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U.S. Democrats: Back to the Roots

What are the political challenges for democrats in the 2002 congressional election?

July 25, 2002

What are the political challenges for democrats in the 2002 congressional election?

I have just received a fascinating notice from the Campaign for America's future, the organization which unites those Democrats who still think of the New Deal and Great Society in positive terms. We are instructed to mobilize in revolutionary exultation — to defend Franklin Roosevelt's Social Security program of 1935.

Social Security is worth defending. The volatility of Wall Street shows how dangerous reliance on stock ownership is for retirement savers with average incomes. It is not, however, a project for a great Democratic leap forward.

The notice was striking because it expresses the political minimalism and the defensiveness of even the most convinced Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt now regard the Wall Street scandals as providential.

However, they did too little, beforehand, to illuminate the political heavens. My personal political memories span seven decades. I cannot remember an opposition so ideologically mute.

Having underestimated Nixon and Reagan, the Democrats now underestimate Bush. He has an unerring instinct for exploiting the ignorance of the world — and historical narcissism — with which many Americans are too richly endowed.

These tendencies can be overcome. Americans, after all, are also possessed of better natures, but these do not manifest themselves spontaneously.

Education is needed in the form of political pedagogy — an appeal to the nation's submerged sense of solidarity, even to its imperfect awareness of dependence upon others.

This realization could release the moral energies so absent recently from the politics of the Democratic Party.

President Bush is not being hypocritical in his political religiosity. He acts on the realistic awareness that the United States is as much church as nation. He is in fact right to tell the citizenry that it has a role to play in a moral drama.

Rather than scoff — or join Senator Lieberman in invoking their open telephone lines to God — the Democrats ought to renew their own dramaturgical traditions.

These have played very well on our historical stage in the recent past. Matters like education, health, the future of Social Security are not just the stuff of a calculus of social benefits and costs. Common provision is the substance of common citizenship.

That the Democrats have every reason to anticipate future victories is argued by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira in their eminently intelligent forthcoming book, “The Emerging Majority” (Scribner, 2002).

The party, they say, has to unite three key groups — if it is to lead the country again. The heirs of the New Deal, who rely on federal programs of redistribution, are the first group.

The entrepreneurial and technological New Democrats are the second group, a middle class vanguard. The third are the culturally liberal, formed by the social movements of the 1960s.

Obviously, each group is skeptical of a shared program. Yet, they also face the increasingly undisguised class bias of the Republicans, their cultural dogmatism and rigidity, their Scrooge-like avarice in social policy.

Judis and Teixeira think that recognition of a common adversary will serve to unite them.

After all, Gore and Nader had a majority. It only remains to run a better campaign. That is precisely what Al Gore is now saying. The other avowed — and unavowed — Democratic contenders for their party's nomination in 2004 most emphatically do not disagree.

A minimalist strategy that would manage to unite these three groups — and which avoids giving offense by offering something new — is likely to be praised by many commentators.

They fear nothing so much as a challenge to their own lack of social imagination. They will even misemploy the term “pragmatic,” to convey that the world being the way it is, it cannot be otherwise.

However, John Dewey, the great American thinker of the last century, had an entirely opposite view of pragmatism. A radical New Dealer, he thought that the supreme human capacity was the ability to construct the social world anew.

His political heirs were Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Johnson, who in their distinctive ways gave the Democratic Party a vision not of incremental politics — but of a different nation, if one struggling to redeem its early promise.

In the short run, of course, the Democrats have to contend with Americans' widespread withdrawal from civic life, with low electoral participation, with the fabrication of a sullen consensus by the mass media.

As a matter of fact, too many of them capitulate — even before the battle is joined.

In the long run, however, Democrats have to be willing to answer the tough questions posed in the United States (and everywhere else) by the critics of the justice of the current process of globalization.

That, in my view, is precisely why the Democrats in the United States need to rethink the relationship of market and society, the content and structure of our global engagements, the very definition of citizenship.

For much of American history, politics was about these things, about the substance of our nation. Come to think of it, tradition — properly understood — may be the newest idea around.

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