Democrats adrift

In the first two and a half months following the bitterly fought 2004 Presidential election, a regular viewer of C—SPAN would have been 'entertained' by countless panels of Democrats, and progressives (liberally sprinkled with the requisite number of Ph.Ds) discussing where their Party needs to go, in order to again become the dominant political party in the country. Evidence of the seriousness of these discussions is that the naming of a new Chairman for the Democratic National Committee next month has engendered the kind of discussion, interest and debate not normally associated with such a position.

The Democratic Party is in the midst of a long steep decline. In 1974, the Republican Party faced an abyss of sorts. After Nixon's landslide 49 state Presidential victory in 1972, in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, the GOP was destroyed in the Congressional races two years later. The Democrats, following the 1974 elections, held 37 Governorships (versus 22 today, including the stolen race in Washington State), 61 Senate seats (now 44 or 45 depending on how you count Benedict Arnold Jeffords of 'I regret that I have but one vote to give for my dairy compact' fame), and 291 House seats, a more than two—to—one edge in that body (now 202). 

The Republican march to a majority in the last 30 years has not been a straight glide path. There were ups and downs along the way.  The GOP took control of the Senate in 1980, and lost it a few years later. The decisive year was 1994, with a 52 seat pickup in the House creating the first GOP majority in decades, as well as renewing control of the Senate. But Democrats fought back to narrow the GOP edge in the House in the Congressional elections in 1996, 1998 and 2000, and won enough Senate seats in 2000 so that Jeffords' switch gave them control of that body again. In both 2002 and 2004, the GOP won seats in both the Senate and House (six and ten respectively over the two cycles) to gain back control of the Senate and strengthen their majority in the House. Now with a more decisive second term Bush victory (a 3 million vote margin over Kerry), and voter surveys indicating that the GOP has, for the first time in nearly a century, matched the Democrats in party identification among voters, Democrats have to be concerned with the slippage in their ranks.

What is of interest, is that both Presidential candidates in 2004 won very heavy majorities among self—identified members of their parties.  But those who identify as Republicans or Democrats are a declining share of the total population — now only 74%. The growing remainder are independents.  Both Parties turned out about 90% of their partisans for their Presidential candidate in 2004, with Bush doing slightly better among the GOP faithful than Kerry did among Democrats.

The difference was due mainly to the fact that many voters in states such as West Virginia, Alabama and Kentucky remain registered Democrats, though they now routinely vote for Republicans. This is the Zell Miller story writ large, and helps explain why Bush and his Party did so well in the South this year.  Miller's sentiments about what has happened to his Party (its abandonment of the South, and conservative Southerners who think differently than the Party on national defense and social issues) are views shared by many Southern 'Democrats.'

The many Democratic Party panels on C—SPAN have had plenty of themes to discuss: the need for the party to regain its footing among the 'faith community' (how do we connect with people who believe in God, when we don't?), the need to become stronger on national defense (as argued by The New Republic's Peter Beinart), the need to become more assertive in an anti—war position (do not worry about consistency in the themes at this point), the need to better make the progressive economics case — that Democrats are better for the poor and lower income people, but for some reason, not enough of the poor seem to vote their economic interests (see belief in God above). 

Some panelists have suggested the Democrats need to become clearer about their messages. Others have offered that the Democrats need to fudge them better, if they want to broaden the Party's appeal. The latter position suggests either that the Republicans do represent a real majority at this point (few Democrats admit to this), or do a better job fudging their messages, which are not shared by the majority (if they only knew).  Hence, a common topic is that the Democrats need most their own Karl Rove, who will fix all the problems and smooth over the internal contradictions.

What has stuck me the most about the panels and the panelists is how the primary issue is the future of the Party. In other words, the Party 'thoughtful' are inwardly directed — the Party's fate is the issue.  If the Party is successful, presumably America will be better off (this is certainly true for Democratic interest groups, lobbyists, paid politicians, their staffs and other appointed government officials).

C—SPAN, which is scrupulously non—partisan, also provides plenty of GOP and conservative panels.  While some of these recently have included discussions about why Bush was successful, many more have been issue oriented: Social Security reform, immigration, or national defense.

Having just completed Tom Wolfe's latest novel I Am Charlotte Simmons, what has struck me about the Democrats' soul searching is the intensity of the navel gazing at play. The Democrats are behaving in many ways, like the college freshmen in Wolfe's novel. The heroine of the book, Charlotte Simmons, is a brilliant, attractive scholarship student at a prestige university (the fictional DuPont U.). Simmons hails from a small town in the mountains of North Carolina, and comes to college with small town conservative values and a fierce commitment to learning and achievement. But she quickly loses her bearings when exposed to the suffocating culture of the university, drenched in drinking, sex, and most of all, validation by the opposite sex.  What matters to Charlotte becomes how she looks, and how others look at her, and in particular, whether the socially cool element approves her. When they approve, she looks fine and radiant. When they are disgusted by her, she becomes disgusted with herself, and falls apart. A young woman whose self— image had centered on academic achievement, and her own distinctiveness (even in small town North Carolina), succumbs to the culture of privilege and the importance of being seen with and admired (and desired) by the right people.

Simmons and a basketball star, Jo Jo Johanson become friends. Johanson, at Charlotte's urging, begins to look at what he has become in the sheltered cocoon of a basketball player at a top ten program, and consider why he behaves in class in a way that suggests he cannot think. While Charlotte is the catalyst for JoJo's catharsis, and new academic commitment, she lets her own academics slide, as she first climbs up and then falls down the social ladder at DuPont.

Professional Democrats want to be liked, and care a great deal about why they are not as much liked as the other guys.  But they are less concerned with who they are. They think a better tactician (their Rove) will help, as would a better candidate (meaning a prettier face than Kerry's).  The assumption (the arrogance) is that of course, the people will come around, if only their message is more effectively communicated.

Charlotte Simmons does not become a better person when she starts applying makeup and drinking and 'hooking up.' She loses her soul by trying too hard to be what she is not. She only regains her footing when she regains her pride in who she is, and what she can accomplish. The title of the book is what she needs to relearn to repeat to herself: I am Charlotte Simmons.

For the Democrats, the real question should be: What does it mean to be a Democrat? In the last election, the answer to that question was: I do not support George Bush. That is not enough. What would make enough people say with pride, 'I am a Democrat'? Answer that one successfully, and the election wins will start coming.