BOSTON—The 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 doubled—meaning that rural families who once kept outhouses on their property were now able to keep a garage—in 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 percent—and the last time incomes fell in this way for even one year was 1953.
A visionary party of opposition—you might even say a competent party of opposition—would 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 Bush—and 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 Committee—she calls herself the most “populist” of Wisconsin’s four members—she 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.”
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 . . . ”
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.
Talking heads flap their mouths: about whether and how the Clintons will “overshadow” the nominee; about how (in the absurd, astonishing words of New Republic editor Peter Beinart) “liberalism is on tap virtually every night,” stuffing up an activist-run party’s “self-congratulatory echo chamber.” About how many sentences of his speech John Kerry wrote himself.
This is the audience the convention planners seem to play to. They respond predictably to words like “safer” and “first responder” and “daughter”; a keyword search reveals the phrases showing up 30, eight, and 23 times. Not so much to words having to do with official government malfeasance—which is why, strangely, John Kerry’s single greatest achievement as senator, forcing Congress to face up to the Reagan administration’s crimes negotiating with Iranian hostage-takers and sending the proceeds to death squads in Central America, was not mentioned at all.
No, this convention was supposed to make us feel good, be relentlessly positive. The theme was unity: national unity, party unity.
Niceness is nice. It makes a body feel good about himself. But it’s no strategy with which to win a presidential election. Adlai Stevenson was nice; he lost two presidential elections for the Democrats. Michael Dukakis, Jimmy Carter: They were nice. And look what happened to them.
These days, talking about things like the growing gap between the rich and the rest of us is judged not very nice. Fixing it might require breaking some eggs. The pundits would call it “class warfare.” So whenever a concession is demanded in the interests of unity, it will be demanded of the party’s left wing, never of the corporate types.
Like the time, Tuesday night, one party liberal—this one—returned to find his seat occupied by one of those blue-suited thirtysomethings. I asked him to give it up. He refused. “We gave lots of money to the Democratic Party,” he said, and demanded I sit in the aisle. “It would be shameful if I couldn’t get a seat.”
It was on behalf of all those poor single women who don’t vote and who really hold the explosive power for beating George Bush on November 2, 2004, that I refused to give up my seat.