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COLUMN LEFT : Clarion Call for a New and Fair Deal : The disaffected must see that voting will change their lives.

November 18, 1990|EDMUND G. BROWN JR. | Edmund G. Brown Jr. is the state Democratic Party chairman

Defeat usually exposes the latent conflicts in any alliance and this year's failure of the Democrats to capture the governorship illustrates the rule perfectly.

The search for the guilty began in earnest even before the election was over as political insiders and campaign operatives began to vie among themselves for ways to deflect responsibility for yet another Democratic loss.

Examine with a modicum of objectivity the commentary and you will see that it boils down to the assertion that Democrats lost the governorship because they did not throw enough money and technique at the election. Conveniently left out of this analysis is the role and power of ideas and their impact on people's behavior.

Something is happening to discourage the majority of citizens from going to the polls. Despite an increase of 3 million more people eligible to vote in California since the Bradley-Deukmejian election of 1982, 200,000 fewer voters actually turned out for the 1990 general election than voted eight years earlier. The result was that Pete Wilson was able to win with slightly more than 19% of the potential electorate.

The problem for Democrats lies at a much deeper level than the number of Democratic absentee ballots collected or the scale of the get-out-the-vote drive. What we lack is a powerful message that gives voice to the frustration and anger of those citizens ripped off by the last 10 years of Republican rule.

Teachers, policemen, office workers, truck drivers, single mothers, college students--there are millions in California who have suffered under the arrogant and self-serving policies of Reagan, Bush, Deukmejian and their ally, Pete Wilson.

Republican analyst Kevin Phillips has pointed out what has been known all along. The poor are getting poorer, the rich are getting richer and the middle class face a continuing decline in their standard of living for the first time since the Great Depression. Specifically, Phillips notes that between 1977 and 1988, 80% of U.S. families experienced a decline in their incomes while the top 5% increased theirs 23.4% and the top 1% a staggering 49.8%.

Just look around California--millions of decent people have been turned into criminals because they must drive their cars but cannot afford the car insurance premiums the state requires them to buy. Visit public universities and see foreign students filling the majority of places in graduate science classes because California has not provided a first-class education to its own students. Consider the number of young couples who cannot afford to buy a house. Walk through the hospitals where thousands of babies are born already addicted to narcotics. Read the latest EPA reports on the millions of pounds of toxics dumped each day into our air, water and land.

The problem for Democrats cannot be simply a lack of campaign money--tens of millions were spent by Democrats for our statewide candidates and ballot measures. No, what happened on Election Day is that millions of California citizens were unconvinced that their lives would be changed by the outcome and chose not to vote.

The statistics demonstrate that the composition of the Republican Party has shifted to a governing core of upper-income citizens who are getting the benefits of deregulation and national and state tax policy. This favored minority is now voting in significantly higher numbers than their percentage in the population.

The Democratic Party, on the other hand, is increasingly made up of those who have not benefited and have seen their prospects in life deteriorate. These are the citizens who are losing hope and increasingly turning away from elections. As long as Democratic leaders fail to come to grips with this widespread and persistent voter abstention we will continue losing elections. And even if we should win we will not be able to govern effectively in the interests of those constituencies traditional to the Democratic Party.

The campaign debate is increasingly a narrow discussion pegged to a shrinking electorate of older and higher-income conservatives. In this political universe, the road maps followed by business Democrats the last 10 years have led nowhere.

We must mobilize those disaffected citizens by taking their lives seriously and demanding that government respond to their legitimate needs. This requires nothing less than a full-scale liberal agenda with an increased role for the public sector and the return of the progressive income tax. It also requires substantial campaign reform and strengthening of political parties. The influence of special interests will be counteracted only when state and federal law empowers political parties to hold their candidates accountable.

In short, we have to look less to campaign tactics and more to the philosophy of Roosevelt and Truman, which was based on the idea of a new and fair deal for every American.

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