January 8, 2005


A Gathering Swarm: The mobilization to defeat George W. Bush was innovative, passionate ... and ultimately insufficient. But its fusion of movement and machine could yet transform the political landscape. (Todd Gitlin, January/February 2005, Mother Jones)

The rising was, in an immediate sense, kindled by George W. Bush. The same Republican juggernaut that shocked (but did not awe) most of the world in the course of a disastrous war succeeded in convincing many millions of Americans, at least for a while, that politics was not a specialized enthusiasm or a peculiar hobby but a necessity -- and not a necessity for somebody else but a necessity for them.

In this, Bush accomplished something remarkable: He coaxed the two divergent strands of the left, or liberalism, or progressivism, or whatever you want to call it, into the same insurgent republic and opened up the prospect of a historic resurrection. He convinced old-school Democratic wheelhorses and newly inspired activists, old pros and young amateurs, union faithful and vote mobbers, that if they did not hang together they would most assuredly hang separately.

Call these two forces the machine and the movement. Since the 1960s, the enfeebled Democratic machine and the marginal movement left had encountered each other -- if at all -- with acrid suspicion. They cracked apart 40 years ago, when college students who distrusted power went south to join blacks in overturning white supremacy while Chicago's Mayor Daley, a believer in power if nothing else, led his white, working-class base in fighting against Martin Luther King, and, later, against those same students as they revolted against the war in Vietnam. Because the Democratic Party didn't manage to amalgamate old and new politics -- cut to footage of Mayor Daley's gleeful cops smashing away at long-haired demonstrators -- it was crushed by the law-and-order alliance of old Republicans and resentful segregationists.

While the Republicans proceeded to build themselves a new base consisting of messianic Christians entangled with antitax enthusiasts under the sheltering smile of Ronald Reagan, the orthodox liberal Democrats and the movement left proceeded to paint themselves into a culture of defeat. They seethed with resentment against their only victorious presidential candidates, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. They nourished their differences more than their commonalities. In the end, some so deeply prized their purity as to gulp down the tasty Kool-Aid of Ralph Nader.

It came to pass that the Republicans (who, for all their antigovernment talk, devoutly believed in disciplined power) conquered every single national political institution in the country, and most of the states, and vast portions of the national rhetoric-dump and image bank known as the media. And so, after 2000, almost everyone left-of-center came to understand the central lesson of politics: In a deeply divided country, power accrues to those who organize to get it and hold on to it.

This is the myth that Republicans pray Democrats buy into, that if only they were better organized they'd be elected running on issues where only 30-40% of the public shares their views--from gay marriage to keeping SS the way it is.

Here's an immensely more insightful analysis of the p[roblem confronting Democrats, Courting Trouble: Liberal overdependence on the courts, combined with an obsessive preoccupation with church-state symbolism, has reached its limit. (Burt Neuborne, 01.04.05, American Prospect)

We are at the close of a 50-year cycle during which Democrats and Republicans have pursued dramatically different domestic agendas. Democrats have championed the social values of the Enlightenment -- toleration, secularism, equality, and free expression. Republicans, meanwhile, have embraced Adam Smith, resisting the government wealth transfers and market regulation often sought by Democrats in the name of equality. In the end, both political parties won their core struggle. Democrats succeeded in dismantling barriers to equality based on stereotype, building a powerful system of free expression and respect for cultural diversity while walling religion off from the exercise of public power. At the same time, Republicans succeeded in enshrining the free market as the engine of economic organization. But the two parties used very different strategies to achieve their victories.

Republicans concentrated on politics, largely because by the end of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fourth term they realized there was no chance of undoing the New Deal in the courts. After absorbing a terrible initial defeat in 1964, Republicans began the long job of rebuilding their political base. Democrats, almost always acting on behalf of minorities doomed to short-run defeat in the political arena, turned to the courts. Year after year, the judiciary delivered a steady stream of decisions finding liberal, counter-majoritarian values in that quintessential Enlightenment document, the Bill of Rights.

The 2004 election saw the Democrats’ 50-year practice of successfully advancing Enlightenment values through the courts instead of through the political process come home to roost. Infuriated by court decisions limiting their power to use law to advance their religious beliefs, a relatively thin slice of the population -- probably just 10 percent to 15 percent, but large enough to wield the balance of electoral power this time around -- rose up and voted against their economic interests, throwing Ohio and the election to George W. Bush.

Whether the issue was abortion, gay rights, the wall between church and state, or pornography, the common denominator of the dramatically increased rural/evangelical vote was rage at judicially imposed limits on the political expression of religious values. How Democrats deal with that rage, and break through it to talk to the red states about economic justice, toleration, and basic fairness is one of the great political challenges of our time.

Of course, Democrats could simply ignore the evangelicals and their rural allies, as these blocs may well lose their balance-of-power status once September 11 security concerns ebb. But that’s a huge gamble, one that writes off the South and much of the rural heartland. Defeat in 2004 poses an overdue challenge to Democrats. Their long reliance on the courts as the principal forum to advance Enlightenment values may well have succeeded itself out of usefulness. Much of the liberal agenda initially advanced in the courts has become part of the national consensus. Free speech, freedom from stereotypical discrimination, religious toleration, deep commitment to individualism -- issues that once were intensely contested are now the common currency of national discourse.

In retrospect, the enduring success of liberal thought in reshaping America has almost always involved initial counter-majoritarian court victories, followed by effective political organization designed to convince the majority that the court victories were morally correct.

In a democracy it isn't a good idea to be in the minority on most issues.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 8, 2005 8:23 PM

Hey, losing narrowly. It's the next best thing to winning.

Remarkably, the closeness of the presidential election seems to be distracting the Democrats from the fact they they were clobbered in the Senate and House, that '06 will likely also be bad in the Senate and that they have no chance of retaking the house at least until 2012.

Posted by: David Cohen at January 9, 2005 12:22 AM

"The left. . .whatever you want to call it." I don't want to call it, "progressive."

Posted by: Lou Gots at January 9, 2005 10:13 AM