A month after the election, I’m still nursing a hangover from downing too much Kerry Kool-Aid. (My previous column taught me a valuable lesson: Never drink and divine.) And the Democratic Party seems similarly sluggish, mired in its quadrennial period of self-flagellation, sniping and backbiting about why they lost this time.
If previous setbacks are any guide, the same consultants and pollsters who lost the election will again win the battle to interpret its results. Almost inevitably, they will conclude that the party needs to shift further to the right, ignoring the base (who else are they going to vote for?) and cozying up to the stockbrokers or gun owners or home-schoolers (or better yet — all three!) with new proposals for “budget reform” and hints of “flexibility” on abortion rights.
The only thing wrong with this strategy, of course, is that it loses every time. By tacking rightward, Democrats not only alienate their base, but encourage swing voters to think like Republicans. They “activate the other side’s models,” in the words of the unexpectedly in vogue linguist George Lakoff. The Republicans seem to understand this concept: The harder they push, the further they shift the whole country’s political discourse. Without a countervailing force, what else would you expect?
Consider how much more moderate Reagan’s Republican Party was compared to the current “majority of the majority.” And some progressives have grown downright nostalgic for the halcyon days of Richard Nixon. No matter how far the Democrats move to the right, the Republicans can always go further.
Notice that no Republicans are talking about compromise or catering to moderates. “Now comes the revolution,” Richard Viguerie, one of the main architects of the New Right, crowed to the New York Times on the day after the election. “If you don’t implement the conservative agenda now, when do you?”
Viguerie has waited 40 years for this moment. As he recently reminisced in Salon.com: “Conservatives had never nominated anyone for president. That was our first challenge, and we did that in 1964. Then, we needed to nominate and elect somebody, and we did that in 1980. Then our next goal was to nominate, elect and govern. And that’s what we have not yet done. We have not yet governed.”
That long-term focus — not on the next election, but on the next generation — isn’t the only thing liberals could learn from the right. They’ve also built institutions outside the Republican Party, while never abandoning the GOP as a vehicle to take power. They’ve trained local candidates and talking heads, nurtured intellectuals, and invested in “alternative media” — from direct mail and magazines to talk radio to the Internet. (Much of this effort is detailed in Viguerie’s terrible but terribly important new book, America’s Right Turn.)
Instead of borrowing the right’s policies, Democrats should have been stealing their tactics. Of course, that’s exactly what they did to us. “We’ve taken close to 100 percent of the left’s tactics,” Viguerie admitted in a 1979 interview with In These Times. “We’re into making a list of all the things they do and doing the same things.”
Viguerie literally stole our playbook, cribbing from solicitations used during the 1972 McGovern campaign. “I’m studying it,” he said in that same interview. “I’m trying to build a movement. I don’t know if you’ve heard that word much. Among us conservatives that’s a word that’s used constantly. The movement.”
The fundamental elements of that movement are infrastructure and ideology. When it comes to the former, liberals are starting to catch up — with their own nascent think tanks, rapid-response operations, small-donor mailing lists and get-out-the-vote efforts. But on the latter, they suffer from an acute case of hypocognition — Lakoff’s term for a lack of useful ideas.
Part of the problem is how deeply the Democrats have internalized the attacks from the likes of Viguerie. They’re so afraid of being tagged as liberals or tree huggers or doves by the other side’s echo chamber that they’ve lost their convictions. But the way to deflect charges of “class warfare” is not by providing more corporate welfare. Being the kinder, gentler pro-corporate party — a Costco to the GOP’s Wal-Mart, a Starbucks to its Cracker Barrel — does not a movement make.
Instead of middling centrism, the Democrats need bold ideas to counteract the right’s lies, especially the “cultural populism” they rely on to mask a massive upward redistribution of wealth. These ideas aren’t necessarily new ones: embracing economic populism, fighting inequality, challenging corporate corruption, providing universal healthcare, protecting the environment, rejecting imperialism.
But if the Democrats want to take back the country, they need to start talking less about positioning and more about these principles. The good news for those of us to the left of liberal is that the Democratic Leadership Council and the rest of the party leadership no longer has much of a choice. Moving further to the left, it seems, may be the only way to save the center.