For six years the Democrats have been bent on committing political suicide. Or so it seems. President Barack Obama has been the point man for this bizarre self-immolation. That period represents the culmination of a long 30 year exercise in political obtuseness that has seen a steady estrangement from the party's roots and a fatal mimicking of their Republican rivals. 2010 saw the first fruits of the project. Despite every plank in the traditional GOP program being exposed as rotten and the cause of national disasters at home and abroad, the Democrats under White House leadership contrived to allow the opposition to paint them as the problem. What should have been 1934 became 1994. Now the party has had both wrists slashed as it awaits morosely and impotently for the coup de grace in 2016.
Yet, party leaders react with surprise. They beat their breasts and gnash their teeth -- how on earth could this have happened? Who could have predicted this debacle?
This bizarre tale knows no precedent in American political history. The explanation, though, is readily apparent for those willing to look at the record. The formula did not require anything as exotic as hemlock; rather the more prosaic ingredients were imbibed gradually. The most toxic have been these.
One, alienate your core constituencies. That includes reneging on a pledge to help the trade unions; launch a campaign of vilification against school teachers -- from kindergarten through college; attack civil liberties protections; commit to reductions in Social Security and Medicare; stiff the environmentalists. In short, do to them in a calculated way what a Republican president would do instinctively.
Two, curry favor with your party's traditional enemies: Wall Street, Big Pharma, the Christian Right, the energy and industrial agriculture trusts. That has the dual effect of blunting your message and blurring your image while emboldening the objects of your favors to demand even more.
Three, permit the Republicans in Congress to exploit to the fullest their irresponsible tactics by never denouncing them for what they are or moving to challenge them on their own electoral turf. As a corollary, go along with the coy designation of the Tea Party controlled radical reactionary Republican Party as self-styled "conservatives."
Four, enable the Republicans to shape public discourse by monopolizing the airways and media. Democratic silence, timidity, defensiveness and evasion have given the Republicans the free run of the playing field. On this score, the party's leadership has been abject -- the president above all. Endless visits to daytime TV shows to schmooze about nothing in particular undercut respect for the presidency, neutralize the advantage of the incumbency and motivate the public to tune out or denigrate important messages. Mr. Obama seems oblivious to the obvious truth that most of the country stopped paying attention to what he says years ago.
At a time when Americans feel more discontent and view their prospects more darkly than on any occasion since the depths of the Great Depression, the Democrats have defaulted. They offer no interpretation that conforms to their bedrock principles; they offer no narrative that fits the pieces into a comprehensible whole; they offer no vision for the future. Instead, they have adapted themselves to the Republican narrative and Republican motifs. They present no robust defense of government as the people's instrument for meeting communal needs and wants. Rather, they incline toward the assumption that government and public programs should be viewed skeptically.
Privatization has been taken aboard without critical scrutiny; the White House-proposed sequester has resulted in a sharp reduction of all government services, personnel and budgets. That effect has been compounded by the failure to provide assistance to state and municipal governments in 2009 that could have prevented mass layoffs and cutbacks. The president's buying into the "austerity" snake oil went so far as broadcasting the Republican propaganda that presents the federal budget as being no different from a family budget. Above all, he went out of his way to buffer the financial barons from condemnation and accountability.
The near total neglect of the Detroit crisis pulls into focus these multiple flaws and faulty judgments. A great American city is allowed to founder at the very moment that the federal government is spending hundreds of billions to salvage predatory financial interests. Not only is this tragedy allowed to occur without assistance from Washington, it is studiously ignored. The critical financial aid is wrung out of foundations -- the ultimate confirmation that public responsibilities have been shed and replaced with pleadings before the "private sector." The earned pensions of hundreds of thousands are saved only by their generosity, not by a Democratic administration. The Detroit Museum of Arts, too, gains a reprieve from having its world class collection scattered to the four winds like the ashes from a city sacked by barbarians.
The overwhelming majority of those abandoned by their government are Democrats. Consequently, the populist passions that have raged since 2008 have been diverted from Wall Street to Washington. Almost all American politics is a contest for populist imagery. It provides the only vocabulary for political discourse. Democrats, for more than a century, identified and encouraged that current of populist thinking that found its target in the established power of big business and banking. Republicans have tried strenuously to counteract that tendency by playing on skepticism of government -- especially the federal government. That great battle produced the historic victory of the Democratic conception as embodied in the New Deal. It now is in the process of being reversed.
That is the outcome of a long-term strategy that gained momentum in the Reagan years. Its successes have gone far beyond anything that could reasonably be imagined at the time. The Great Financial Collapse promised to stop the movement in its tracks -- to regain lost ground and to consolidate what had been won. That the diametric opposite has occurred represents the ultimate failure of Democrats and their allies. There is much blame to go around; surely, though, the largest share goes to Mr. Obama. In this sense, his presidency indeed has been one of the most consequential in our history. To call it a success, though, is to embrace the thinking of the radical reactionaries who are celebrating their triumph. Have years of appeasement -- intellectual and political -- led to a silent conversion?
What next? The first signs are discouraging. The noises coming out of the punditocracy, think tanks, media and the Clinton entourage suggest that the same blinkered views that have brought the Democratic Party low are being reinforced. Some of this phenomenon can be understood as sheer intellectual laziness among the inbred Washington elites. Some expresses the self-interest of those who long have reconciled themselves to a status quo that has placed them among the country's privileged and keeps threats to their sinecures at a distance. This is not the age of conviction or empathy. The psychology of cognitive dissonance reinforces these dispositions.
Adversity is rarely the mother of invention, as the old adage has it. Experience and history tell us otherwise, as do behavioral experiments. The psychology of perceived necessity is complex. Adversity or threat in and of itself does not trigger improvisation or adjustment. Even the survival instinct does not always spark innovation. Denial, or avoidance, is normally the first reaction when facing adversity in trying to reach an objective or to satisfy an interest. Reiteration of the standard repertoire of responses follows. Hence, we already are seeing a spate of commentaries to the effect that the big test is 2016; that what happens then will determine future control of the Senate; that what really counts are the social issues -- abortion, same sex marriage, immigration -- where legislation is less important than executive action and the Supreme Court. Hence, we see Democrats grasping at the straw represented by the weak field of prospective Republican candidates, most with extreme views far out of line with the locus of public opinion.
True innovation tends to occur only in extremis; indulgent complacency is built on the premise that the party is not in extremis. So they rest content with making tactical adjustments at the margins rather than alteration of core premises and patterns of action.
There are few signs that any significant slice of Democratic Party elites have the motivation, conviction and intestinal fortitude to break out of their self-induced coma. The harsh truth is that the gumption to take on the arduous task of creating a new political frame of reference in the country is in short supply. It is far easier to think in terms of personal career, to concentrate on the political maneuvers that might keep you in office or get you into a higher office. That clearly is the outlook of Hillary Clinton.
Last Thursday, her camp heralded the connection being made with the famed Austin public relations wizard who produced the slogan "Don't Mess With Texas."
It is this kind of puerile attitude that has the Democratic Party sinking beneath the waves -- dragging with it the decent country that the party did so much to create.
We are witnessing a great contest that will determine the American destiny for generations to come. One side is mobilized for total war. The other isn't even sure that the battle is engaged. The latter's supposed champion expends his energy in the neutral no-man's land searching blindly for common ground. He positions himself thus because he is a pacifist at heart -- and because he sees some virtue to parts of the opponent's creed.
Can the outcome be in doubt?