Two days after Election Day, Simon Rosenberg, head of the New Democrat Network, was quoted by The New York Times as saying, “Every type of Democrat won last night . many whose ideology defies easy description and should be best described just as a Democrat.”
But what does it mean to be a Democrat? Democrats are usually an eclectic bunch, but Rosenberg’s quote underlines how the incoming class runs an entire gamut along the political spectrum. They are only unified by a single name – Democrat.
The halls of political punditry echo with comparisons between the recent election and the Republican takeover of 1994. There, in an astonishing display of ideological unity, Republicans unveiled their “Contract with America” – hitting all the traditional conservative G-spots – and it got them elected en masse. This was easy to do; conservative ideology is much easier to identify.
Now that the Democrats control both houses of Congress, everyone expects the Democrats to similarly unleash their own legislative agenda and fight for the things that they stand for.
The problem is, nobody really knows what that agenda is.
Unlike the Republicans in 1994, the Democrats didn’t offer any well-articulated legislative plan of action. This lack of a common ideology, long lamented by party followers, is not simply symptomatic of the current political landscape, but is innate to the Democratic project. The only unifying thread that can ever encompass the entire Democratic Party is that it isn’t Republican. We were just lucky that this was enough to get us elected this year.
As long as they are the leftist party, the Democrats will forever be the alternative to the status quo. They are burdened with the mantle of new ideas that must be articulated and proven to be more desirable. Defending the status quo is a much easier platform, because you are the default and you need only to debunk the opposing view. Any group seeking to advance new ideas is enveloped under the auspice of the Left – and as such, associated with the Democrats. However, just being referred to under the common signifier “Democrat” does not imply any kind of cohesion.
Democrats have gone through several evolutions of political ideology. Once the standard-bearer for the working class, the Democratic Party first saw a split in the pivotal year of 1968, exemplified by the challenges of the Chicago Seven and by the Dixiecrats’ rejection of civil-rights issues being included in the party platform. Republicans exploited the disdain felt by white southern voters, giving Richard Nixon the presidency. As political writer Joe Klein phrased it in 2003, that was the year that the “solid Democratic South became the solid Republican South, a truly momentous event in American political history.” Since then, racial and identity politics continue to be a divisive and thorny foundation to the Democratic Party.
Another transformation to the Democratic cause manifested itself in the 1970s with the emergence of green and environmental concerns. Party infighting still occurs as Democrats balance expanding jobs and preserving the environment. Clearly, Republicans enjoy a relative amount of homogeneity, whereas Democrats have to build coalitions between political interests that are sometimes diametrically opposed.
This task is often compared to herding cats, but there is an inherent problem with the metaphor – cats at least are still the same kind of animal. Getting Democrats to unite behind a single initiative is more like trying to herd an entire menagerie, full of cats, dogs, pigs and platypuses. (We can make Joe Lieberman the platypus).
But the Republicans are now facing an evolution of their own and suffering the consequences. There is a growing schism in conservative ideology, a burgeoning disparity between old-regime Republicans forged from the Reaganite mold and social conservatives who have emerged from the woodwork under the ascendance of Bush the Lesser. Bush’s administration has made the common leftist mistake of governing based on pre-ordained ideology, an ideology that has left many of its own party behind. It was that vacant ideological space that Democrats were able to capture and appropriate last week.
When a leftist group gains control, many followers are often disappointed at how the party co-opts itself, prioritizing pragmatism over principles. However, it was pragmatism that Americans overwhelmingly voted for on Election Day. Many of the new Democrats can be called centrist, but unfortunately the center has moved significantly to the right in the past 30 years. We will see how well the newcomers work with the old-line Democrats. The only thing that unites the freshmen in Congress is that they were labeled with a “D” on the ballot.
Sam Butler is a member of the Daily’s editorial board. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.