Spank the Donkey

Why We Should All Give Up on the Democrats: A Polemical Essay

Listen to Bill Hillsman, the man who masterminded the spectacularly successful insurgent candidacies of Paul Wellstone in 1990 and Jesse Ventura in 1998. If any consultant in the whole country should be besieged by a Democratic party interested in winning, it's Hillsman. But in fact the national Democratic machine despises him and actively discourages candidates from working with him. "The party wields a tremendous amount of power," he told me not long ago. (The interview is featured in the October issue of The Rake.) "I was on a phone call once with a pollster and a DSCC official and [U.S. Senate primary candidate] Mike Ciresi. First off they wanted him to raise a lot of soft money for the party. I told him, don't be fooled--they're not going to put any of that money back into your race unless you toe the party line and it looks very winnable.

"I've seen them do this with lots of congressional candidates," said Hillsman. "They say in effect, go raise money, and later they tell you to get in line with the party platform or get left out in the cold. Ben Nighthorse-Campbell's situation in Colorado was interesting to watch for that reason. He got himself elected despite the Democratic party and then switched to the Republicans shortly after the election because he was so disgusted by the Democrats' behavior."


Hey, wait a minute...

All right, you might say: If you're going to be cynical about it, then haven't moneyed interests always controlled, or at least constrained, every major party in American history? Yes. But a couple of important things have changed in the past generation. Put simply, big money has not held all the cards in quite this way since the Gilded Age of robber barons like Morgan and Rockefeller. And in their day there was nothing approaching the staggering concentrations of media that exist now, which is to say there was not the opportunity to exclude so many voices and interests from public dialogue. Fully half the country (the half that does not vote, and has watched helplessly as its fortunes declined over the last generation) is practically invisible in media except when it commits lurid crimes. Stop and ask yourself how this can be so--in the age of information, in the wealthiest industrial democracy the world has ever seen.

It didn't happen overnight. An interesting footnote, on the American economy and the political economy of the Democratic party: In retrospect it's clear that the long post-WWII boom in the economy and in real working class wages ended around 1973. After an oil recession and several years of stagnation, the economy began growing again, but the rising tide no longer lifted all boats. Instead the gains came to be more and more concentrated in the top income percentiles; after the top 20-25 percent there were scarcely any gains at all, and more often losses. By the late 1970s the Democrats began to retool accordingly. The party's modern accommodation to the culture and goals of big business began in earnest during the Carter years. It was Carter who made a point of getting Business Roundtable denizens more involved in his administration; Carter who touched off the wave of business deregulation--in trucking, the airlines, and elsewhere--that most people associate with Ronald Reagan; Carter who oversaw the end of a long if erratic era of growing working class enfranchisement won mainly by the labor and civil rights movements.


Aren't you paying attention? The Democrats are moving left.

It's true the Democrats have been making progressive noises since their losses on November 5--hardly a surprise, given the mounting and perfectly legitimate criticism of their me-too policies. But note the pedigrees of their two liberal luminaries of the hour, Nancy Pelosi and Al Gore.

Pelosi, the new House minority leader--a position vacated by Dick Gephardt not because the party needed new blood but because Dick Gephardt needed personal distance from the party's troubles in preparing his own 2004 presidential bid--is best known on Capitol Hill for being pliable and none too bright. Her liberal bona fides stem entirely from having represented one of the most left-leaning congressional districts in the country, but Pelosi herself is the quintessential team player. If ever there was a time for a Democratic party serious about winning to roll the dice on more inclusive, less conventional measures, this is it. Quite to the contrary, Pelosi launched her tenure as minority leader by promising not to push the party in new directions and (stop me if you've heard this one) to work with the Bush administration and congressional Republicans in a spirit of "bipartisanship." Now here is a truly hateful word, a conservative Democratic shibboleth that ought to send liberals and lefties fleeing for cover, since it's really nothing more than a pledge to offer up more of the same. But talk to any of these poor abandoned Democratic liberals and they will eventually start burbling about the necessity of bipartisan cooperation--as if the bogeyman falsely held up as its only alternative (complete gridlock) would not be preferable to the governance we're getting now.

Al Gore's latest reinvention, this time as the avatar of a single-payer national health care system, is a similarly cynical affair. Surely you remember Gore the environmentalist, author of a bold and even apocalyptic treatise on global warming; his green awakening didn't stop Gore and his merry band from brokering the many environmental betrayals of the Clinton years. Gore was not interested in environmental reforms, even the petty ones he could have won in the near term. When Carol Browner, Al's own former chief of staff, tried to push through some modestly tightened EPA smog regulations in 1998, big Democratic contributors balked and the administration hung her out to dry.

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