of the unemployment rate, which is the traditional gauge of the nation's economic health, could not disguise the fact that the recent recession was both mild and short-lived. Most Americans realized that, whatever they read in the press, they themselves were faring well in the Bush economy. Nor is it easy to defeat an incumbent in the midst of a war, especially with such a lackluster candidate as John Kerry. But the malaise of the Democrats runs much deeper than the outcome of a single election. In retrospect, it appears that this once great party has been in decline since at least 1980.

The central problem that Democrats face today is quite simply that, at least in its current form, their party has outlived its usefulness. A successful political party usually enjoys 50 to 70 years of dominance before giving way to the opposition. By the end of its reign, it has implemented most of its policies, and it usually finds itself on the wrong side of an important issue.

Thus in 1800, the Democratic party of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison won control of the national government, and over the next 60 years dominated the political landscape by promoting democracy and territorial expansion. By 1860, however, the party's policies were in place, and it had little new to offer. In addition, it found itself defending slavery on the eve of the Civil War.

The Republicans prevailed in 1860, and over the next 72 years they dominated, first by embracing the preservation of the Union and the emancipation of the slaves and then by fostering free market capitalism and economic growth. By 1932, this party had played out its string and was blamed for the Great Depression.

Resurgent again, the Democrats took over in 1933, and thereafter maintained their dominant position by promoting a broad program of social welfare, civil rights, and labor legislation. By 1980, however, FDR's New Deal and LBJ's Great Society had established the modern welfare state, and the Democrats had trouble finding a new issue that resonated with the American people. In addition, they had no credible policy on a crucial foreign policy issue that had crystallized over the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979: how to treat rogue states and state-supported terrorism.

Ronald ReaganThe Republican revolution initiated by Ronald Reagan in 1980 was solidified by Republican triumphs in Congress in 1994 and after. Although Bill Clinton's success obscured the larger trend (just as the success of Woodrow Wilson had earlier in the century), voter registration among young people is trending Republican, and there is little doubt that it is now the dominant party.

The Democratic Party, by contrast, shows all the signs of a party in decline. Its leadership is aging and largely uninspired. The party's leading spokesmen–John Kerry and John Edwards, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Al Gore–appear unable to articulate a future that appeals to a majority of the American people. Nor can they expect much help from the old war horses in Congress. Ted Kennedy and Dick Gephardt represent a bygone era and command little support beyond their hardcore constituents.

Most of the policies traditionally favored by the Democratic Party are in place, and those that it now advocates are either backward-looking or too radical for the public to embrace. Instead of taking issues to the people at election time, Democrats are often forced to hide their agenda and even insist that they are "progressives" or "moderates" rather than "liberals." This explains why Kerry ignored his twenty years in the Senate and based his presidential campaign at first on four months of military service more than thirty years ago and then on whatever bad news appeared in the daily press.

Democrats have been especially weak in staking out a position on the War on Terrorism and its offshoot, the War in Iraq. They have suggested that the threat posed by terrorists be treated as a simple police matter; they have accused the Republicans both of doing too little and too much to protect the nation; they have sought to use the war for partisan purposes; and they have shown an eagerness to defer to overseas opinion, especially on the Iraqi War. Indeed, some of the most outspoken Democrats gave the impression that they would rather lose this war than the election.

The tactics of the party also suggest that it has lost its moorings. Defeated at the polls, the Democrats have resorted to litigation, filibuster, obstruction, and scare tactics to promote their own agenda and block that of the Republicans. Moreover, in a vain attempt to recover power without seriously engaging the issues, some Democrats have embraced a vicious form of partisanship, spewing forth hate speech; waging class, race, and gender warfare; and even turning normally nonpartisan exercises  -- such as the Academy Awards, funeral ceremonies (of U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone), and the hearings of the 9/11 Commission -- into vehicles to advance their party's cause. More ominously, in a single-minded pursuit of victory in the recent election, Democrats sought to intimidate Republicans by attacking their campaign headquarters while at the same time registering unqualified or fictitious voters. These tactics are unworthy of a great party and threaten to undermine the nation's democratic system.

With uninspired leaders, radical or backward-looking policies, and dubious tactics, the Democratic Party has become a shadow of its former self. The party no longer has a central core but instead seems to exist only to win elections so that it can serve the various interest groups that it represents: race and gender advocates who demand quotas or other special treatment, labor unions opposed to school vouchers and restrictions on their political spending, lawyers hostile to tort reform who are constantly on the prowl for deep pockets to sue, environmentalists who put the perceived interests of nature over the known needs of people, and internationalists who blame America for the world's woes and look for guidance to overseas elites who oppose American democracy and hegemony and are all too willing to appease terrorism and aggression.

Although it is perfectly natural for a party to look after the interests of its constituents, the Democratic Party has become such a captive of its interest groups that it no longer has any real vision for the future. Little wonder, then, that the voters appear willing to consign the party to the political wilderness.

Does this mean that the Democratic party is dead? Far from it. The party still has a large and loyal following, although it will have to undergo a fundamental reformation if it is to halt its slide and recover its former greatness. It will need fresh leadership capable of inspiring the American people. It will need new policies that it will openly defend before the voters. It will have to defer to the will of the majority instead of resorting to litigation and subterfuge to gain its ends. It will have to show that it can fight and win the War on Terrorism regardless of resistance at home or disapproval abroad. Above all, Democrats will have to show that they can put the larger interests of the nation above their desire to win elections or the interests of the advocacy groups they represent.

The American political system always works best when it has two strong parties that offer competing visions for the future. If the Democratic Party does not develop a compelling vision, it is likely to remain in the wilderness for a long time, and the American political system will be poorer for it.

Don Hickey is a professor of history at Wayne State College in Nebraska. He was a life-long Democrat until 1996, when he re-registered as a Republican. He can be reached at dohicke1@wsc.edu.

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