Democratic Party: born May 13, 1792; place of birth, Virginia; parent, Thomas Jefferson. Died sometime during the 1980s, aged almost 200.
The exact time of death is difficult to establish since, in defiance of all previously known natural laws, the outward body continues to thrive, masking the fact that the spirit, the animating flame of purpose and principle, has expired.
The departure of Reps. Jim Wright and Tony Coelho are but trivial outward signs, evidentiary shreds, of a moribund state that had deteriorated for over a decade. Political scandal and retribution are as old as the republic, and both major parties have survived, even flourished, under far more brutal and egregious blows. It has been a far more profound and progressive debilitation that has led toward the end.
But first some explanations. After all, how can one speak of the extinction of a political organization that "controls" both houses of Congress, a number of governorships and state legislatures? Only by understanding that a political party is something more than a mechanism that offers ambitious individuals access to public office. By that criterion, the Democratic Party does fairly well.
But merely winning elections is neither justification nor meaning of a political party. A great political party, Woodrow Wilson wrote, "must have a great purpose."
Although the Democratic Party has always contained a varied and ample coalition of beliefs, it has, for the most part, represented those excluded from the ranks of unearned privilege and the power of concentrated wealth. Describing his new party, Jefferson said that whereas his opponent felt government should be run for the people by the aristocracy, he wished a government for the people run by the people.
The Democrats have occasionally deviated from that principle, but--with the lone exception of Lincoln--the Democratic Party has been the principal engine of change designed to enhance the opportunity of "ordinary" men and women. The most enlightened and progressive forces of economic democracy have found their natural home and their source of power in the Democratic Party.
But that is no longer true. In fact, the great majority of Americans--not merely the voiceless and impotent poor--have been excluded from the concerns of both major parties, and thus effectively disenfranchised. And they know it, which is why so many of them no longer even participate in an electoral process that--whomever wins--will not govern in their interest.
The so-called "Reagan Revolution" brought about the most grotesquely unjust distribution of income and opportunity in modern history. The figures to document this reality have been widely printed and circulated. It is not only the poor who have gotten poorer; but the great middle-class--the backbone of American society--have seen their stake in America dwindle, their standard of living diminished.
These "facts" are now so commonly admitted as to have become cliches. Less remarked is the fact that the Democratic leaders acquiesce in the legislation and executive acts that reverse the progress of generations. The destruction of the environment, the deepening of poverty, the creation of a permanent underclass were a collaborative effort of officials from both parties.
One would have expected the Democrats--who possessed, still possess, considerable authority in the federal government--to have conducted a fierce and clamorous battle against these trends. Instead there was little more than silence from those who have found it more profitable--financially and politically--to unite with their political adversaries and with the large economic interests that have gained a powerful hold over government.
Reagan is gone, but the silent collaboration continues. Although the Democrats have a majority in Congress they have, as a party, offered no alternative budget, no policy for justice in the distribution of income, no laws to rescue the environment from life-threatening decay, or no way to save the political process--democracy itself--from the swelling power of moneyed interests which is stifling the essence of American liberty.
This immense failure does not flow from some temporary defect in leadership. It has continued for a decade and shows no sign of remedy. Indeed, many of the loudest voices in the Democratic Party call for movement toward an even more "centrist" position; a euphemism for an attempt to duplicate the Republican alliance with the already powerful. And few voices are heard to defy these counselors who would distance the "party of the people," the party of "hope" even further from the immense numbers of Americans whose lives are a continual struggle to enhance their lives and the prospects for their children.
It is fruitless to ask the Democratic Party to mend its ways and restore its progressive purpose. For that party as we knew it--as Jefferson and Jackson and Roosevelt conceived and nurtured it--no longer exists. The soul has fled; only the machine remains.
Indeed, we no longer have a two-party system; no clash of competing ideologies, attitudes, beliefs. There is only one party--The Washington Party--committed to that thickly obscuring cloud of interests that swarm the streets and chambers of our capital city.
The remedy? There is only one possibility--the people, already distrustful, indeed, contemptuous of their own government, will--when the pain is great enough or injustice clear enough--take the country back. They may or may not act through the Democratic Party. It really doesn't matter. Because whatever the label, they will have to start from the beginning.