The Magazine

Democrats Go Off the Cliff

From the June 30, 2003 issue: Powerlessness corrupts.

Jun 30, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 41 • By DAVID BROOKS
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ACROSS THE COUNTRY Republicans and conservatives are asking each other the same basic question: Has the other side gone crazy? Have the Democrats totally flipped their lids? Because every day some Democrat seems to make a manic or totally over-the-top statement about George Bush, the Republican party, and the state of the nation today.

"This republic is at its greatest danger in its history because of this administration," says Democratic senator Robert Byrd.

"I think this is deliberate, intentional destruction of the United States of America," says liberal commentator Bill Moyers.

George Bush's economic policy is the "most radical and dangerous economic theory to hit our shores since socialism," says Senator John Edwards.

"The Most Dangerous President Ever" is the title of an essay in the American Prospect by Harold Meyerson, in which it is argued that the president Bush most closely resembles is Jefferson Davis.

Tom Daschle condemns the "dictatorial approach" of this administration. John Kerry says Bush "deliberately misled" America into the Iraq war. Asked what Democrats can do about the Republicans, Janet Reno recalls her visit to the Dachau concentration camp, and points out that the Holocaust happened because many Germans just stood by. "And don't you just stand by," she exhorts her Democratic audience.

When conservatives look at the newspapers, they see liberal columnists who pick out every tiny piece of evidence or pseudo-evidence of Republican vileness, and then dwell on it and obsess over it until they have lost all perspective and succumbed to fevers of incoherent rage. They see Democratic primary voters who are so filled with hatred at George Bush and John Ashcroft and Dick Cheney that they are pulling their party far from the mainstream of American life. They see candidates who, instead of trying to quell the self-destructive fury, are playing to it. "I am furious at [Bush] and I am furious at the Republicans," says Dick Gephardt, trying to sound like John Kerry who is trying to sound like Howard Dean.

It's mystifying. Fury rarely wins elections. Rage rarely appeals to suburban moderates. And there is a mountain of evidence that the Democrats are now racing away from swing voters, who do not hate George Bush, and who, despite their qualms about the economy and certain policies, do not feel that the republic is being raped by vile and illegitimate marauders. The Democrats, indeed, look like they're turning into a domestic version of the Palestinians--a group so enraged at their perceived oppressors, and so caught up in their own victimization, that they behave in ways that are patently not in their self-interest, and that are almost guaranteed to perpetuate their suffering.

WHEN YOU TALK to Democratic strategists, you find they do have rationalizations for the current aggressive thrust. In 2003, it's necessary to soften Bush up with harsh attacks, some say. In 2004, we'll put on a happier face. Others argue that Democrats tried to appeal to moderate voters in 2002 and it didn't work. The key to victory in 2004 is riling up the liberal base. Still others say that with all the advantages Bush has--incumbency, victory in Iraq, the huge fundraising lead--Democrats simply have to roll the dice and behave radically.

But all of these explanations have a post-facto ring. Democratic strategists are trying to put a rational gloss on what is a visceral, unplanned, and emotional state of mind. Democrats may or may not be behaving intelligently, but they are behaving sincerely. Their statements are not the product of some Dick Morris-style strategic plan. This stuff wasn't focus-grouped. The Democrats are letting their inner selves out for a romp.

And if you probe into the Democratic mind at the current moment, you sense that the rage, the passion, the fighting spirit are all fueled not only by opposition to Bush policies, but also by powerlessness.

Republicans have controlled the White House before, but up until now Democrats still had some alternative power center. Reagan had the presidency, but Democrats had the House and, part of the time, the Senate. Bush the elder faced a Democratic Congress. But now Democrats have nothing. Even the Supreme Court helped Republicans steal the last election, many Democrats feel. Republicans--to borrow political scientist Samuel Lubell's trope--have become the Sun party and Democrats have been reduced to being the Moon party. Many Democrats feel that George Bush is just running loose, transforming the national landscape and ruining the nation, and there is nothing they can do to stop him.

Wherever Democrats look, they sense their powerlessness. Even when they look to the media, they feel that conservatives have the upper hand. Conservatives think this is ludicrous. We may have Rush and Fox, conservatives say, but you have ABC, NBC, CBS, the New York Times. But liberals are sincere. They despair that a consortium of conservative think tanks, talk radio hosts, and Fox News--Hillary's vast right-wing conspiracy--has cohered to form a dazzlingly efficient ideology delivery system that swamps liberal efforts to get their ideas out.

When they look to the culture at large, many Democrats feel that the climate is so hostile to them they can't even speak up. During the war in Iraq, liberals claimed that millions of Americans were opposed to war, but were afraid to voice their opinions, lest the Cossacks come charging through their door. The actor Tim Robbins declared, "Every day, the airwaves are filled with warnings, veiled and unveiled threats, spewed invective and hatred directed at any voice of dissent. And the public, like so many relatives and friends that I saw this weekend, sit in mute opposition and fear." Again, conservatives regard this as ludicrous. Stand up and oppose the war, conservatives observe, and you'll probably win an Oscar, a National Magazine Award, and tenure at four dozen prestigious universities. But the liberals who made these complaints were sincerely expressing the way they perceive the world.

And when they look at Washington, they see a cohesive corporate juggernaut, effortlessly pushing its agenda and rolling over Democratic opposition. Again, this is not how Republicans perceive reality. Republicans admire President Bush a great deal, but most feel that, at least on domestic policy, the conservative agenda has been thwarted as much as it has been advanced. Bush passed two tax cuts, but on education he abandoned school choice and adopted a bill largely written by Ted Kennedy. On Medicare, the administration has abandoned real reform and embraced a bill also endorsed by Kennedy. On campaign finance, the president signed a bill promoted by his opponents. The faith-based initiatives are shrinking to near nothingness. Social Security reform has disappeared from the agenda for the time being. Domestic spending has increased.

Still, Democrats and liberals see the Bush presidency in maximalist terms. "President Bush's signature on his big tax cut bill Wednesday marked a watershed in American politics," wrote E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post. "The rules of policymaking that have applied since the end of World War II are now irrelevant." The headline on a recent Michael Kinsley column was "Capitalism's 'Deal' Falls Apart," arguing that the Bush administration had revoked the social contract that had up to now shaped American politics.

In short, when many liberals look at national affairs, they see a world in which their leaders are nice, pure-souled, but defenseless, and they see Republicans who are organized, devious, and relentless. "It's probably a weakness that we're not real haters. We don't have a sense that it's a holy crusade," Democratic strategist Bob Shrum told Adam Clymer of the New York Times. "They play hardball, we play softball," Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile added. Once again, Republicans think this picture of reality is delusional. The Democrats are the party that for 40 years has labeled its opponents racists, fascists, religious nuts, and monsters who wanted to starve grannies and orphans. Republicans saw what Democrats did to Robert Bork, Clarence Thomas, and dozens of others. Yet Democrats are utterly sincere. Many on the left think they have been losing because their souls are too elevated.

When they look inward, impotence, weakness, high-mindedness, and geniality are all they see.

EARLIER THIS YEAR, Robert Kagan published a book, Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order. Kagan argued that Americans and Europeans no longer share a common view of the world. Americans are from Mars, and Europeans are from Venus. The essential reason Americans and Europeans perceive reality differently, he argued, is that there is a power gap. Americans are much more powerful than Europeans, and Europeans are acutely aware of their powerlessness.

Something similar seems to be happening domestically between Republicans and Democrats. It's not just that members of the two parties disagree. It's that the disagreements have recently grown so deep that liberals and conservatives don't seem to perceive the same reality. Whether it is across the ocean or across the aisle, powerlessness corrupts just as certainly as power does. Those on top become overly self-assured, emotionally calloused, dishonest with themselves, and complacent. Those on the bottom become vicious. Sensing that their dignity is perpetually insulted, they begin to see their plight in lurid terms. They exaggerate the power of their foes. They invent malevolent conspiracy theories to explain their unfortunate position. They develop a gloomy and panicked view of the world.

Republicans are suffering from many of the maladies that afflict the powerful, but they have not been driven into their own emotional ghetto because in their hearts Republicans don't feel that powerful. Democrats, on the other hand, do feel powerless. And that is why so many Democratic statements about Republicans resemble European and Middle Eastern statements about America.

First, there is the lurid and emotional tone. You wouldn't know it listening to much liberal conversation, but we are still living in a country that is evenly divided politically; the normal rules still apply; our politics is still a contest between two competing but essentially valid worldviews; power tends to alternate between the two parties, as one or the other screws up or grows stale.

But if you listened to liberal rhetoric, you would think America was convulsed in a Manichean struggle of good against evil. Here, for example, is the liberal playwright Tony Kushner addressing the graduating seniors at Columbia College in Chicago. This passage is not too far off from the rhetoric one can find in liberal circles every day:

And this is what I think you have gotten your education for. You have presumably made a study of how important it is for people--the people and not the oil plutocrats, the people and not the fantasists in right-wing think tanks, the people and not the virulent lockstep gasbags of Sunday morning talk shows and editorial pages and all-Nazi all-the-time radio ranting marathons, the thinking people and not the crazy people, the rich and multivarious multicultural people and not the pale pale grayish-white cranky grim greedy people, the secular pluralist people and not the theocrats, the misogynists, Muslim and Christian and Jewish fundamentalists, the hard-working people and not the people whose only real exertion ever in their whole parasite lives has been the effort it takes to slash a trillion plus dollars in tax revenue and then stuff it in their already overfull pockets.

Second, there is the frequent and relentless resort to conspiracy theories. If you judged by newspapers and magazines this spring, you could conclude that a secret cabal of Straussians, Jews, and neoconservatives (or perhaps just Richard Perle alone) had deviously seized control of the United States and were now planning bloody wars of conquest around the globe.

Third, there is the hypercharged tendency to believe the absolute worst about one's political opponents. In normal political debate, partisans routinely accuse each other of destroying the country through their misguided policies. But in the current liberal rhetoric it has become normal to raise the possibility that Republicans are deliberately destroying the country. "It's tempting to suggest that the Bush administration is failing to provide Iraq with functioning, efficient, reliable public services because it doesn't believe in functioning, reliable public services--doesn't believe they should exist, and doesn't believe that they can exist," writes Hendrik Hertzberg in the New Yorker. "The suspicion will not die that the administration turned to Iraq for relief from a sharp decline in its domestic political prospects," argue the editors of the American Prospect. In Harper's Thomas Frank calls the Bush budget "a blueprint for sabotage." He continues: "It seems equally likely that this budget document, in both its juvenile rhetorical tricks and its idiotic plans for the nation, is merely supposed to teach us a lesson in how badly government can misbehave."

In this version of reality, Republicans are deviously effective. They have careful if evil plans for everything they do. And these sorts of charges have become so common we're inured to their horrendousness--that Bush sent thousands of people to their deaths so he could reap government contracts for Halliburton, that he mobilized hundreds of thousands of troops and spent tens of billions of dollars merely to help secure favorable oil deals for Exxon.

Sometimes reading through this literature one gets the impression that while the United States is merely attempting to export Western style democracy to the Middle East, the people in the Middle East have successfully exported Middle Eastern-style conspiracy mongering to the United States.

NOW IT IS TRUE that you can find conservatives and Republicans who went berserk during the Clinton years, accusing the Clintons of multiple murders and obsessing over how Vince Foster's body may or may not have been moved. And it is true that Michael Savage and Ann Coulter are still out there accusing the liberals of treason. The Republicans had their own little bout of self-destructive, self-pitying powerlessness in the late 1990s, and were only rescued from it when George W. Bush emerged from Texas radiating equanimity.

But the Democratic mood is more pervasive, and potentially more self-destructive. Because in the post-9/11 era, moderate and independent voters do not see reality the way the Democrats do. Bush's approval ratings are at about 65 percent, and they have been far higher; most people do not see him as a malevolent force, or the figurehead atop a conspiracy of corporate moguls. Up to 80 percent of Americans supported the war in Iraq, and large majorities still approve of the effort, notwithstanding the absence so far of WMD stockpiles. They do not see that war as a secret neoconservative effort to expand American empire, or as a devious attempt to garner oil contracts.

Democrats can continue to circulate real or artificial tales of Republican outrages, they can continue to dwell on their sour prognostications of doom, but there is little evidence that anxious voters are in the mood to hate, or that they are in the mood for a political civil war, or that they will respond favorably to whatever party spits the most venom. There is little evidence that moderate voters share the sense of powerlessness many Democrats feel, or that they buy the narrative of the past two and a half years that many Democrats take as the landscape of reality.

And the problem for Democrats, more than for Republicans, is that they come from insular parts of the country. In university towns, in New York, in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and even in some Democratic precincts in Washington, D.C., there is little daily contact with conservatives or even with detached moderates. (In the Republican suburban strongholds, by contrast, there is daily contact with moderate voters, who almost never think about politics except just before Election Day.) So the liberal tales of Republican malevolence circulate and grow, are seized upon and believed. Contrary evidence is ignored. And the tone grows more and more fevered.

Perhaps the Democrats will regain their equanimity. Perhaps some eventual nominee will restore a temperate tone. The likeliest candidates--Kerry, Gephardt, Edwards, and Lieberman--are, after all, sensible men and professionally competent. But if the current Democratic tone remains unchanged, we could be on the verge of another sharp political shift toward the Republicans.

In 1976, 40 percent of Americans were registered Democrats and fewer than 20 percent were registered Republicans. During the Reagan era, those numbers moved, so that by 1989, 35 percent of Americans were registered Democrats and 30 percent were registered Republicans. During the Bush and Clinton years Democratic registration was basically flat and Republican registration dipped slightly to about 27 percent.

But over the past two years, Democratic registration has dropped to about 32 percent and Republican registration has risen back up to about 30 percent. These could be temporary gyrations. But it's also possible that we're on the verge of a historic moment, when Republican registration surpasses Democratic registration for the first time in the modern era.

For that to happen, the economy would probably have to rebound, the war on terror would have to continue without any major disasters, and the Republicans would have to have some further domestic legislative success, such as prescription drug benefits, to bring to the American voters. And most important, Democrats would have to remain as they are--unhappy, tone deaf, and over the top.

David Brooks is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.