But we have to face facts: We got our clocks cleaned up and down the ballot... If, as the DLC has long argued, the test for Democrats is to convince voters that they will defend their country, share their values, and champion their economic interests, it's pretty clear Democrats continue to come up short on the first two tests even as they pass the third with flying colors.
-- Statement by the DLC in the wake of Kerry's defeat
That was the Democratic Leadership Council's conclusion after the fiasco we all watched on television last week. Apparently the Democrats failed to convince America that a) they're as bad-ass as the Republicans and b) they believe that the return of the baby Jesus to Earth is imminent, and we're doing a good enough job of making sure the guest accommodations will be to his liking.
If history is any guide, the DLC will spend the next four years trying to find a pious bomb-thrower to put up as the nominee--unless, of course, the poll numbers in a few years' time show that Barack Obama is good-looking, black and charming enough to get the party over the hump using the same basic playbook that worked so swimmingly this time.
Those are the DLC's conclusions. Whether the conclusions of the rest of us count at all is, of course, a matter of serious debate. As this past election season showed, the dominant factors in giving us the candidates we got had a lot more to do with the internal thinking of party hacks and the media than the feelings of the actual public. There is still really no evidence that a ground-up phenomenon is building anywhere on the anti-Bush side that will ever mobilize seriously to do anything beyond wave the flag for whichever zombie the DLC chooses to hand to us as the next champion of middle-of-the-road faux-pragmatism.
There is going to be a lot of talk in the next few months and years about "soul-searching" within the Democratic party. Indeed, the DLC referred overtly to this phenomenon already, in its post-election memorandum. Here's how they put it:
The slow but significant erosion of Democratic support in recent years is a collective responsibility for all Democrats, us included. It will not be reversed by any simple, mechanical move to the "left" or the "right;" by any new infusion of cash or grassroots organizing; by any reshuffling of party institutions or their leadership; or by any magically charismatic candidates. That's why engaging in any "struggle for the soul of the party," or any assignment of blame, is such a waste of time.
The key phrase here is the collective responsibility for all Democrats, which is where the key lie of the election post-mortem is going to reside. When this kind of talk is fed to us, most people who are Democrats (as I am not, incidentally) are going to accept unquestioningly the idea that this "struggle for the soul of the party" is their problem. In fact, this struggle is really exclusively the problem of the Democratic Party, a very different thing. Because for the rest of us, for the ones who woke up Wednesday morning staring a four-year shit sandwich in the face, we have another problem. We have our own souls to worry about, and this is a much bigger problem than the soul of the Democratic Party, an organization that would be purified by fire on live television if we lived in a more just era.
The Republicans won last week because they stand for something that voters can understand. A large number of them stand for being deranged lunatics who believe that the Bible was the last book ever written, and for being intellectual cowards who hide from the terrifying complexities of modern society by placing all of their faith in infantile concepts like faith, force and patriotism.
Our handicap, to which they are immune, is to understand that modern society is a machine that can operate seamlessly according to its own peculiarly twisted morality without obviously interfering with the advance of those concepts they consider important.
That makes it easy for us to understand why such things as the Iraq war are not only disastrous and immoral but simply stupid policy, and guaranteed to weaken our country in the long run. But it does not make it easy for us to sum up what we ourselves stand for in a word or two.
Because we don't know. When we look to the future, we don't know what we hope to see. The other side is energized because its vision of the future is clear; it wants a return to the days when the one organizing concept of sexual relations was marriage for life, when patriotism was putting on a uniform and fighting for freedom, when the goal of life was a good job, hard work, kids, the church, a house and a well-attended funeral.
These are all reasonable goals to have when you know heaven is at the end of it all. That's what it comes down to. They're fighting for a simple path to heaven, while the rest of us are fighting for something a little less exciting: the desire to have a more rational and inoffensive political atmosphere within which to wrestle with the underlying problem of existential despair in a confusing secular world whose only offered paradises are affluence, sexual freedom and consumer choice.
What's ironic is that a lot of what motivated the progressive sector within and even outside the Democratic party this time around was a rebellion against this very set of circumstances. Certainly there was an intellectual basis for a lot of the anti-corporate anger that goaded people onto the streets in the past years--legitimate disgust over the idea that the honest jobs that used to be held by Americans had been exported abroad, where Asian children working for pennies an hour stitched together the sneakers we all bring to the gym--but it went deeper than that. There was a lot of anger out there at the underlying concept that the ultimate purpose of life was to acquire things, that the answer society provides us to each of our personal problems was a product.
Most of us are aware and despairing on some level that our lives have become de-eroticized, that love and romance are not all around us but have to be hunted for with the kind of desperation that people used to bring when they went west looking for gold. But the answers that society gives us for this sexual desert are Viagra and Cialis and Levitra, products that allow us to stay hard for hours as we hump the indifferent mannequins we run into in bars. The country is lonely, self-obsessed and the individual members of the population are offered a thousand ways to improve their individual appearance and vigor. But there seems to be no solution on the horizon that anyone is offering to bring us more together, to give us the things we really need--love and acceptance and community.
We blame corporate America for this state of affairs because this ideology of individual acquisitiveness is the religion it naturally preaches. But it's our failure to come up with a competing ideology of getting along that's the real problem. Down south, in those "backward" red states, they vote the way they do because they see this individualistic religion as a creature of the cold, greedy, north, which has chosen to attack the idiocy of the right-wing church rather than admit to its own spiritual unhappiness.
Bush is our fault. He's our fault because too many of us found it easier to hate him than find a way to love each other. If we work on the second thing a little harder, we won't need to rely on the cynics in the DLC to come up with the right "formula" the next time around. Because happiness and hope have a way of selling themselves.