The End of Republican Rule

Righteous populism holds the key to vanquishing Bush forever

On the elevator, I asked the executive whether there might be at least the appearance of impropriety in a company with business before the government sponsoring one of the government's constituent parties. His shrug suggests a question so odd he had never given it a thought. "It's just a way of giving back to our customers," he finally says.

If you Google "Xcel Energy" and "mercury poisoning," the impropriety becomes less abstract: "In a report titled 'Toxic Neighbors,' a group called Clear the Air said Minnesota's coal-fired power plants dumped 2,300 pounds of mercury into the environment in 2001. More than a third of that, 840 pounds, came from a single plant, Xcel Energy's 1,947-megawatt Sherco facility . . . "

How, in this party of the people, do the corporations become the mainstream and the liberals become the insurgents?
photo: Joeff Davis/
How, in this party of the people, do the corporations become the mainstream and the liberals become the insurgents?

When Mary Rasmussen started getting involved in Democratic politics, her goal was to join the DNC, ostensibly the party's policy-making body—"to be a participant in formulating party goals, party objectives, party strategies," she recalls. "It didn't take long to discover that being there is just part of the window dressing."

Her wake-up call came at the first meeting, at the Michigan resort town of Mackinac Island. She asked a party executive if his kids wanted to join hers to play in the swimming pool. "Well, the look on his face! It was so shriveling: that it was entirely inappropriate. Because, like, he's the executive director of the DNC! And I was just a DNC member!"

She says it with bemusement, not bitterness; she's long past holding on to her illusions. "I envisioned that we would all get together and dialogue," she says, with a laugh—this was, after all, the Age of Clinton, whose White House was bursting over with the intellectual energy of a college seminar room. "But instead, we go, and they give us talking points—and send us out to say those things. We get together to rubber stamp decisions that have been made somewhere else," she says, before correcting herself: "No, not just rubber stamp: We get together to cheer and celebrate those decisions."

What were the decisions? She wanted more populism. She saw more and more corporations. And it wasn't just her idealism speaking. An insistent, consistent, commitment to populism would make for a stellar electoral strategy for beating George Bush, and, four or eight years from now, for beating George Bush's brother, or any Republican. Recently the Democratic consultant Stanley Greenberg published findings that, asked to chose from a list of issues they considered serious, only 30 percent of Americans picked "high taxes" as a problem (77 percent chose health care). "High taxes" are not only the Republicans' signature issue, but a "problem" that Kerry has placed at the center of his campaign as well, promising a tax cut to everyone who makes less than $200,000 a year. Greenberg also found that a large majority of Americans want government to fight income inequality. When he asked focus groups what they thought about "big corporations," he wrote, "They spit out, 'money,' 'greed,' and 'Enron' "—a "revulsion formerly reserved for Hollywood." And this from a predominantly Republican crowd.

The pollster Celinda Lake gave a stunning presentation one afternoon in Boston—though it wasn't the sort of thing the pundits would tend to notice. She provided a statistical portrait of America's 22 million single American women, who are alienated enough to be hugely underrepresented on the voting rolls: If single women voted at the same rate as married ones, there would have been 6 million more voters in 2000—200,000 in Florida alone. Why are they alienated? One reason might be how liberal they are. On every single issue, these voters lean left, especially on economics. Eighty-eight percent worry their incomes might not keep up with rising prices (only 68 percent worry about being the victim of a crime); they are sufficiently environmentalist that only 12 percent are "cool" toward environmental groups. The Democrats, if they stopped talking corporate and spoke to these people's issues, would have won that election, and just about every other one besides.

The speaker after Lake was a young woman who organizes voters from poor rural backgrounds like her own. She drawled out a story about the time she asked a friend out for a beer, who said she couldn't drink because she's still nursing her young toddler.

"Well, how long are you gonna do that?"

"Until it runs out. Because it's free."

Me, when I heard that, I thought of mercury poisoning. Mercury gets into breast milk. My kind of thinking is not about giving conveners of hemposiums more voice in the Democratic party. That's the kind of ostentation that just turns voters off. But tamping down corporations like Xcel, ostentatiously enough so that alienated nonvoters start taking notice, instead of letting them use our party as a branding opportunity (another thing Greenberg found is that voters think both parties are dominated by corporations)—that would only be practical. It is the kind of dare that could turn the Democrats into America's ruling party again.

Some scenes from Boston: Blue-suited thirtysomethings with $100 haircuts stomping around in hotel lobbies, telling the cell phones sprouting from their ears, "I'll keep my ear to the ground." On acceptance-speech night, Alexandra Kerry telling the story about the family's pet hamster, a reporter next to me making a Richard Gere joke; there follow backslaps all around.

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