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Archive for Tuesday, November 26, 2002

60s mindset hurts Democrats

November 26, 2002

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Democrats are having an awful time making peace with Republican victories in the recent election. A few rich and famous revolutionaries, like Bill Moyers and Garrison Keillor, are throwing embarrassing tantrums, proclaiming the fanatic's eternal faith that everyone who disagrees with him is evil.

Meanwhile, liberals with better manners and more stable brain chemistry are nonetheless genuinely dismayed. They're perplexed about what has gone wrong with the Democratic Party and the progressive movement.

The answer - however unwelcome - seems rather simple.

The radical counter-culture liberalism of the 1960s has finally completed its demolition of the New Deal Democrat majority - a task begun more than three decades ago. We have here one of those historical trends that is impossible to miss once you step back far enough to see the long-term pattern.

Go back 70 years, to the last definitive realignment of American politics, in the depths of the Depression in 1932. In the nine presidential elections beginning with that watershed, Democrats won the White House seven times - losing it only to the Dwight Eisenhower, the likable war hero of the century. During the same 36 years, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress in all but two sessions.

It was an awesome domination of national political life, built on a philosophy that won the hearts of ordinary working Americans. That philosophy centered on protecting the rights of the laboring class and restraining big business excesses; establishing a social safety net to prevent destitution among those who could not support themselves; and pursuing a strong, assertive foreign policy to protect American interests and the security of the free world.

This Democratic dynasty's problems began in 1968, with the election of Republican Richard Nixon (neither a war hero nor especially likable) at the height of the Vietnam War and the '60s social turmoil.

In the nine presidential cycles since 1968, Republicans have won the White House six times, nearly matching the Democrats' earlier dominance. Only gradually has the GOP been able to seize control of Congress as well. But its advantage there now begins to look solid.

It's a striking reversal of historic fortunes that Democrats need to study.

A closer look points to the one issue that is proving deadly for Democrats. In the period since 1968 (discounting the 1976 post-Watergate election) Democrats' presidential successes came recently - with Bill Clinton in '92 and '96. Al Gore also ran very well in 2000, winning the popular vote. Then things fell apart again this year.

What might this reveal? While not ignoring the powerful personal appeal of Clinton, there is a more important common characteristic about the elections from 1992 to 2000, when Democrat presidential candidates did well. Those elections came between the end of the Cold War and Sept. 11, 2001 - a period when issues of national security, for the first time in memory, were not preoccupying Americans' minds.

In this month's election - the first since national security came back as a critical concern - Americans turned decisively back toward the GOP and George W. Bush.

Democrats must fearlessly consider the implication of this pattern. Whatever other problems they face, it simply seems that too many ordinary Americans lack confidence that modern liberals will boldly defend the nation and its interests. It's a long-term problem, born with the anti-Vietnam War movement's declaration that America was the villain in Southeast Asia and continuing today in suggestions among progressive that America's enemies have legitimate reasons to hate us.

It's not a problem old-style liberals like Truman or Kennedy had.

Those who honestly believe America should restrain its use of military might will of course have to go on expressing those convictions and fighting for those policies. But as a political matter, Democrats may continue to have trouble winning national elections so long as voters have doubts about their willingness to confront the nation's foes.

There are, of course, a dozen other issues on which Democrats are hobbled by the '60s mindset, which hasn't digested a really new idea since the Beatles broke up. The basic malady may be the pseudo-religious, political fundamentalism of many Woodstock-era faithful, which produces (now as decades ago) a breathtaking self-righteousness and a stunning lack of self-awareness.

But conservatives are not as overjoyed these days as liberals are overwrought. Anyhow, they shouldn't be. One of Democrats' problems winning elections just now is that liberalism has already delivered on many of its historic promises, while '60s values are triumphant in the culture, if not in national politics.

The era of big government is not "over" - it is apparently here to stay, with Republicans in charge. So, it seems, is a looseness about sexual mores and pornography and family ties that would have amazed (and displeased) liberals of the Democrats' glory days.

Strangely, perhaps, the pacifist, anti-war sentiment that was the heart and soul of the '60s is the one legacy of that era Democrats need most to discard to win more elections.

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