One of the strange things about the Democratic Party is that it’s only had two major ideological phases in its very long life. In the first phase of its life—from 1828 to 1932—it was the party of less government, states’ rights, and laissez-faire. In the second phase—dating from 1932 to the present—it’s been the party of big government, activist government, and more dedicated than the Republicans to the rights of the people.
Even though the Democratic Party is full of good people who believe they have right on their side, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the Republican Party is more vinegary, more organized and interesting. Perhaps because long ago the Democratic Party believed in “letting everyone be,” its members (and I’m talking now about its ordinary members, not about leading Democrats) tend to let the Republicans hog the spotlight and get away with all kinds of outrageous things. The Democratic Party plays defense, but as a whole its members are not organized and energized to PREVAIL in defining the character of our political life. This is why we are always focused on the Republican Party, with its weird leaders, its mama grizzlys, its Bible thumpers, its dark strategists like Dick Cheney and Karl Rove.
This is a shame, because it’s obvious that there is a lot of work the Democratic party, root and branch, could be doing. If Democrats thought like Republicans, they would be out there in the vast “red” districts of the South and West, working to strengthen their base by reminding voters of the true civic traditions of this country. They would be active in school districts, where the Republicans are rewriting history with misleading textbooks and charter schools. If Democrats thought like Republicans, they would be busy trying to capitalize on Obama’s considerable star-power by tossing out their old ideas and fashioning a new ideological message, around which a vast army of moderates and independents could rally.
Instead, despite the palpably weak condition of the Republican Party, most Democrats are sitting on the sidelines, just laying bets on whether or not Obama will manage to squeak through and resigned to the prospect of losing more seats in Congress. Yet this is a time when the Democrats (given a more can-do mentality) could have been on the offense, mobilizing to make substantial gains in both Congress and state governments.
It’s funny, because you can see Obama trying to articulate some of the elements of a New Democratic ideology. But, as I’ve written elsewhere, this is a task that “takes a village”: reshaping a party’s message is too big a job for any one person. You can see big Bill off on the side, like the party’s guardian angel, doing his “smart government” thing. It may be a little more retro than I’d like, but he, too, is trying to get the Dems to move to new ground.
The Democrats may be approaching a tipping point, where they flip a switch—choose to leap into the present—and articulate a crystal-clear “New Democrat” ideology. If I had my way, that ideology would embrace not just the green, but the local. It would emphasize smart, rather than big. It would pioneer a decentralization of the federal government. And it would tout an economy based not on continued global expansion, but on the shrewd husbandry of our own great national and human capital. It would be far more protective, more civic, and more inward looking.
This is just one vision, and there’ve gotta be many. So, to all you New Democrats out there, I say: Get talking.