Since it became apparent that George W. Bush had managed, in surprisingly convincing fashion, to win himself a second term, I've been getting e-mails and phone calls from friends wondering where they should move. Canada? Australia? Some genteel European republic? Is there, they ask, a place for us in a world that seems increasingly upside down?
This, of course, is the problem with the left: we cut and run at every sign of trouble; we'd rather retreat than fight. It's a form of tunnel vision, the same kind of narrow-mindedness that keeps us from understanding that there are people out there-tens of millions of them-who hate our values, who consider us misguided, or even worse, evil, and want nothing to do with what we think. We have, in other words, a problem with engagement, with realpolitik, with the notion of defining and defending our own ground. Is there a place for us? Hell, yes, there's a place for us. And that place is right here, right now.
This seems like nothing if not an obvious statement, the idea that America is our country, and we should fight to defend what's best about living here. Yet if you listen to the rhetoric coming from the Democrats, that attitude is sadly missing as they wring their hands over what went wrong. Recently on The Daily Show, New York's Sen. Chuck Schumer talked about the repudiation of Democratic values-as if such values had been evident anywhere during the campaign. What values, exactly, was he referring to? The idea that Osama bin Laden is a criminal and we will "hunt him down and kill him"? The notion that the Patriot Act helps us fight terrorism by keeping tabs on people's library use?
No, if anything sunk the Democrats, it was their insistence on cloaking themselves in the language of the right, their willingness to let the president set the agenda, rather than fighting him on their own terms. Where was the debate over Social Security, which Bush seems sure to gut now in a cynical payoff to his Wall Street friends? Where was the discussion of civil liberties, of basic human fairness, of the fact that this is the first president in history to propose a constitutional amendment restricting people's rights? Where was any kind of principled stance on abortion, the separation of church and state, the idea that what I do in my home, in my bedroom, is nobody's business but my own? Where, in other words, was a real sense of vision, a willingness to press a public conversation about the nature of contemporary American life?
In a certain sense, we can lay the blame for much of this at the feet of John Kerry, who doesn't have the courage of his convictions and never has. Let's be honest: Kerry was a loser. He did flip-flop on the war, voting for the authorization when it was politically expedient to do so, and against the $87 billion when it looked like public opinion had changed. If you follow his arguments to their logical conclusion, he was saying that the world would be better off had Saddam remained in power-a thesis, incidentally, that I agree with, although it would have been political suicide to say it in such terms. He did think the threat of terrorism is overstated (right, again); he clearly thought that Vietnam had been a mistake. Yet when confronted by the other side over these positions, what did Kerry do? He hemmed and hawed and justified, relying on nuance rather than directness in an attempt to obfuscate his true beliefs.
Obfuscation, of course, has become the great Democratic strategy, perhaps the only real strategy the party has. It's been like that since 1988, when Michael Dukakis refused to admit he was a liberal, or to fight back when George Bush the elder attacked him for being "a card-carrying member of the ACLU." This was the crucible for the Democrats, the turning point, the moment when the party turned away from its ideals and committed to a policy of cut and run.
Dukakis, after all, was a liberal-as is Kerry (who also quibbled with the designation)-and for the last 16 years, I've often wondered what would have happened if he'd acknowledged this, if he had stood his ground, rather than allowing the Republicans to set the terms. Ever since, the Democrats have occupied a defensive position, trying to figure out what prospective voters want to hear. But those prospective voters understand when they're being manipulated, which is why they've rejected the Democrats again and again.
This is why I'm not a Democrat-because they don't stand for anything, and they don't respect the people they claim to want to represent. This is why we essentially have a one party system in this country, why the opposition to Bush is almost entirely ineffectual, a token walk-on in a passion play. This is why the Republicans keep winning, why the Democrats have been reduced to a party of the fringes, literally-just look at where the blue states are. This is why Bush won a majority of the popular vote, not because the country is so comfortable with him (he was the first president in history reelected with an approval rating under 50 percent), but because too many people didn't trust Kerry. They thought he was working them to get their votes.
In his book, What's the Matter With Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, Thomas Frank argues that one reason for the Republicans' success over the last generation is that they speak to people about values while the Democrats discuss policy. That's true to some extent, but I think it overlooks the massive failure of the Democrats to articulate anything, be it values or policy. Instead, the Democratic Party has become a party of panderers, who don't have the courage to stand up for what they believe. It has betrayed the left, betrayed its own history and betrayed the process for which it claims to stand.
When Barry Goldwater lost the 1964 presidential election, the result was a profound soul-searching within the Republican Party, which, in turn, led to the vision that we see playing out today. Where are the Democratic visionaries? What does this party represent, and how does it get those ideals across? These are the real questions raised by this election, and we need to answer them if we want to get our country back. But first, all of us in the opposition-Democrats and independents and undecideds-must make the decision to stand and fight.