By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
BOSTONThe Democrats are the party of ideological whiplash. At the Boston Social Forum, a left-wing hootenanny before the national convention, you could find enthusiastic John Kerry voters attending a "hemposium" and hawking "Holy Land Olive Oil" (slogan: Support Palestinian Farmers). And at the palatial Wang Theatre downtown, you could find Democrats who don't think corporations should pay taxes.
It was there that I sipped cocktails with Patty, a securities industries lobbyist who claims to be a Democrat. I asked her about a plank in the platform: "Under John Kerry and John Edwards, 99 percent of American businesses will pay lower taxes." Since 60 percent of American corporations already pay no taxes, I asked, does that mean they'll get free money shoveled back to them from the treasury? She responded by questioning the premise. "I was an econ major in college, so I don't think it's an efficient tax. I think there are better ways to raise revenue."
In the last few decades we've seen a structural shift as tectonic in its way as the sectional crisis that preceded the Civil War. Where in the 30 years or so following World War II, a period of Democratic dominance, the real income of the average American literally doubledmeaning that rural families who once kept outhouses on their property were now able to keep a garagein the 30 years that followed that same average income stagnated, the amount of individual debt exceeding that of individual savings. It happened coincident with a slow and steady rise in Republican dominance, now nearly complete, as corporations were awarded more and more prerogatives. It's gotten worse. From 2000 to 2002, according to the IRS, the average American income dropped 9.2 percentand the last time incomes fell in this way for even one year was 1953.
A visionary party of oppositionyou might even say a competent party of oppositionwould place fixing inequality and stagnating incomes at the center of its political appeal. For all the talk of swing voters, of NASCAR dads and soccer moms, this is the way to beat George Bushand to recover the Democrats' former status as the ruling party in American politics. Instead, the party invites within its folds securities lobbyists who want to repeal the corporate tax. How do the decisions get made that produce this state of affairs? How, in this party of the people, do the corporations become the mainstream and the liberals become the insurgents? In Boston, I hoped to find some clues.
Mary Rasmussen is the kind of delegate to the Democratic convention who keeps returning to the free T-shirt booth to sign up for a credit card, because she wants to give away shirts to each of the maids back at her hotel. A reading teacher and for 10 years a member of the Democratic National Committeeshe calls herself the most "populist" of Wisconsin's four membersshe is so emotionally committed to the Democratic party that back when she was an alcoholic, her friends arranged for her intervention to be the day after the 1988 presidential election. "They all knew it was going to be awful, and they knew that I would be hung over and depressed and suicidal." The intervention worked. "So every time there's a presidential election, God willing and the creek don't rise, I can celebrate another four years of sobriety."
Mary is also the kind of loyal soldier some in the Democratic establishment seem to relish stepping on. In 2000 she received a call at school from Terry McAuliffe, the master fundraiser and Clinton operative who was running unopposed for DNC chairman. He wanted to make sure he had her support. "I was less than forthcoming," recalls Mary, "and asked him some question about why I should vote for him. I needed more than that he was a great fundraiser. I needed to know what his vision was. And he couldn't tell me." She told him that her formative moment in politics had come at a time where visionary politics were of utmost importance. "And he laughed!He said, 'Oh, I have an older brother like that.' He was very dismissive. Like, 'Oh, that is so cute.' "
Mary and I run together throughout convention week. Most times she is jovial. Now, she is cutting. "I'm tired of it. I'm tired of being treated by corporate white guys as if my issues are amusing."
We have just repaired from a breakfast meeting of the Wisconsin delegation where John Nichols, the editorial page editor of the Madison, Wisconsin, Capital Times, told me how frustrated it made a lot of insiders to see Mary"the last liberal"accede to the DNC. One of the speakers was Al Franken. Another was an environmentalist who talked about what a bonanza he's yielded organizing voters in four swing states against mercury poisoning in lakes and rivers: Potential voters can't hear enough about this issue.
And a third speaker was an executive from the sponsor of the Wisconsin delegation's sumptuous breakfast, a company called Xcel Energy. As a premium, they gave out fancy water bottles, the kind that retail at camping stores for $10, with their logo on it. Except that these underwriters of Democrats, forgot to remove the sticker at the bottom of each one: "Made in China."