The Democrats can search for young leaders - but when it comes to politics, youth activists won't lead anything.
By all accounts this week’s elections were an embarrassment for the Democrats, as they lost control of the Senate and made no gains in the House of Representatives.
This is a truly pathetic showing, given that a majority of Americans are registered Democrats and the historic trend favours the party not in the White House during the mid-term elections. As the Democrats ask themselves why the party of the people cannot seem to connect with the public nor spawn inspiring leaders, it should be noted that their demise was only partly of their own making.
The Democrats have been abandoned by the younger generation of activists, who have increasingly come to believe that American politics is not worth their time. This dynamic is illustrated by the fall-out from Minnesota Democrat Senator Paul Wellstone’s sudden death on Friday 25 October.
The initial response to Wellstone’s tragic demise was one of collective empathy with a touch of wistfulness. An oft-heard homily was that Wellstone was a courageous fighter who brought true contestation to the Senate. According to one tribute, Wellstone was a man willing to ‘risk everything on a campaign of principle’ (1).
Unlike Senators John Kerry and Ted Kennedy from securely liberal seats in Massachusetts, Wellstone actually took a risk as Senator from a more moderate state, when he did such things as vote against the Iraq Resolution or support gay rights. Republicans and Democrats alike have repeated this sentiment, eulogising an era more than the man himself.
Yet even as the parties claimed that Wellstone’s memorial should be a day to rise above politics, both sides sank beneath it. Republicans accused the Democrats of playing politics by keeping vice president Dick Cheney from attending the memorial and turning the service into a political rally (2). In television interviews, Democrats responded with a ‘shame on you’ to Republicans for imputing base motivations, when politics was the best way to remember the deceased Senator.
As fracas grew into fullblown catfight, both sides followed the rules of political correctness: each tried to claim the moral high-ground by casting the other as insensitive and offensive, meanwhile scrupulously avoiding any statement of political principle (3).
Quick to fill the post-memorial political vacuum, strongman Governor Jesse ‘the Body’ Ventura adopted the mantle of professional scold, excoriating both parties on national television for petty partisanship, and appointing Independent Dean Barkley, a repeatedly failed politician, the interim replacement for Wellstone. But even this did not reflect an elevated political stance, but another case in which an opportunistic politician capitalises on disunity for the sake of self-aggrandisement.
Ventura’s much-vaunted ‘independence’ is of course wholly dependent on fragmentation within mainstream parties, without which Ventura’s appeal would lose all meaning. Nevertheless, cloaked in the rhetoric of rising above the fray, Ventura can recast an arbitrary exercise of his will as a judicious decision to appoint a man with no other intention than, in his own words, to make ‘as much mischief as [he] can’ (4).
In the broader context of the 5 November elections, the politicisation of the trivial and the banalisation of politics is neither new nor surprising. The popular media has obsessed about it, and a recent poll quantified the problem. The New York Times recently reported that most of the public thinks neither party has a clear vision, 66 percent of people believe their children will not live in as good a world as their parents grew up in, and 50 percent think the election is boring (5).
During his Sunday political talk show Meet The Press, anchor Tim Russert pointed to this poll and opened with the question ‘does anyone really care about this election?’. In such a climate, it is a small wonder the finger-pointing and backbiting wasn’t more ferocious.
But the more uncomfortable fact for the Democrats is that in replacing the 58-year-old Wellstone they were forced to resort to a political dinosaur, 74-year-old ex-vice president and former Senator Walter ‘Fritz’ Mondale. Wellstone’s key feature was that he was the last big name politician to attract the support of the otherwise disaffected but political youth (specifically – he was the only Senator to go to the anti-globalisation protests at Seattle).
Fritz hardly supplies the same vim and vigour. In his only face-to-face debate with his opponent, Norm Coleman, Mondale did his best to muster the fire of conviction, but a perceptibly shaking hand betrayed the frailty of age. The Democrats who sat near me watching the debate periodically winced when Mondale’s voice gave, or his opponent snuck in a reference to Mondale’s pre-historic 1984 presidential bid.
Having already appointed the doddering septegenarian Frank Lautenberg (78!) to replace the corrupt 51-year-old Bob Toricelli in the New Jersey race, adding Mondale confirmed that the Democrats had nothing new to offer. And they appear to have paid for it on the 5 November elections: although Lautenberg won a safe seat, Mondale has lost where Wellstone would have won.
At times the Democrats have tried to rationalise their choices, claiming that the older candidates brought much-needed experience. Slate magazine even made a weak attempt to turn Mondale’s age into a virtue – he’s old enough to not give a damn about pleasing the soft middle, so he will carry on Wellstone’s legacy of the politics of principle (6). Nobody buys it.
Which is why, for the most part, the Democrats have done the predictable soul-searching, trying to understand why they have been unsuccessful in cultivating ‘young-progressive’ leadership. Various proffered explanations during the election coverage included 2004 presidential primary manoeuvring within the party at the expense of party discipline, or the lack of central command over party funds, or the Balkanisation of the party into caucuses without a solid platform, or a miscalculation on the Iraq issue.
But the disengagement of the young cannot be put down to the way the Democrats organise themselves. Rather, young people have simply abandoned American politics altogether. This is exemplified in the phenomenon of the anti-globalisation/anti-war/anti-everything movements, where the quest for political leadership – of any kind – does not feature as a goal at all.
Anyone who has attended rallies held by these movements and chatted with a few of their members becomes quickly aware that that they are extremely uncomfortable with the idea of actually claiming power, and do not have a good sense of what they would do in the place of those who rule. At their most politicised, the younger generation shows up to make sure everyone knows that they would like to withdraw from, rather than replace, the politics they protest against.
The incessant questioning of what the mainstream parties have done wrong misses the point. The politics that supposedly died with Wellstone was already dead. The Democrats cannot supply a solution to their own dissolution; even as more of the public seek change, the Democrats have reached their limit as a political force.
As such, the Democrats’ incapacitation only illuminates how parasitic today’s ‘youth’ activists are on the absence of politics, and how little they are willing to think by their own lights rather than react to events as they happen. They lack the courage to step out from behind political crisis and take responsibility for promoting an agenda of their own.
(1) Liberalism’s Heart: Paul Wellstone, 1944-2002, American Prospect, 29 October 2002
(2) Win One for Wellstone?, Washington Post, 30 October 2002
(3) Memorial Rally, Washington Post, 1 November 2002; Respect for the Dead, Washington Post, 2 November 2002; Making of a Minnesota Debacle, Washington Post, 31 October 2002
(4) Minnesota Governor Appoints Senator, New York Times, 5 November 2002
(5) New York Times, 3 November 2002
(6) Frisky Fritz, Slate, 30 October 2002
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