For those of us who think the nation has taken a disastrous wrong turn these past two years, Tuesday's election changed everything and nothing.
Clearly, we're going to have an extended sojourn in the political wilderness. Even criticizing the Bush administration's policies will become far more difficult. It will be hard even to find out what it's up to; the most secretive administration in the nation's history will now be even less forthcoming. And anyone who criticizes the administration, even on purely domestic issues, will be accused of lacking patriotism. After all, that strategy worked even against Senator Max Cleland, a genuine war hero who lost three limbs in his country's service.
What hasn't changed is the fundamental wrongness of this administration's direction. Too many pundits, confusing politics with policy — or engaging in sheer power worship — imagine that a party that wins a battle must be doing something right. But it ain't necessarily so. Political victory doesn't make a bad policy good; it doesn't make a lie the truth.
But what do we do about it?
Some of my friends are in despair. They fear that by the time the political pendulum swings, the damage will be irreparable. A ballooning federal debt, they say, will have made it impossible to deal with the needs of an aging population. Years of unchecked crony capitalism will have destroyed faith in our financial markets. Unilateralist foreign policy will have left us without real allies. And most important of all, environmental neglect will have gone past the point of no return.
They may be right. But we have to behave as if they aren't, and try to turn American politics around.
It won't be easy. There are essentially no moderates left in the Republican Party, so change will have to come from the Democrats. And they are deep in a hole.
It's not just Sept. 11. As Jonathan Chait points out in The New Republic, the Republicans also have a huge structural advantage. They can spend far more money getting their message out; when it comes to free publicity, some of the major broadcast media are simply biased in favor of the Republicans, while the rest tend to blur differences between the parties.
But that's the way it is. Democrats should complain as loudly about the real conservative bias of the media as the Republicans complain about its entirely mythical liberal bias; that will help them get their substantive message across. But first they have to have a message.
Since the 2000 election, and especially since Sept. 11, much of the Democratic leadership has argued that the party must play it safe — don't criticize the Bush administration too much, don't propose anything drastic that will offend corporations and the wealthy. What we should have realized, and what Tuesday's election disaster confirms, is that this plays right into Republican advantages. Talk radio and Fox News let the hard right get its message out to its supporters, while those who oppose the juggernaut stay home because they don't get the sense that the Democrats offer a real alternative.
To have a chance of breaking through the wall of media blur and distraction, the Democrats have to get the public's attention — which means they have to stand for something.
It's obvious what the Democrats should stand for: Above all, they should be the defenders of ordinary Americans against the power of our burgeoning plutocracy. That means hammering the Republicans as they back off on corporate reform — which they will. It means defending the environment against the administration's sly, behind-the-scenes program of dismantling regulation.
And it means doing what the party has refused to do: coming out forthrightly against tax cuts for corporations and the rich — both the cuts passed last year and those yet to come. In the next few months the Bush administration will once again demand tax cuts that benefit a tiny elite, in the name of economic stimulus. The Democrats mustn't fall for this line again; they must insist that the way to stimulate the economy is to put money in the hands of people who need it.
If the Democratic Party takes a clear stand for the middle class and against the plutocracy, it may still lose. But if it doesn't stand for anything, it — and the country — will surely lose.
Originally published in The New York Times, 11.8.02