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The Stupid Party

How the Democrats earned the epithet previously reserved for Republicans.

Oct 22, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 06 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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Twice during the past half century, the Democratic party has faced a challenge from its left wing. In the late 1960s, it was the mass movement of the New Left that rose up to defy the party's liberal-progressive core. Following a contest of ideas and of wills, the liberal center collapsed and briefly yielded control to its radical critics. The struggle today is strikingly different in tone, with the party's mainstream being bullied by a network of techno-thugs, spearheaded by MoveOn.org. Nothing remotely resembling an idea or a sustained argument has surfaced in this conflict, and there is no danger that one ever will.

The Democratic party's convulsion in the 1960s can fairly be called tragic, in that it involved the fall of something worthy, however flawed. The party was the carrier of the great progressive tradition that stretched back from LBJ and JFK to FDR and ultimately to the progressive intellectuals John Dewey, Herbert Croly, and Charles Beard. These thinkers introduced the transforming idea of "social intelligence," a concept that demanded the continuous application of rational government planning, under the aegis of social science, to the ills of the modern industrial age. Social intelligence was intended to direct and accelerate the forward course of history. The conviction that progress was certain, so long as social intelligence was deployed, was the premise underlying the entire project.

This way of thinking was largely intact in the 1960s, when hundreds of social scientists took leave from their universities to make the great trek to Washington to serve their nation and party. It is true that by this time the theoretical premise had lost its deepest support. Charles Beard, who shared the limelight with Dewey and Croly in the pages of the New Republic in its early years from 1914 to 1917, famously pronounced as early as 1933 that the idea of an objective movement of history in a progressive direction (or any direction, for that matter) was a fiction--at most, a mere belief or subjective leap. Beard consoled his readers by announcing his own continued adherence to progress as a value or an article of personal faith, rather than a fact.

For a time, this "subjective" position seemed to satisfy most liberals. It is touching to recall the enthusiasm that "the best and the brightest" brought with them to Washington in their vision of the Great Society, with its stirring images of new housing projects, model cities, clean parks, and refitted classrooms. The project partook of a secular religion complete with a clerical class of social scientists to minister to every problem and cure every public ill. In a remarkable passage from his memoir, Harry McPherson, LBJ's chief adviser and speechwriter, testified to the faith that the architects of the Democratic programs had in "social intelligence":

People were suffering from a sense of alienation from one another, of anomie, of powerlessness. This affected the well to do as much as it did the poor. Middle class women, bored and friendless in the suburban afternoons; fathers working at "meaningless" jobs, or slumped before the television sets; sons and daughters desperate for relevance--all were in need of community, relevance, purpose. . . . What would change all of this was a creative public effort: for the middle class new parks, conservation, the removal of billboards and junk, better television, aid to the arts; for the poor job training, Head Start, decent housing, medical care, civil rights; for both, and for bridging the gap between them, VISTA, the teacher corps, the community action agencies, mass transportation, model cities.

But the absence of a firm theoretical foundation for liberalism left these Democrats' position increasingly vulnerable to doubts and criticisms. Was the nation really moving in a progressive direction, and was the Democratic party truly a force for progress? Ironically, it was not the conservatives but a movement from the left within the Democratic party that emerged to shake up the great liberal consensus.