Why the Democrats Lose
Now that Bush's popularity has fallen to an all-time low, even the lethargic and obedient Congress shows some signs, if not of conscience perhaps of uneasiness. Democrats, like Brooklyn Dodger fans of old, raise their eyes heavenward and hope that this is the Year of Deliverance.
Possibly, but as our Brit friends say, not ruddy likely. Of course some dramatic and immediate catastrophe, such as a bloodbath of GI's in Iraq or the collapse of the stock market, might galvanize the electorate into rushing wide-eyed to the polls and, in their frenzy, accidentally getting it right and electing a clutch of Democrats. But I would not bet my last fiver on it.
The Democratic campaigns have been markedly ineffective, and are likely to remain so despite the new leadership at the DNC. Talking heads and columnists on both sides of the Great Divide will offer ritual explanations of why Bush has had such a hold on middleclass voters (upperclass voter fealty is a given), but in my view all this pundit blather is wide of the mark.
The root of the Democrat's dilemma is not that that the Republicans are the Devil's spawn, or that they hold the electorate in some demonic thrall. Nor is it true that the last presidential election could have been won had Kerry and the Democratic candidates only gotten the words right and explained more cogently what they stood for. That their failure was one of syntax and presentation, not one of understanding. (Why We Lost by Andrei Cherny, NY Times, 5 November 2004).
Consider the lessons of history: In the Thirties, when I was growing up, we were suffering from the Great Depression. Democrats could be divided into three major constituencies: blue-collar workers, rural farm workers, and the great masses of urban poor. The common people (read: voters) knew who they were and what the issues were. Upward mobility and market fluctuations were not the issue, survival was. If there was any commonality of identity it was being broke and out of work. The Democratic constituency had a clear, if somewhat simplistic, conception of who the adversary was: Big Business. The issues were quite straightforward. Except for the anti-Catholic brouhaha regarding Al Smith's candidacy, religion wasn't a campaign issue. A Protestant affiliation was assumed. Churchgoing was not a campaign issue, it was a given. A basic anti-Semitism also was a given, as was isolationism. Lindbergh was a hero, and Father Coughlin's messages of hate had a wider radio audience than Roosevelt's Fireside Chats. Identifying who you were and what you believed was very straightforward for all sides. It was a black and white world view, in both the metaphorical and the ethnic senses of the phrase..
In this political climate the Democrats could not lose. There were many more thin cats than fat cats. Roosevelt had an electoral mandate that really was a mandate, not just a slim majority. The electorate knew who they were and what their problems were, and the Democrats understood both their constituencies and what needed to be done. A simple message in a much simpler time. Even a candidate as emotionally disengaged as Gore or Kerry hardly could have lost.
But before you read on, please keep this in mind: Traditionally the Democrats are the party of Fixing Things, and the Republicans are the party of Getting and Keeping Things. That is a profound difference. Now, in the dear old days gone by, things that needed to be fixed were well understood by the voters, but few of them aspired to slither into the Republican camp and get and keep things. That was not their agenda. So the Democratic constituency not only was identifiable, it also was stable. Folks who voted Democratic also stayed Democratic. There was little crossover.
When I was a kid a worker in a steel mill or at General Motors had a small house with a backyard, enjoyed cookouts on the weekend, attended real ball games (radio but no TV), went to church, had a car, worried about his daughter's chastity, and expected his sons to go to college or to follow in his footsteps and work at "the mill." Even with the Depression, stable employment from generation to generation was a commonplace, and people prided themselves on having three generations working at General Motors. Fathers and sons carried metal lunch boxes and went to work together. Women were expected to be housewives, nurses or schoolteachers. A guy with only a high school diploma could, and often did, borrow a thousand bucks and start his own little business, such as automobile repair. The need for expensive computerized equipment and a demanding technical education still was far off, on a horizon no one even suspected. And we still talked about the starving Armenians, "Oil for the Lamps of China," and "keeping our boys out of foreign wars." Quaint, wasn't it?
And when the run-up to WW II started the long recovery from the Depression, that expectation and that ethic remained unchanged. You got a factory job, you voted Democratic, and you looked forward to the same comfortable and stable lifestyle that your father once enjoyed. If your family was very forward-thinking and could afford it, a boy (but rarely a girl) went to college, usually a state college with very low tuition. And everybody looked forward to that great day when the awfulness was over and we all would enjoy more of what we had before the war started. Back to the future. Nobody doubted that we would win (after all, the Germans had been beaten only two decades before, and it was well known that the Japanese were a primitive people who made cute wind-up toys, wore glasses with Coke-bottle lenses, and could neither shoot straight nor fly airplanes. Gold Star mothers who lost their sons in combat soon would hang those terrible little flags in their parlor windows, but that hadn't happened yet.
But now let's fast forward to November 2004. The world has changed, and villains are very hard to define. The simplistic solutions of the 30's and 40's no longer are effective or even relevant. General Motors, for example, no longer is an American company, but sees itself as an international entity with loyalties to no particular nation or place. The Technology Genie enabled that transformation. Wall Street robber barons, once so easily cartooned, now are replaced by... whom? Japanese? Saudi sheiks? We go to work in the morning, only to find that we have been outsourced, or that our company has been bought by some shadowy foreign holding company. The ground rules for success are undefined and fluid. Hard work and good performance no longer are an assurance of anything. We build our houses on economic quicksand.
In this complex, international, Web-driven, cellphone obsessed world, ordinary folks with their backs to the economic wall don't even know whom to blame. For these people there is no sense of who or what is responsible, no confidence in the short term, and great anxiety about the long term. Nothing is certain, everything is in flux, and for millions of Americans life has become incomprehensibly threatening and complex. In this economic arena we don't even know who our enemies are, and we are struck down by shadowy and unreachable adversaries