"Together, America can do better." When you hear that, do you feel inspired?
I didn't think so.
The Democratic Party's current slogan seems to be leaving most people cold. It apparently went down well in focus groups, but that's only because the focus groups probably consisted of the recently embalmed and the alternative slogan was "Together, America can achieve mediocrity."
Watching the Democrats stumbling around in search of a "message" is the only thing more agonizing than watching the Republicans destroy this country. Five years of Republican-controlled government have brought us an unwinnable war, a global reputation in tatters, incomprehensibly irresponsible fiscal policies, shameful neglect of our neediest citizens and a government incapable of coping with either natural disaster or terrorist threats.
Yet somehow the Democratic Party still can't do any better than "America can do better."
"You can do better" is what you say to a dim child whose grades were even worse than expected. Is this really the Democrats' message to the nation: that we don't need to be quite as pathetic as we now are, though excellence is certainly beyond our reach?
This slogan speaks not of hope but of hopelessness, of scaled-down ambitions, of dreams deferred and dreams denied.
It's the smallness of it that kills me. This nation began with a dream — a crazy, risky, breathtaking dream of freedom, justice and equality. Sure, we've never truly achieved that dream, but for much of the last century, it's been the Democratic Party that has helped keep that dream alive. So how can it be that, today, Democrats don't seem to stand for anything at all?
Part of the problem is ambition and cowardice, which together make a lethal combination. Too many would-be Democratic leaders think that "playing it safe" is the way to go. They're fine with criticizing the administration, but the minute they take any flak themselves, they go scurrying back into their holes. In place of a willingness to take risks and speak from the heart, they offer a craven and misguided dependence on polls, focus groups and "expert strategists."
Exhibit A for this was John Kerry's astonishing campaign-trail failure to stand up for his own anti-Vietnam War beliefs. As far as his campaign strategists were concerned, the only permissible references to Kerry and Vietnam were those lauding his military valor. But Kerry's worrisome inability to own his own past beliefs left even many Democrats queasy about his candidacy and rendered him vulnerable to Republican charges of hypocrisy and disingenuousness.
Had Kerry spoken out honestly and courageously instead of just playing games with flags and staged salutes at the convention, the smear campaign of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth would have gotten no traction and Kerry might be president.
So far, the Democratic Party seems to have learned little from Kerry's defeat. Hillary Clinton continues to parse her words on Iraq while saving her carefully calibrated enthusiasm for a ban on flag burning.
If Democrats really want a better message, they've got to stop being so technocratic and careful and learn how to be passionate and brave. Of course, they need policies, but they also need a little poetry.
The irony is that for a brief moment in the summer of 2004, Kerry actually hit upon a decent campaign slogan: "Let America be America again," a phrase inspired by Langston Hughes' poem of the same name. But the right quickly attacked, using Hughes' 1930s flirtation with communism to discredit the poet, the poem and any phrases or sentiments inspired by it. The result? Kerry disowned the slogan as quickly as he had disowned his own past antiwar convictions.
But if the Democrats want a new slogan for 2006, they could do worse than rescue Hughes' poem from the scrapheap:
Let [America] be that great strong land of love
You don't need to share all of Hughes' youthful opinions to find that his poem captures the sorrow and the hope we should all feel and reminds us that the dream is still ours to reclaim.
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe
O, let America be America again —
The land that never has been yet
And yet must be
And as a message, "Let America be America again" sure beats "Hello, you've reached the Democratic Party. We're not home right now."
Rosa Brooks is a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law. Her experience includes service as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, as a consultant for the Open Society Institute and Human Rights Watch, as a board member of Amnesty International USA, and as a lecturer at Yale Law School. Brooks has authored articles on international law, human rights, and the law of war, and her book, "Can Might Make Rights? The Rule of Law After Military Interventions" (with Jane Stromseth and David Wippman), will be published in 2006 by Cambridge University Press.
© 2006 The Los Angeles Times