The Election

by Jonathan Wallace

It's almost too boring to write about the election; in the famous American attention span, it is old news already.

The United States is becoming one of those countries where there are nominally elections but power is always retained by the same people. This is probably an inevitable result in a system where parties vie for real power under a system of artificial rules that allows them to retain it subject to certain constraints. Ultimately, power is gained and the constraints are conveniently forgotten. There is no better time to forget them than one of national emergency; the rationale is always, "We will do the necessary now, and return to the rules later." But somehow we never quite do.

The Republicans were fated to be the more adept party at securing their hold on power; they have more money, are more certain of themselves (because not haunted by the liberal conscience or self-doubt) and are more ruthless. There has never been a modern Democrat as cheap, vicious and self-righteous as Joe McCarthy, Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond, Newt Gingrich or Dick Armey. Democrats hesitate, Republicans destroy the adversary. Symbolic of this is the amazing demonization of the word "liberal" in the past forty years. Consider its original definition (from the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition):

Not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas; free from bigotry.

Favoring proposals for reform, open to new ideas for progress, and tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others; broad-minded.

Despite a few vestigial liberal Republicans, reviled and threatened by their own party, most Americans have a very concrete sense today of what the Republicans stand for: war (conceived as a courageous and necessary enterprise), tax cuts, pro-life, "moral values" and guns. Fewer people have any idea what Democrats stand for, and if they do, it is a definition most likely written by the Republicans: "the party of tax and spend", of personal injury lawyers and pornography.

The Republicans have captured the national image of the Democrats through their advantage in money, their decisiveness and ruthlessness, and--yes--their control of the means of communication. The charge Republicans make against the "liberal media" is not the complaint of a baffled and resentful outsider group; it is a warning, uttered by power to the press, to stay in line. And it is wildly successful, since the newspapers which broke the Pentagon Papers story thirty years ago would be too frightened to take such a step today.

Democratic weaknesses have, of course permitted the Republicans to take control. Even if the Democrats had a more cohesive message, and fought harder, the Republicans would still have more money, and in these days, money is the first and last thing which counts; all else is talk. But at the least the Democrats would have put up a better fight.

What did John Kerry actually stand for? For those of us who voted for him, he represented a more intelligent man, better presidential material, someone actually qualified to lead, whose decisions we would trust better than the current president. But this was a woefully inadequate message; Americans are apparently suspicious of intelligence, especially when it resides in the skull of someone who is (or can be painted as) a member of the "Eastern liberal elite". We apparently don't mind intelligence as much if it is a secondary attribute of a loveable Southern fuck-up such as Bill Clinton. Being smart is not, however, a primary attribute we look for in a president; it is a disadvantage which can be overcome with the right amount of homey charm.

Where Kerry failed is that it was impossible to make a list of the things he would do, while we knew perfectly well what Bush would. Kerry thought the war was a fiasco, and most Americans probably agree with him; but they gave Bush the benefit of the doubt, because there was no concrete indication that Kerry would manage to end it, or to re-establish our nation's security. The message, "John Kerry will make more intelligent choices", is not persuasive if we don't have an inkling what these are. In fact, there is every prospect that a Kerry presidency would have been like Lyndon Johnson's: he would have been the unwilling and eventually depressed caretaker of a nightmare he did not create, eventually handing it to his successor to solve.

Once you cut through the outdated but still persuasive bullshit generated by Republicans, that the Democrats are the "tax and spend" party (and are the Republicans the "cut taxes and spend" party?), all you get to is the carefully created Democratic message: "We are the party of non-Republicans". An understandable reaction to this is: "Huh? What do you actually stand for?" But the Democrats, having been so successfully tarred so many times, are afraid to commit, as they never successfully seem to forsee what rope the Republicans will use to hang them. (In fact, they are used to being hung on issues on which they didn't actually take a stand, such as gay marriage.) So the Democratic message is, "Whatever you dislike about the Republicans, we represent the opposite." But, since they see their former constituency as hopelessly fragmented, they must leave everything to the imagination, as a declaration meant to inspire some voters would be expected to alienate some equal or larger number of others. In the end, the "party of nonRepublicans" is not an image that captures hearts and minds.

Among the flickering possibilities are the Democrat's traditional roles as the party of the common folk, of labor, of racial equality, of a social safety network. But it would seem that the common folk may no longer care much about labor, and labor may no longer care much about racial equality, nor about a social safety network. One way in which the American metaphor has succeeded--but undermined the Democrats--is by inculcating the idea that we can all become as rich as Republicans. State-run lotteries, the dot-com stock bubble, hip-hop success stories, and now, reality television, spread the idea (without ever discussing the odds) that we can all be wealthy, powerful and influential. For every Democrat who doesn't want to be a fat cat, there are probably thousands who once voted Democrat only because they thought they were permanently barred from joining the elite. Undoubtedly, some of us are now voting Republican in a mistaken glow, thinking that we will soon be members of the club. But as Thoreau pointed out, after we are all caught up in the hype about building the railroad, the smoke will clear and "a few will be riding, but the rest will be run over."

There is an interesting and necessary debate going on about how the Democrats can reassert their identity and recapture a majority. There are two basic views, one that they must shift to the left, and the other that they must become even more centrist.

As someone who voted for Nader in two elections in the vain hope that the Democrats would do something to win me back, I have undeniable sympathy for the idea that the party needs to move left. There are sarcastic Republicans out there, who are saying that they hope this will happen, that the Democrats will be even easier to marginalize if they actually do speak out in favor of gay marriage. That is certainly a risk we would run, but it is at least imaginable we could have a fierce party again, with a meaningful message. There is an idea that a party should remain true to its principles in bad times, broadcasting a powerful message, waiting for those who have been led out of the tent by deceptive voices to return when they discover the deception. (That does raise the question: how many more years of a shitty economy will it take for Americans to realize that is what it is? Where is the tide that will lift all boats?) The countervailing fear is that parties, by remaining too true to their principles, can become as irrelevant as the American Socialist Party.

There are respectable Democratic voices out there who are warning that a swing to the left would be the party's death knell, and that we will only win elections again by recapturing the center. However, no-one has yet painted a picture of a centrist Democratic party with a heart-quickening and compelling message. These commentators, instead, are positing that we could do a better job of being the "nonRepublicans" or even "Republicans lite." But that, more so than the other swing, seems to me like a recipe for disaster, with the leaching away of choice, and the Democrats eventually positioning themselves for a merger, as junior members, into the One Great Party that Runs Things.