The only surprising thing about Tuesday's election results is that the Democrats didn't do worse. No longer a party of opposition, the feeble Democratic leadership -- some would call it the open collusion with President George W. Bush -- of House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschel doomed their colleagues to minority status in both houses of Congress.
Things didn't have to turn out this way. Despite the President's bubble of war-fevered popularity, there were plenty of votes to be had by what was once thought to be the party of the dispossessed. Tuesday's abysmal voter turnout of 39 per cent -- 78.5 million -- means that about 123 million eligible citizens couldn't or wouldn't go to the polls. Even if one accounts for apathy, ignorance or physical infirmity, there were at least a few million voters who would have responded to: a unified antiwar message; a call for re-regulation of the financial and corporate sector, or a tax code that would end the widening chasm between the rich and everybody else.
But the simplest (and potentially most popular) proposals -- an increase in the minimum wage, for example -- lie dormant within a Democratic Party that raises money from most of the same sources as the Republicans. Wal-Mart likes its hired help cheap and Wall Street likes Wal-Mart to be happy; they both pay the campaign bills, on both sides of the aisle.
Thus, the leaders of the "popular" party do their best to appear unpopular, by allowing some of their members to support the administration's drive to eliminate the estate tax, an enormous, regressive windfall for America's already obese plutocracy.
The notion of some sort of equality among the classes becomes a joke when the billionaire can pass his entire fortune on to his heirs; it's the quickest path to creating a permanent, hereditary aristocracy. A poor person likes the sound of no inheritance tax, but it's a delusion. Beginning life at $5.15 an hour (the minimum wage since September, 1997), with little hope of joining a union and less of getting a real pension, it's not likely you'll be leaving anything to your kids but debts.
Among the alienated electorate, the angst-ridden, suburban middle class -- those voters who have recently seen their retirements postponed by a gargantuan stock swindle -- was also fertile ground for the Democrats.
But the party, following the example of the senator from Wall Street, Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, offered nothing beyond bromides. The scandal of Enron et al. cries out not only for restoring the 1933 Glass-Stegal Act, which separated commercial and investment banks, but a new version of Glass-Stegal that forbids the same company from owning a stock brokerage and an investment bank. This is where the conflict of interest that wrecked so many investment portfolios resides. No matter -- on this, and so many other issues dear to the American pocketbook, the party that created the Social Security trust fund has essentially remained silent.
If individual blame can be affixed to any Democratic politician, it must be former president Bill Clinton. In 1993, his first year in the White House, the glib talker from Arkansas chose to push the unpopular NAFTA over inherently popular universal health insurance in order to curry favour with big business. NAFTA crippled American labour unions, once the core supporters of the Democratic Party; industrial unions especially lost their leverage to demand a raise or organize a factory, since NAFTA made it so profitable and safe to move to cheap-labour Mexico.
Mr. Clinton followed in 2000 with a second "free trade" agreement known as "Permanent Normal Trading Relations" with China. Thanks to PNTR, the hundreds of thousands of U.S. manufacturing jobs that went to dollar-an-hour workers in Mexico are in turn moving to 20-cent-an-hour China.
The received wisdom in the chattering classes was that Mr. Gephardt and Mr. Daschel caved in on Iraq (where working-class kids, not ones from George Bush's social class, will fight and die), so that they could change the subject back to corporate corruption, frozen wages and the weak economy. They didn't, which begs the question: What do the Democrats gain from being, to borrow Harry Truman's famous critique of the 1947-48 Republican Congress, the "do nothing" party?
This much: As of my latest count, the re-election rate for incumbent senators of both parties on Tuesday was 88 per cent; for House members it was 99.5 per cent. These are figures worthy of the Soviet Communist Party Congress, where, as any Kremlin bureaucrat could tell you, stability within the party mattered more than anything.
The Democratic Party has never been more stable.
John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper's Magazine.