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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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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.