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Democrats on the Sideline

We had a lot of fun talking through the ways that the Republican Party is self-destructing through this election year.  But what about the Democrats?

The competitive system at the core of our Democratic Republic functions to the extent that the two major parties stake out different sides of important issues and duke them out through an election, when the people of the nation get to weigh in.  But what happens when one side is wallowing in irrelevance and the other side has little to say one way or another?  Citizens who might otherwise vote are confused, angry, or simply apathetic and stay home.  When one party loses its way, it’s up to the other one to capitalize on the moment and present its platform.

That is unlikely to happen as the Republicans square off against the Not-Republicans, aka Democrats.  The vagueness of Occupy Wall Street made into a platform, of sorts – and historically pretty much what the party has usually been without strong leadership.

Most people appear to agree that we live in a time that demands action of some kind.  The world is changing around us and that will almost certainly demand new approaches in how we organize our lives and build institutions that serve whatever new era is forming.  Some changes are embraced easily by various people and others frighten the population terribly.  Sorting it all out, whether in a big corporation or in government, will take time and serious thought.  That works against the rapid change and makes tensions run high.

The Democratic Party has never been in a good position to master change unless it has a strong leader at the top of it.  Obama, love him or hate him, has not shown himself to be that kind of leader with a clear vision of where he wants to go – and neither has the rest of the Democratic leadership at any level.

This is hardly new.  The “Party of the people” was founded on activism as an alternative to the natural leadership of the landed gentry.  Thomas Jefferson was swept into power through early organizing in opposition to the bumbling and autocratic rule of John Adams.  Andrew Jackson seized power on outrage over the corrupt banking system of the day.  FDR organized a loose coalition of people laid low by the Great Depression and made them into a powerful force.

When the natural party of aristocracy fumbled, the Democrats eventually took power with two key components – an issue that forged an opposition coalition that otherwise had no business coming together and a strong leader that crystallized the organization.

Today, there is no one issue that is crafting an organization.  The Occupy Wall Street groups are close to one, opposition to rule of a rich elite, but blithely refuse to articulate exactly what needs to happen.  As a personification of whatever new coalition could rise, they deliberately refuse to anoint, follow, or even consider strong leadership of any kind.  What remains is being the Not-Republicans, a coalition of people who may not have any strong course of action but at least know what should not be done.

That isn’t likely to get people out to vote.  The first rule in elections is that political power does not come from percentages but from numbers.  Democrats may yet be able to capitalize on Republican stumbling, but immediately after the swearing-in there will be a swearing-at without a clear message that includes a distinct path out of the woods we find ourselves in now.

The various Occupy movements are not the Democratic Party, of course, but they remain the largest source of energy that could construct a new coalition of some kind.  They are worth watching because any change in the Not-Republicans is likely to at least come from that activism if not the people themselves.  There is still a lot of time for a clear message to be formed and strong leadership to emerge, but a re-election campaign rarely produces anything other than “stay the course”.  How could it be anything else?  Without clear leadership and policy at the top, what could possibly happen down the ticket?

The answer, of course, is a new Progressive movement that bubbles up from below.  That won’t crystallize this election cycle and will take a lot of time without leadership.  So for all the dramatic crashing and burning on the Republican side, the response is likely to be a lot of people standing around saying, “Wow, lookit dat.”  The irrelevance of the left today is much less spectacular than the War on Reality being conducted from the right, but its corrosive effect equally destructive to our nation.

This could be a long, strange election unless something changes soon.

19 thoughts on “Democrats on the Sideline

  1. Many of the demands have been clear as thin glass. Demands such as NOT signing the draconian NDAA legislation or NOT passing SOPA/PIPA. It is so very simple and Generation Y must not be understood at all by the elders of the established DFL; a party I myself have generally aligned with and been deeply indoctrinated with. The baton has been passed and the establishment must revisit Bob Dylan’s lyrics “The Times They Are A Changing”; in particular the line about “Please get of the NEW one [road] if you CAN’T lend a hand…” History repeats itself and the pendulum always swings and batons get passed; this time in a global society as opposed to merely American. Obama COULD have vetoed NDAA, but he was not hearing the calls of the PEOPLE. Likewise Franken COULD have changed his position on PIPA, yet he too was not listening to the cries of the PEOPLE. PEOPLE do not forget, and that too is a resounding message of “Anon”, which of course is merely a big collection of PEOPLE as opposed to terrorists in masks. Masks are just that; masks, nothing more, nothing less. And on a MICRO level, we all learned our lesson (I hope…had been TRYING to get my point across before to my Ward, and it finally happened despite opposition from a few) that instant runoff voting is a GOOD thing where the REAL leader always emerges in the end. Even if the leader was initially opposed the process of the election. It kept a candidate on his toes and willing to LISTEN to the voices of the people more than ever. That is a GOOD thing for the people. And politicians represent just that; the PEOPLE, or in theory SHOULD. We thankfully nailed that lesson a LOCAL scale. But what about national or even international? People don’t decide elections anymore. Lockheed Martin does, Apple does, Microsoft does, SONY does, GE does, BP does, WalMart does, THE UNITED STATES SUPREME COURT did, etc.

    With that in mind, how am I to believe on iota of anything I learned in school OR life about Civic Engagement? All those lectures (parents even teach public policy at a COLLEGE level) on how MY vote and MY voice matters, but DOES it to the POWERS that be? Be they BLUE or RED or even GREEN? Eric, the very first TIME I finally GOT to “vote” for a “president” (cough cough…dictator who took over with a coup…cough cough), FIVE of NINE “PEOPLE” got to decide FOR me because I guess STILL my flawed country thought I was not “adult enough” to cast my OWN ballot! Do you know HOW maddening THAT was? I do NOT forget. Do you? I TRIED listening to my elders who kept “assuring” me that yes my voice and vote DO matter and not only that, but “Yes We CAN!!!!”, but did he or we or they? No. We learned sometimes we CAN get who we DO want at the time in OFFICE, but we swallowed a bitter pill that “Yes We CAN!!!” was just typical campaign propaganda on glossy fliers yet again and nothing of depth. And yes he CAN and DOES listen to his lobbyists, but SHOULD he?

    And THAT is what starts to alienate the BASE, and yes I AM “the base” and you can ask me which campaigns I’ve VOLUNTEERED for, DONATED to, or ask about my voting RECORD if you don’t believe me.

    Occupy is so much simpler than some make it out to be. Main stream media of course is terrified of us and tries to portray us as “confused” or “without a vision” which is so very false. I encourage journalists on the matter to immerse themselves IN the movement FIRST before making blanket statements about it and trusting snippets of CNN or even MSNBC. To understand the philosophy of it, one must aim for the state of Boddhisattva; which is SIMPLE yet not EASY. That is all.

    • Occupy groups have a vision, but they refuse to have an agenda. It’s very hard to get something done when you haven’t articulated what that is. The lack of leadership is also going to be a big problem when it comes to implementing anything.
      That doesn’t mean that the movement doesn’t serve a purpose – but it is very limited and some other group has to take up the slack and make things happen. That should be the Democrats. Will they take the vision and turn it into an agenda to implement? So far … not so good.

  2. Regarding the 2000 presidential election, Ralph Nader was running. He garnered 2.8 million votes. He ran to offer a truer progressive liberal platform than offered by Al Gore. Our system periodically offers alternatives to the Democratic and Republican party. The fact that Ralph Nader lost the 2000 election can be interpreted many ways. Supporters for policies further to the left of Democrats can certainly form their own party. It’s up to them. Doing so and doing better than Nader will help assure the ascendancy of the Republican Party. Look what the Tea Party done for Republicans.

    • There is a link up there to a piece on the future of the Democrats:
      I stand by some of the musings in that piece, even though there isn’t a strong conclusion. The Democrats have to be the party that gets things done because, at its core, it centers on government as a counter-balance to economic forces when they become destructive – government has to work for people to believe in it and keep voting Democrat. What that winds up meaning is up for discussion, sure, but some of this goes far beyond ideology.

  3. I never thought of myself as a democrat until recently. It bothers me to say I am because I really don’t know what it means. You say it’s “Not-Republican” and that seems about it to me too. Sometimes I want a lot more than that though. Denying contraception coverage for whatever reason is just stupid & we can’t let people who think this is even reasonable stay in office. If that makes me a democrat than so be it. But I am a fairly conservative person & really do not have a party that I am totally comfortable with.

  4. Not standing for anything too concrete could be a big plus after the election. I personally prefer electing people who are smart and say what they mean regardless of party. Idealogy just gets in the way sometimes. The Democrats are sometimes that way and that could be a good role for them.

  5. Is it reasonable to compare Obama’s floundering with that of Jimmy Carter? Resulting, somewhat, from inexperience/lack of preparation? If Carter hadn’t been sandbagged, and had had a second term, what would he have done with it? If Obama wins, and I can’t but think he will, what will he do?

    The irrelevance of the left hasn’t been adequately explained. The Occupy people have, in a few places, gotten involved in some issues. But mostly they are bearing witness, more than acting. As such they have made a difference, but does it go anywhere from here? If not, the influence will inevitably fade. But the irrelevance of so many of us in the face of so few of them…?

    Anybody read Dayton’s State of the State message? Plainly enough people of progressive views are irrelevant to him (!). Barf.

    • I was thinking about Carter – and also Woodrow Wilson. They are the times when the Democrats did seize on Republican mistakes but were not able to really capitalize on them. It’s a possibly more interesting topic, but it didn’t seem as relevant to this election. We will see, won’t we?
      The left seems to me to be irrelevant because it has not controlled the national dialogue or agenda in a very long time. That may change if there is a strong movement, but I can’t see it changing in 2012. I may be wrong – people may be able to organize much more quickly – but without leadership much stronger than we have now I can’t see really crystallizing.
      Dayton is not a liberal, no. Neither is Obama. Nor Reid, nor really Pelosi. So what are they? I dunno. They don’t articulate an agenda that adds up to any consistent political philosophy – and don’t really try. Back to the Pragmatic Party?
      (a piece originally from 1999)

  6. I do want to thank you of course for even writing this as it fosters good dialogue. And again, as stated before, I have a longtime HISTORY with the DFL party AND am part of Occupy. I also spent a good amount of time in New York City and was glued to Livestream on Day 1 of OWS, and was well aware SOMETHING was cooking BEFORE it happened. I have a Twitter account. It happens.

    I have the attention of my PARENTS. I have the attention of DAVE THUNE…a DFLer. (None of whom probably ever go onto Livestream, which is fine, but I’m just making a point and my parents and Thune are of the SAME generation who lived through the SAME movement the LAST time.) And YES, my PARENTS are LONGTIME tow the party line DFLers.

    But you know what?

    DFLer SELF-defined “progressive” Ramsey County Commissioner is NOT getting the vote of MY parents! My dad put on a nice suit and tie and attended a large hearing way back when in Hennepin County regarding TENTS. He tried to give Sheriff Stanek a United States Constitution and I am NOT surprised Stanek (who knows NOTHING about rights OR laws DESPITE his job title) REFUSED. My dad gave an eloquent 2 minute speech to the Commissioners and STILL they ALL refused to listen. Even to an old Democrat with a nice suit and a Constitution and a Masters Degree. I GET all too well that the ESTABLISHMENT is AGEIST. If you are or even LOOK under 30 (hell…40), you are NOT listened to by MOST puppet politicians. (And I DO thank Dave Thune FOR listening to Generation Y as well as X. He’s a rare breed.)

    My parents attended their DFL Caucus. Guess what? THEIR Minneapolis City Councilmember pulled the POLITICIAN CARD by having some BS phony response to questions my MOM had for the guy about Occupy and other things.

    Guess who is NOT getting re-elected to Ramsey County Commissioner OR Minneapolis City Council? And guess who will cross the river to help my parents on what I hope is a very LOUD campaign (I attended TWO Camp Wellstones) to let the neighborhood I grew up in know to NOT vote the ESTABLISHMENT for Ramsey County/City Council…? That’s right! I am determined to REPLACE these cronies with a 20 year old so-called “kid” from Occupy if that’s what it takes!

    I will start THERE and work FROM there. If I have successfully lobbied my own DFL old parents AND Dave to “get” the message, I am 100% that we the PEOPLE of Occupy WILL succeed. Do I personally need a label of “leader”? Nah. I don’t care. Call me Jane Doe. Am I personally going to run for one of these positions? Nah. I’d rather help strategize the campaign. I can do that in my sleep with the help of my friends. I’ve helped the DFL party for YEARS including BEFORE I was old enough to vote. I already GET how the current system works. And you bet I’m going to USE it for the movement.

    We don’t want YOU [“you” as in “ustedes”, “vous”, “you guys”, “y’all”…GENERAL you; NOT “you…Eric”] the FLAWED ESTABLISHMENT to co-opt. But will WE co-opt YOU? Only TIME will tell. Like I said, Gen Y has the baton now. And the DFL can get a hint and LISTEN, or they can start losing seats to 20 year olds who have a turn now. It’s really up to the DFL. I’m not going to tell them what to do. But they might want to listen to the PEOPLES Lobbyists for once instead of Pepsi.

    The politicians on BOTH sides caused THIS mess. I voted for, donated money to, and campaigned for Obama. (And Franken. And Klobuchar. And the list goes on.) And I’m REAL tired of it NOT mattering to THEM. I am opposed to homophobes Newt and Mitt and others OF COURSE. I just don’t know what happened to the Southside Chicago scrappy UCC member community organizer who is now the president and REFUSED to veto the NDAA. I do not know what happened to the ALWAYS progressive Franken who co-authored PIPA. All I can say it leads to is this; MONEY. THEY are the greedy ones now. THAT must stop. THEY must listen. Was SONY more important to Franken that we the PEOPLE? I’m willing to give Franken another chance, but he needs to wake UP and LISTEN and I am DETERMINED to make that happen and I am ignoring any doubt.

    The older generations messed up the country by (BOTH parties) voting FOR a bailout, NOT having a public option, the U.S. Patriot Act, 2+ wars that MY peers have to die in even if they know they are WRONG wars, Citizens United v FEC, and the list goes ON. And the older generations must now OWN UP to the fact they were WRONG on all of that and now let’s listen to the young people. We’ve taken the BEST of the elders. We love the elders for the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Rights Movement, Ending Viet Nam, etc. And we thank our elders who get it and are in solidarity with us and we WELCOME them to our family. They are our parents and grandparents after all. And of course we seek their guidance and advice as movements are not a “fun party” but instead really important and necessary and……..STRESSFUL. To my elders who remembered being called Commie Pinko No Good Hippies and carried ON despite that AND still remember AND really “get” what is going on right now? I THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart! To some of their peers who forgot and grew up to be stodgy? Well, they will be stodgy and I will ignore the stodginess. I have work to do. People can help or get out of the way and see what happens. I’ve been THIS determined for YEARS with DFL. THIS movement is so important.

    There are “leaders”, sometimes there are “tents”, but that’s not the point. The leaders include people on media teams who are not camera shy, who write and tweet and talk through bullhorns. Leaders are people who get on the news, end up arrested, fling glitter, go to foreclosure homes to occupy, wear pirate suits and march part the banks doing performance art. THOSE might be what the powers that be call the leaders.

    The leaders are the medics who tend to the people with the cameras after being assaulted by the crooked cops.

    The leaders are the cooks who feed the medics and camera people and give them the FUEL to march at all.

    The leaders are the sanitation team who cleans up the mess after the people ate the food that the cooks made.

    The leaders are the finance people and lawyers who help sort out the boring details so the people can march and cook and eat and clean.

    I’ve always thought LEADERLESS was the WRONG term. If anything? We are LEADER-FULL. We do our own little parts we are good at and it’s a community. THAT is what the elders DID miss in the 60s and 70s. They FORGOT to thank EVERYONE. Leaders are not ONLY people who give big speeches. We are ALL leaders.

  7. I see the older activist Democrats in Minneapolis and St. Paul and in Minnesota not wanting to press their Democratic leaders for change in the direction of Occupy Wall Street. That’s why the establisment Democrats in Minnesota have been unresponsive. Activists and politicans’ staffs can come up with ideas and show it to their boss. There are tons of middle aged activists (40-60 years old) who could help translate Occupy Wall Street into a legislative agenda. These are the people who were inspired by JFK and who protested the Vietnam War so much they knew smell tear gas. The thing is, by their behavior, they don’t like the Occupy Wall Street vision and agenda. They may say they like the vision but they haven’t lifted a finger to help it. These activists are skilled in the local party processes and in helping research and write legislatiion. But they don’t want to help in what Rafferty talks about. They are the folks who used to support Martin Sabo, Paul Wellstone, George Latimer and Bruce Vento. Even Tim Penny. Many of the Democratic activists used to or currently work for local Democratic politicians they actually want to disavow themselves in practical terms from Occupy Wall Street because it might alienate their more moderate supporters. Some of these activists work in planning positions in local government. Some work at the University of Minnesota and others work in non-profts. They don’t want to be seen as a rabble rousing outside the narrow scope of their work. And besides they are busy with their kids.

    • Yes on all counts – this is a generational change, so by definition it will take time (and a fair amount of pain). What concerns me is that the next generation really does not have an implementable agenda – but I’m being challenged right now with some examples that almost add up to one, so it’s not as bad as I thought. However, they still have a long way to go before they can issue specific, achievable demands to the previous generation and really move things along the way they need to!
      It is sad to me how tired the old generation has become, however. Much of what they achieved has been under assault for a long time (including contraception? Yeesh!) so they are very much in a siege mentality. That makes them naturally conservative (small “c”) as they fight to preserve things the way they are in the face of the reactionary counter-charge. It cannot be called “progress” – and in the face of a rapidly changing world progress is not a luxury, but a necessity if we are to simply hold even in the long run.

  8. The DFL –like any organization– ought to remember and celebrate its accomplishments to energize itself. For example, former Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton broke barriers as mayor of Minneapolis who was female and African American. To have actually have diversity in political office is an achievement. I don’t really remember that she was charismatic, which can hurt among the lukewarm. But does anyone remember her other accomplishments? I have to research them myself.

    • I do remember her well! She was somehow related to a GOOD friend of my neighbor’s. As for lack of charisma, I thought she was kind. I worked as a guard at the Walker Art Center for awhile and she and I were in the same elevator at the museum once. Despite being some peon gallery guard, she was very kind to me which I remembered.

  9. Will Rogers summed it up with two quotes:

    “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.”
    “Democrats never agree on anything, that’s why they’re Democrats. If they agreed with each other, they would be Republicans.”

    DEAL WITH IT! We are not a top-down party and never have been. When some of us are disillusioned as are the “Professional Left” these days, many of us sit on our hands come election day just to “show ’em,” as the “Professional Left” did in ’10, and the country takes another hard skid to the right.
    If we do this again this year, I TRULY FEAR FOR THIS REPUBLIC

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