Some Night Thoughts on
What Happened November 5th
by Robert Reich
What happened November 5th was awful.
But I can't stand all this typical Democratic post-election hand-wringing
and moon-howling. We went through this in 1980, then again in
1988, then again in 1994. And it's always the same crap: Should
Democrats move rightward to the Republican-Lite center, or move
back to FDR? You and I and every other Democrat activist we know
attend endless-blather conferences about "The Future of The
Democratic Party." And then everyone goes off and does whatever
they were doing before.
Criticisms of the Democratic Party presuppose
the existence of a national Democratic Party. But the fact is,
as Gertrude Stein once said about Oakland, there's no there there.
Millions of people call themselves Democrats and several hundred
thousand show up at Democratic state and national conventions.
A Democratic National Committee raises money. But there's no real
national Democratic Party. At least nothing like what the Republicans
have. They have a network of conservative think-tanks, a boatload
of money to market the ideas that emerge from them, and spokespeople
to sell them. They recruit and train prospective candidates. And
they have discipline. My god do they have discipline. They decide
on a Party line and stick with it. They even have oligarchs --
the Republican Powerful who gathered together in 1996 and decided
George W. Bush was going to be their candidate in 2000. What do
Democrats have? Conferences on "The Future of the Democratic
The only time there's even a semblance
of a national Democratic Party is when Democrats come up with
a Presidential candidate, but if you look closely you'll see that
Democrats don't actually come up with a Presidential candidate.
Instead, several dozen men who call themselves Democrats come
up with themselves. Thirty months before Election Day they let
it be known that they're considering running. Each then starts
endless rounds of visits to New Hampshire and Iowa, talks to all
the interest groups you identify (trial lawyers, unions, teachers,
AARP, Washington environmentalists, identity organizations), chats
with Washington-based columnists, meetings with prospective donors
in Hollywood, Massachusetts, and other bastions of Democratic
money. Twenty months before Election Day, a half-dozen such entrepreneurs
are still running. At this point, the same old Washington-based
Democratic political consultants, pollsters, and marketers decide
who they want to place their bets on. And the race is on. Meanwhile
you and I are still sitting in some "The Future of the Democratic
So the first thing we need is a real national
Democratic Party. Something with grass roots, with the capacity
to think new ideas and market them. We need a movement that embraces
all the people who have been left out, who have been screwed both
by big corporations and big government -- people who are working
their asses off but aren't earning much more than they did a dozen
years ago, who have grown cynical about every institution in American
society but still love America with all their hearts.
But we can't have a movement unless we
also have conviction and courage. Democrats used to have these
things. Republicans have no monopoly on being tough against tyranny
or hard-headed when it comes to domestic policy. For almost a
century it was Democrats who waged war (Wilson, FDR, Truman, Kennedy
and Johnson) and it was mostly the kids of Democrats who fought
in and got killed in wars. And for sixty years it's been Democrats
who have managed the economy well -- spending more than revenues
and cutting taxes when the nation needed these things done to
prevent the economy from sinking, and cutting deficits when they
get out of control, as in 1993.
It takes no conviction and no courage
to move to the Center. You want to be a typical candidate, you
campaign from the Center. But if you want to be a true leader,
you define the Center. You don't rely on pollsters to tell you
where the Center is, because you can't lead people to where they
If I hear another pundit say 40 percent
of Americans vote Democrat and 40 percent Republican so the real
action is with the 20 percent "swing" in the middle
I'm going to puke. Most Americans who are eligible to vote don't
even bother, most of the time. The party of non-voters is larger
than either Republican or Democrat. And even those who do vote
have no strong party loyalty. They watch three months of attack
ads on television and on Election Day end up voting for the person
they despise the least. In this last campaign season, Republicans
outspent Democrats three-to-one. So it's not surprising Republican
candidates seemed marginally less despicable.
The big differences in American politics
today are between those with courage and those without it, those
who can inspire and who can't. Among the former are the late Paul
Wellstone and John McCain -- politicians with deeply-held views,
and who are passionate about what they believe. They don't care
too much about the polls, they love this country, and they have
a fair degree of contempt for Americans who are powerful but who
don't really give a damn about America or about most other Americans.
On the other side is a large group of hard-boiled poll-watchers
and ass-kissers who spend most of their time raising money from
people and groups with a lot of it.
Finally, Democrats have to have fun, and
do their politics with a sense of humor. All the negativism and
anxiety is a bummer. Who wants to join a funeral procession? We
need a new generation of happy warriors. The world is not going
to hell. In fact, we're far better off than we were twenty years
ago, fifty years ago, a hundred years ago -- largely because of
reforms Democrats championed. I'd hate to be a Republican because
Republicans hate government, and now they run it. Can you imagine
being in total control of something you detest? That's a real
So let's celebrate what we can be: Let's
have a tax cut for working families (paid for by repealing that
portion of Bush's giant tax cut going to the rich). Also universal,
affordable health care. A vigorous environmentalism based on renewable
energy. And a call to altruism; college students are already doing
way more community service than their parents did in the 1960s.
But mostly, we need a real party, the courage of our convictions,
and a sense of humor and optimism. What we don't need is another
conference about The Future of the Democratic Party.
There was no national Democratic message
in the months leading up to November 5th because Democrats couldn't
agree to squat. Every Democrat running for Congress talked about
last year's giant Bush tax cut, but they cancelled each other
out because they said opposite things. Six Senate Dems up for
reelection trumpeted their support for it; Max Baucus ran around
Montana insisting it should be made permanent. Most other Dems
campaigned against it -- some, like Charlie Stenholm and other
Blue Dogs because it will break the budget; others, like Paul
Wellstone and Ted Kennedy (not up for reelection but making a
lot of speeches) because it's unfair.
Almost all Dems running for Congress talked
about Iraq. But here again, no message broke through because Dems
were all over the map. Most supported the President. A few did
so wholeheartedly (Max Cleland, Dick Gephardt). Some said we should
go into Iraq only after Saddam rejects a Security Council resolution.
A notable few (Kennedy, Wellstone, Gore, about thirty Democratic
House incumbents) didn't want to give the President blanket authority
to go to war in Iraq and offered quite eloquent testimony why
-- some of the most nuanced and thoughtful foreign-policy statements
I've heard in many years. None fitted into a 20-second TV commercial
though, which may be why they didn't break through.
Of course Dems did their usual fulminating
about Social Security but it was nothing like a unified campaign.
Some wanted partial privatization (let the Social Security Trust
Fund diversify into stocks), most rejected privatization, some
said the Bush tax cut threatened Social Security, a few resurrected
Clinton's idea of a new layer of private "USA accounts"
on top of Social Security with government matching private savings
on a sliding scale depending on family income.
You get my point. No national message,
no national Democratic campaign, no national Party.
Maybe Democratic candidates for the House
and Senate did everything they could. W is hugely popular, the
country is still traumatized by terrorism, most of the free TV
air time before Election Day went to Iraq and then the sniper,
most of the paid air time went to Republicans, who outspent Dems
3-to-1. But still, Dems missed a big opportunity to stake out
some clear positions and a few big ideas. And if the emerging
presidential candidates don't, you can kiss the Dems good-bye
So what are the ideas and where are they?
Think boldness and conviction.
First off, Democrats have to be willing
to tell Americans what's happened to jobs and incomes over the
last two decades. The widening gap in income and wealth is a national
scandal that threatens to pull our society apart. At the least,
Democrats should demand repeal the portion of the Bush tax cut
going to the top 2 percent. Use the savings to finance a two-year
moratorium on payroll taxes on the first $20,000 of income. Eighty
percent of Americans pay more in payroll taxes than they do in
income taxes. Make the choice clear: Republicans want a giant
tax cut for the rich. Democrats want one for average working families.
Second, we should turn the old Republican
blather about revenue-sharing on its head. Agree that the states
are where the action is. But point out most states are now broke
with the result that school budgets are being slashed and social
services whacked. Demand that the Feds do a $100 billion revenue-share
each of the next two years.
Third, urge that all federal and state
employee health care plans be consolidated into a single large
national plan which, because of its size, is able to negotiate
terrific deals with health-care providers and pharmaceutical companies.
Then let any citizen opt into it. Premiums will become so low
that it will become the foundation-stone of a single-payer plan.
Because it's voluntary, it won't fuel the political opposition
a single-payer plan would.
Also expand the Earned-Income Tax Credit
to become an all-purpose system for financing everything low-income
people need, and get rid of all the complicated categorical programs
with all their different eligibility criteria and bureaucratic
On foreign policy, create a new global
version of NATO designed to root out terrorists anywhere. Create
the best and most elaborate global intelligence operation money
can buy. But also recognize that if more and more people out there
are willing to kill themselves in order to kill us, we've got
to give the poor and cynical of the world something positive to
believe in. Debt-forgiveness, foreign aid, economic development,
literacy, immunization, and low-cost drugs for the third world
have to be understood as part of a new global effort to fight
terror with hope.
Enough? Of course not. We need to flesh
out details, explain why these things are important. Also come
up with more ways young people can serve their country. And put
strict limits on campaign contributions.
But it's got to be a movement. It's got
to be sold at the grass roots, and the grass roots have to be
able to develop and amend and build upon these sorts of ideas.
Democrats will get nowhere with a lot of "position papers"
going to presidential hopefuls who will promptly and appropriately
And where's the Democratic constituency?
Not just among the elderly, even though the only thing Democrats
say in unison is Republicans can't be trusted on Social Security
or prescription drugs. We need to be careful about our reliance
on the elderly. Over the next two decades, the Greatest Generation's
elderly will be replaced by old boomers, who'll be the largest,
noisiest, and most demanding political constituency in American
history. Tens of millions of boomer bodies will all be corroding
simultaneously. If you think prescription drug coverage is a big
deal now, wait until medical science promises boomers we can look
young, have sex like rabbits, and party until we drop. Across
the land there'll be outcroppings of "Med-Meds" for
boomer geezers -- think of Club Meds combined with medical facilities.
Snorkeling all morning, extra oxygen in the afternoon. Worse yet,
most boomers haven't saved a dime for retirement. All the equity's
in their homes. And home prices will take a dive when the boomers
all go to sell.
In other words, brace yourself. We'll
be lucky if the Dems (as well as Republicans) don't sell out completely
to aging boomers. Increasingly, a fault line in American politics
will generational. Who will represent the young? Who'll inspire
them? Enable them to feel the joy of politics? I haven't seen
a Democrat among the current crop who comes close.
As to organized labor, my betting is on
the SEIU -- the service employees. It's the most diverse union
in the AFL-CIO. Its ranks are full of Latinos and blacks. Its
leadership is young. It's organizing like mad. It's recruiting
and training a lot of young people. It's representing just those
who are most marginalized in the emerging economy -- hotel workers,
hospital workers, workers in large retail stores, janitors. And
it's succeeding, with some huge victories over the last few years.
The SEIU is the closest we have to a "movement" union.
If it can keep growing and show some more political muscle, it
could have a major role in transforming the Democratic Party.
Here's the most hopeful news, and I learned
it directly when I ran for Governor. Idealism isn't dead. It's
just waiting to be ignited (among young people, minorities, the
poor) or reignited (among the middle-aged jaded). Millions of
people are yearning to get involved and change the way politics
is practiced. It doesn't matter whether they call themselves Progressives,
Greens, Democrats, Independents. They want they system cleaned
up. They want government to work better and for more people. They
yearn for political leaders who are authentic, who'll stand up
for what they believe in, who aren't afraid to take on sacred
cows and tell it like it is, who have new ideas that are common-sensical.
They're deeply worried about where the Bushies are taking the
All it will take is a match.
This is bigger and more important than
the future of the Democratic Party. It's really about the future
of democracy. Our democracy is in terrible trouble right now.
Power is in the hands of a tiny group of people who are using
the threat of terrorism to impose their crimped vision of a corporate
commonwealth. Large corporate entities are more politically potent
than they've been at any time in living memory. In fact, we're
back to the era of William McKinley.
Parties are means, not ends. I'm a lifelong
Democrat and have devoted a huge chunk of my life to the Party,
but if the Party is comatose I'm not going to throw myself onto
the tracks to keep it barely alive. The question is: Can Dems
turn themselves into a national movement to take back our democracy?
Can they give voice to those without a voice? Can they regain
their passion, courage, soul?
I hope we've learned something from this
election. To me, the clearest lesson is that Republicans know
exactly what they stand for and who they stand for. Democrats
don't. And when you know what you believe and for whom you exist,
you've got a better chance of winning. It's Democrats like Max
Cleland and Jean Carnahan who won't survive. Both voted for Bush's
tax cuts and for going to war in Iraq. Both were booted out.
If I'm right, and we're back in the era
of William McKinley, then we're on the cusp of just the movement
I'm talking about. It happened in 1901. It was called Progressivism.
Teddy Roosevelt gave it force and legitimacy but it was already
bubbling up: Women's suffrage, a progressive income tax, health
and safety protections, worker rights, antitrust, and so on. It
formed the foundation for much of the progressive legislation
of the last century.