Before launching into a theory about why the Bush administration will have four more years to erode civil rights, wage war on nontraditional love, obstruct science and pander tothe religious right, we offer this damning observation about one of our own. In the autumn of 2000, Scene staff arrived to work one day to see a co-worker's car adorned with a Gore/Lieberman sticker. Over coffee during a meeting, the bumper-sticker-sporting staffer was asked whether he was registered to vote.
He wasn't. Coffee flew. Voices were raised. It got ugly.
This phenomenon on a larger scale is why John Kerry will be perusing holiday catalogs on his overpriced leather lounger in Massachusetts this winter rather than writing his inaugural speech.
The Lefteven the middledidn't come to the party with the same zeal and numbers as the Right. Many within the young demographicwhom we were told would descend on the polls to elect Kerryinstead were AWOL. Hunter Thompson or someone of his ilk put it this way: "The little bastards let us down."
Yes. But they are not solely to blame. Perhaps more culpable than the cynical or lazy neophyte ideologues are grown-up Democrats who let down this new generation. For a brief moment in what now seems like a decade ago, young voters were energized in a way we hadn't seen for years. Remember the Deaniacs? They promised a revolution, then died at the hands of their cautious elders. In the end, the Dems were more comfortable with the stolid, eggheaded liberalism of 2004 Kerry than with the aggressive, urgent liberalism of 1972 Kerrythe liberalism Dean embodied.
And in the end, Dean might have carried the Democrats to a worse electoral defeat than Kerry did. But, unlike Kerry or anyone else in the Democrats' stable, Dean made young people believe that politics mattered.
That is both the party's chief weakness and its chief hope. Today's Democrats are the party of old ideas. In a real sense, they are true "conservatives," seeking to conserve the old, creaky infrastructure of the New Deal and Great Society. The hidebound Democratic mainstreamers are also more academic in their liberalism than their practical, working-class forebears (and than their partisan adversaries). They seem more comfortable with the theoretical activism of coffeehouses and distinguished lecture series than with the sleeves-rolled-up work of person-to-person politics. GOP voters know what color paint adorns the walls of the polling site because they tend never to miss a vote. Meanwhile, the liberal intelligentsia wants to hold poorly attended meetings about the harmfulness of paint vapors and the evil companies who create it. They need to get on the ground and get their heads out of the sky. It's as if they think their old ideas will simply sell themselves. In that sense, when it's time to get something done, the same disconnect exists between reality and Kerry as between Gore Democrats and our non-voting staffer.
It's almost axiomatic to suggest that the Democrats are out of touch with the broad middle of Americaand so they are. Well read as they may be, today's liberals poorly understand how the majority of us work, live, think or worship. Worse, they seem not to care.
Republicans, on the other hand, may be the party of the wealthy, but they're also much better in touch with the concerns of average voters, especially those in suburban and rural precincts. As a result, they're much, much better at understanding their adversariesand exploiting the nuances of Democratic ideology to their own advantage.
After last week, it's also almost cliché to say that Democratic values are out of step. We think that's a poor reading of the election results. Polls regularly show that Americans are neither as socially conservative as many GOP stalwarts would like to believe, nor comfortable with "charge everything to the national credit card" fiscal policies of the Bush administration.
The Democrats have a real caseone based on real values. What they lack are new, real ideas for relating those values to the workaday concerns of Americans, to the idealism of the young and to the kind of imaginative legislation on which Republicans now claim a near monopoly.
Just as a bumper sticker is no substitute for a message, commissioning unregistered rap stars and buxom blondes to tell young people to "vote or die" is a laughable message to an audience that has a sixth sense for sniffing out hype.
But give them real, difference-making reasons to turn out, and the youth that Robert Kennedy called "not a time of life but a state of mind" could truly rock the vote (and Karl Rove's world).
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