This week I am writing for the L.A. Times’ Dust-Up in the Opinion Section.
Each day this week, I’ll be discussing the Democratic Party with Rick Perlstein, the author of the forthcoming "Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America" and a senior fellow at Campaign for America’s Future.
Today, we begin our weeklong discussion by looking for causes of the country’s apparent leftward shift. Later in the week, we’ll discuss national security, luring religious voters to the Democratic Party and more.
Is the apparent strength of the Democratic Party right now a sign that Americans are becoming more enthusiastic about regulation, redistribution of wealth and other traditional ideas of the left, or is it just a symptom of Bush fatigue?
Keep reading for today’s discussion…
By Rick Perlstein
When I started pondering the question, my thoughts somehow started wandering to the indelible opening line of Johan Huizinga’s classic cultural history, "The Autumn of the Middle Ages": "When the world was half a thousand years younger all events had much sharper outlines than now." I’ve been thinking full time about America’s relationship to "regulation, redistribution of wealth, and other traditional ideas of the left" — what, broadly, the rest of the world calls social democracy — for a very long time now. And never have the outlines of the question seemed sharper than they are to me now.
In the rest of the industrialized world, your boss can’t fire you unless he or she can give a good reason. In America, with certain exceptions, your boss can fire you for any reason at all or for no reason at all.
In the rest of the industrialized world, when you get sick, you go to a doctor and receive reasonably effective healthcare with little more trouble and expense than it takes to pick up reception on a transistor radio. In America, with certain exceptions, you might get the care you need, you might not, and either way, the insurance or the medical bills might set you back the cost of a new car.
And finally, in the rest of the industrialized world, with exceptions, there are practically no poor people begging for coins in the streets or begging for jobs on street corners.
Our work is simple: Sometime within every middle-aged person’s lifetime (I am 38), America needs to join the rest of the world. This may take a generation or more. But there’s no question that the necessary conditions to begin the work are right in front of our noses.
"Trends in Political Values and Core Attitudes: 1987-2007," a 20-year roundup of public opinion from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, tells the story. Is it the responsibility of government to care for those who can’t take care of themselves? In 1994, the year conservative Republicans captured Congress, 57% of those polled thought so. Now it’s 69% (even 58% of Republicans agree). The proportion of Americans who believe that government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep is also 69%. Sixty-nine percent of Republicans — and 75% of small-business owners — favor raising the federal minimum wage by more than $2. A majority, 54%, think "government should help the needy even if it means greater debt" (it was only 41% in 1994). Two-thirds want the government to guarantee health insurance for all citizens. And in the authoritative American National Election Studies survey, more than twice as many Americans want "government to provide many more services even if it means an increase in spending" as want fewer services "in order to reduce spending."
This is no mere Bush fatigue. The conservative era is over — if we want.
Rick Perlstein is the author of the forthcoming "Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America" and a senior fellow at Campaign for America’s Future.
The party to end the conservative era
By Jasmyne Cannick
I agree with your comparison of America to the rest of the industrialized — and dare I say more civilized — world.
I am reminded of actor Hugo Weaving’s line from the 2005 political thriller "V for Vendetta": "And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression. And where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission. How did this happen? Who’s to blame? Well certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable, but again truth be told, if you’re looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror."
I recently took a good, long look into that mirror.
As someone who has been flirting with the Democratic Party and its principles since the late ’90s (I am 30), it wasn’t until more recent years that I decided that I was ready for my commitment ceremony. So in February I got engaged, and I am looking forward to walking down the aisle in November, hand-in-hand with my man or woman.
Bush fatigue had nothing to do with my decision to up the ante in my relationship with the Democratic Party. Bush had overstayed his welcome the first time he stole office.
No, my decision to become actively engaged with the Democratic Party had to do with your point of the conservative era being over if we want.
While the strength that the Democratic Party is experiencing right now may have to do with our need for regulation and the redistribution of wealth, in my opinion, it just comes down to the fact that everyday Americans are finally waking up. We’re waking up to the realization that if we don’t get actively engaged this year, it will be four more years of the same.
And while being able to look to statistics to prove a point is a good thing, for most Americans, it’s not needed. When our government is more concerned with financing the war on terrorism overseas and less willing to finance the war that’s going on domestically in our backyards and on our streets, there’s a problem. When it’s more affordable to buy a bucket of fried chicken than it is to go to the store and buy the ingredients to make that same bucket of chicken, that’s a problem. When you go to sleep, only to wake up to find that overnight the gas fairy raised the price of gas — again — it’s fair to say it’s time for a change.
All we ever needed to do was look at the impact the last eight years on our checking and savings accounts to see that we need a change. One look around our neighborhoods, at the state of our schools and at our rising healthcare costs tells the story of why the Democratic Party is on the rise.
The numbers speak for themselves, and Democrats have been in a position to take back America for the people. It wasn’t until this current administration’s abysmal failure affected all of us and not just some of us that we were moved to take action in record numbers — that, and the prospect of electing an African American or female as the next president, what I think is chiefly responsible for inspiring a generation of young Democrats to get involved.
Now that sleeping giants have arisen, the real test of the party is going be how it handles the increasing masses of its constituency who want to be intricately involved and no longer content to watch from the sidelines. How the party embraces those voices — black, brown, under 40, non-Christian or gay — is going to tell the story of how long America’s newfound love affair with Democrats will last. After all, the party is only as strong as its people.
I’ll close with another line from "V for Vendetta": "People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people." That line for me epitomizes what America is experiencing right now, which is what has conservatives petrified.
Yours in the struggle,
Jasmyne Cannick is a critic based in Los Angeles who writes about pop culture, race, class and politics as played out in the African American community. She is a regular contributor to National Public Radio’s "News and Notes."