What the Democrats Missed at the Populist Revolution

It is almost a ritual in Washington: The Democrats are handed some stunning defeat—losing Congress, losing the presidency, losing Congress some more—and the powerful Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) holds court, comes to a verdict, and announces that the Democrats in question have lost because they foolishly clung to the party’s old, liberal, thirties identity. They remained friendly with organized labor. They didn’t understand the inevitability of free trade or the magic of the New Economy or the rise of the “wired worker.” They failed to reach out to the “center.” Make that the “vital center,” a favorite DLC term that I’ll bet Arthur Schlesinger Jr. regrets having coined.

The paramount folly leading Democrats astray is supposed to be “populism.” Al Gore, for example, may have been a loyal DLC centrist for his entire political career, but as soon as he failed to win the presidency in 2000, the organization flayed him for the sin of identifying with the people versus the powerful. By so doing, the DLC’s magazine, Blueprint, maintained, Gore was “reverting to old class warfare themes that villainized U.S. corporations and cast working families as victims.” The DLC’s “CEO,” Al From, further declared that “Gore chose a populist rather than a New Democrat message,” which meant he was “talking to industrial age rather than information age America.” And everyone knows populism doesn’t work.

Another thing that doesn’t work, according to the DLC’s many postmortems of Democratic failures, is mobilizing the base. Although Dems should of course try their best to rally their supporters on Election Day, Al From wrote in the Wall Street Journal after the catastrophic mid-term elections of 2002, they must also realize that “the base just isn’t big enough to win.” That was why—despite the greatest outbreak of corporate scandal in recent history—“moving left [was] counterproductive.” Again, Democrats must reach out to those in the moderate, mushy middle. Make that: to entrepreneurs and professionals, two of the DLC’s favorite fantasy constituencies.

The DLC seemed to get their way with the Kerry campaign. They got a moderate Democrat who had supported the DLC’s beloved NAFTA; who seemed to be tough on defense issues; who steered clear of “villainizing” corporate America even when such treatment was richly deserved; who dutifully muted the populist voice of his running mate; and who did so much reaching out to the center that he had little vitality left for his base. The CEO was in love. “Much to the chagrin of Republican strategists,” From claimed in a starstruck essay in August, “Kerry and Edwards are New Democrat stalwarts.”

And, of course, Kerry lost. Which means that it is only a matter of time before the inevitable autopsies conducted by the experts at the DLC discover traces of that dread poison, populism, in the Kerry campaign’s corpse.

But before they do, I want to suggest that we look a little further afield to test the DLC’s theories about populism and centrism—namely, to the 2004 campaign of George W. Bush, the guy who handed Democrats their latest crushing defeat. How did Bush do it? Why, with populism, huge dollops of class warfare, and a galvanized base—exactly the tools that the DLC insists Democrats must never touch.

When the Republicansare beaten,do they simply surrender their principles and flee forthe center?No. They build—and come backstronger.

Consider the “values issues,” a.k.a. the culture wars, which, as everyone now knows, handed Bush the White House. At the center of them all stands a powerful vision of—yes—working families as victims, helpless subjects of the cruel “liberal elite.” This is how the GOP framed a host of killer wedge issues: abortion, flag-burning, gay marriage, as well as the timeless complaints about media bias, the snobbery of the East Coast, and the horrors of Hollywood.

Million-volt populist issues like these, it is also apparent, were very, very good for mobilizing the GOP base. Karl Rove all but announced that it was to be a showdown over turnout; his people were at Armageddon, battling for the Lord, while once again the goo-goo Dems preened over their small-scale triangulations.

Let us consider a final piece of strategy that Doctor DLC routinely prescribes for the ailing patient. This one comes from that same essay From wrote in 2002: “The harsh reality,” he pointed out, “is that there are more conservatives than liberals in America.” True enough. But his organization’s advice is not for the Democrats to remedy this by somehow creating more liberals, but instead to move the party somewhere else—to the “center,” naturally. Liberalism doesn’t have a constituency anymore, so abandon it.

Again, let us contrast this philosophy with the practice of the political party that causes all those disasters for Democrats, namely, the Republicans. When beaten, do they surrender their principles and flee for the center? No. Consider the Goldwater debacle of 1964, one of the worst defeats in history. Did it keep the GOP from entering the ideological fray in the next election cycle? Hardly. Instead, the leaders of the New Right learned from that defeat the lessons that all successful political movements must master: They organized. They built institutions. They dreamed up hand-grenade issues designed to shatter their enemies’ coalition. And, principles intact, they came back stronger four years later to capture the presidency. Then, after the interregnum Carter years, they emerged into their first modern mandate, under the populist revolution led by Ronald Reagan.

Reagan was also the first GOP leader to bring in the Evangelical conservatives as a major Republican bloc, and this year we have again been forced to admire his wretched handiwork. Another thing that Democrats will notice if they care to look is that this constituency, made up mostly of middle- and working-class voters, is the very group that the Establishment right takes most for granted once it’s in power.

The reason for this is simple: GOP leaders know that Democrats have left this huge part of the electorate with nowhere else to go. The challenge for Democrats is to provide them that place. They need to counter the sham populist themes of Republican culture warfare with real populism—and, yes, with “villainization” of this country’s real elite.

In 2004, the Democratic ticket enjoyed every advantage the DLC could have hoped for. Its economic proposals were tailored to please investors and entrepreneurs. It waxed moderate-to-right on trade policy. The Democrats even kept pace with the GOP in fund-raising and ad buys.

But the Kerry team pulled even with the Republicans on the wrong racetrack. In a political system like ours, there are only two natural ideological positions to choose from: money and numbers. When one party has for a century been known as the organ of business, the other cannot simply decide one day to yell “me too” and hope to succeed. Its only realistic choice is to work to counter the influence of money with the power of the ballot, the power of the people. This means advocating elementary measures of economic fairness, so that voters in deindustrialized swing states can recognize a meaningful difference between the two parties. This means reclaiming the Democrats’ powerful historical identity as the champion of the common American. And this means, most of all, relinquishing the cynical opportunism of the DLC, which has now led to the worst debacle of Al From’s advice-giving lifetime.

What the Democrats Missed at the Populist Revolution