The recent US mid-term elections saw the rarity of a presidential incumbent's party gaining seats in both houses of Congress. President Bush has gained control of the Senate and the House of Representatives and now appears even less constrained in both domestic and international policy.
The awful performance by the Democrats has led, as expected, to the kind of post-election hand-wringing that occurred in 1980, 1988 and 1994. Each occasion prompted the same tired question: Should Democrats move rightward to the Republican-Lite center, or move back to the Golden days of FDR? We stand braced for endless conferences about "The Future of The Democratic Party", after which everyone continues whatever they were doing before.
Yet, if political opposition in the US is not to atrophy, then real change is needed within the Democratic Party and American democratic culture more generally. This change is important not just for the people of America, but also, given US economic and military might, for the remainder of the world.
One problem is the lack of a national Democratic Party. The existence of this is often incorrectly presupposed, for while people may call themselves Democrats, there is no real national Democratic Party as there is a national Republican Party. The Republicans have a network of conservative think-tanks, which produce ideas that are marketed and sold by a boatload of money and spokespeople. They recruit and train prospective candidates who have the discipline to stick to a Party line.
Contrast this with the Democrats' mixed message leading up to the recent elections, where they were unclear on whether to support Bush on Iraq; they fulminated over social security privatization and health care policy. Although they managed to agree that last year's giant 1.3 trillion Bush tax cut was wrong, they failed to offer a coherent, alternative suggestion. If the emerging presidential candidates do not produce clear policies they can kiss goodbye to victory in 2004.
But agreement on blandness will not suffice. Only opposition grounded in conviction will create a real national movement that embraces all who have been marginalized by big corporations and government, people who have grown cynical about American society and its politics. It is worth remembering that the party of non-voters is larger than either Republican or Democrat. Many of those who vote have no strong party loyalty, but vote for the person they despise the least after watching three months of attack ads on television.
The big differences in American politics today are between inspirational leaders with courage and those without such qualities. Among the former are the late Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and Senator John McCain of Arizona - politicians with deeply held and passionate views. They have a fair degree of contempt for powerful Americans who do not give a damn about their country or its citizens. On the other side is a large group of hard-boiled poll-watchers who spend most of their time raising money. It takes no conviction or courage to move to the Center If you want to be a true leader, you define the Center You don't rely on pollsters to tell you where it is, because you can't lead people to where they already are.
The Democrats also need to be careful about their increasing reliance on the elderly. It is true that over the next two decades the baby boomers will be retiring as the largest, noisiest, and most demanding political constituency in American history, as tens of millions of their bodies corrode simultaneously. Worse is that most boomers have not saved a dime for retirement. All the equity is in their homes and prices will take a dive when they go to sell.
Yet, who will represent and inspire the young, enabling them to feel the joy of politics? Idealism isn't dead, it's just waiting to be ignited (among young people, minorities and the poor) or reignited (among the jaded middle-aged). Millions of Progressives, Greens, Democrats or Independents are yearning to get involved and change the way politics is practiced. These groups want government to work better and for more people. They yearn for political leaders who are authentic, who aren't afraid to take on sacred cows and tell it like it is, who have new common sense ideas. They are deeply worried about where Bush is taking the country. They are a powder keg waiting to explode.
These issues are bigger and more important than the future of the Democratic Party. It is really about the future of democracy. American democracy is in terrible trouble right now. Power is in the hands of a tiny group of people. Large corporate entities are more politically potent than at any time in living memory.
I hope the opposition has learned from the mid-term elections. To me, the clearest lesson is that Republicans, unlike the Democrats in opposition, know exactly what and who they stand for. When you know what you believe and for whom you exist, you've got a better chance of winning. I believe that another era of progressivism is on its way and if the Democrats see it and feel it then they will be the Party of the future. If not, well, more the shame for democracy, America and the world.
Robert Reich is former Labor Secretary to President Clinton. This article is draws from a speech given last week to the Institute for Public Policy Research.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002