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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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For those in the party's mainstream, the revolt of the New Left and the "counterculture" came as an enormous shock. It was as if their own offspring had suddenly and unnaturally turned on their progenitors and set about mercilessly to devour them. The New Left called into question almost everything liberals had deemed to be progress: material well-being, American power, and especially the enlightened motives of the leaders of the American nation. Liberalism was part of the problem, not the solution. In the words of the movement's political manifesto, the Port Huron Statement, "What we had originally seen as the American Golden Age was actually the decline of an era." The moral disaster over which liberalism had presided, culminating in the Vietnam war, was so fundamental, so interwoven into the fabric of American life, that only a revolution could save us. The New Left married a deep pessimism about America to an unbounded optimism about the transforming power of revolution.

Those who look at the writings of the New Left today will find very little if anything that stands the test of time. None of the movement's intellectual luminaries, from Norman O. Brown to Tom Hayden to Charles Reich, can be counted a substantial thinker. Nevertheless, many leaders of the movement engaged in concerted argument--indeed, felt obliged in their political action to expose the theoretical problems of the liberal tradition and to advance their own ideas. Thought mattered to them. Their arguments evidently had an impact, too, as many liberal intellectuals succumbed before the theoretical onslaught. It turned out there was no theoretical position the liberals believed was true. The "best and the brightest" proved lacking in conviction, while the radicals were full of passionate intensity.

This split between the liberals and the radicals in the late 1960s and early 1970s cost the Democratic party its confidence, and the party has never been quite the same since. The New Left did not take over permanently, a task for which it was morally, intellectually, and above all politically unfit. Once it became clear--as it did in the 1972 election--that the majority of the American people had no sympathy for the New Left's cause, especially "revolution," the old liberal mainstream was in effect asked to step back in and serve as the public face of the party, and it did so in the persons of Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.

But the New Left didn't disappear. Renamed the cultural (or multicultural) left, it decamped from center stage and repaired to safer quarters in the universities, where it managed to carry out much of its program. Inside the Democratic party, it ceded actual leadership, but maintained an impressive power base and exercised enormous influence on the policy agenda. Usually, the old liberals found the cultural left too dangerous to embrace, but too powerful to resist.

The result by the 1980s was a much weakened liberalism that was no match for a renewed conservative movement. Sapped of energy, liberalism had become, in Paul Starr's words, mostly "defensive" and "oppositional." Liberals tried to stick to the catechism of the older values, but were often pushed off course by the conflicting priorities championed by the cultural left. Liberals lacked any clear conception of first principles or anchoring ideas to guide them. Except for the fact that the Democratic party remained the home of almost all of the intelligentsia, it had now become the "stupid party" of American politics, an honor previously reserved for Republicans. Not even the two Clintons, with their high IQ's and a new generation of policy wonks to serve them, could change this. The "New Democrat" thrust was wholly strategic and practical: to move the Democratic party to the center and to "reinvent" government. Whatever other contributions may be ascribed to the Clinton Democrats, deep reflection about the party's theoretical foundations was not among them.