What's Next?

This time there are no excuses -- no thwarted popular majority, no fatal butterfly ballots or hanging chads, no renegade Supreme Court decision, no Nader factor. This was a defeat, pure and simple -- not a landslide, not an unambiguous mandate for the policies of the Bush administration, but unmistakably a defeat. So where do Democrats, and liberal-progressive Democrats in particular, go from here?

It will be tempting, as it always is, to blame the candidate and the campaign. John Kerry was never anyone's idea of a perfect candidate. Yet he helped unite Democrats in a way they have not been united in a generation, raised more money than any Democrat has ever raised, campaigned with extraordinary energy and commitment, bested the president in three debates, attacked the policies of the administration sharply and forthrightly, mobilized the party's base successfully, and received 4 million more votes than Al Gore did in 2000. Perhaps a candidate with greater political skills might have done better, but no such candidate was clearly visible in this race. Democrats would be making a serious mistake if they concluded that their only problem, or even their principal problem, was their choice of a candidate.

And in any event, the presidency is not the most difficult challenge. True, Republicans have won five of the last seven presidential elections. But think how little it would have taken for that figure to be three out of seven (if Gore had won in 2000 -- as many believe he actually did -- and had won re-election in 2004 with the same post–September 11 strength from which George W. Bush profited). The average popular vote of the seven winners since 1980 -- even including Ronald Reagan's 59-percent landslide in 1984 -- is a little more than 50 percent. A few hundred thousand votes difference in Ohio this year would have given Kerry a victory (albeit one in which he, like Bush in 2000, would have lost the popular vote). So it's not hard to imagine centrist Democrats winning presidential elections in the future, even in four years, if the Republicans are unsuccessful or unlucky or both.

The greater challenge is to reverse the erosion of Democratic strength in Congress. This will be particularly difficult in the Senate. More than half the states are securely Republican, many of them small in population, collectively without enough electoral votes to produce a Republican presidential victory but all of them, of course, with two Senate seats. Democrats do control some Senate seats in the red states, just as Republicans control some in the blue ones. But Republicans have steadily increased their control over southern and western Senate seats, leaving the Democrats with a substantial structural disadvantage. Republican control of so many states also means that when congressional districts are reconfigured, Democrats will find themselves further disadvantaged -- as they were this year in Texas after the Tom DeLay–driven, off-cycle reapportionment. If the most Democrats can hope for is an occasional Democratic president facing a consistently conservative Republican Congress, the future of progressive or liberal hopes is grim, indeed.

The most sobering fact about the 2004 election is that Democrats did not profit from the significant rise in voter turnout. It has long been an article of faith among Democrats that increasing the turnout would help their candidate. But that was not the case this year. Bush drew 9 million more voters than he received in 2000, an 18-percent increase, far overshadowing Kerry's 8-percent increase over Gore. That same increase in Republican turnout contributed to the party's larger-than-expected gains in Congress. Even among first-time voters, expected to be a major source of Democratic strength, Kerry won only a modest majority. It's hard to imagine voter turnout growing much above the 59 percent we saw this year. Mobilizing the base did not produce victory. So for Democrats, the only real option now is to expand their base, in part by converting Republican voters into Democratic ones.

This is precisely the reverse of the task the right faced in 1964, in the aftermath of Barry Goldwater's overwhelming defeat and the rout of Republicans in Congress. For the Democrats to rebuild as the Republicans once did will require the same things that helped launch the rise of the right 40 years ago: commitment, imagination, hard work, and confidence in the importance of their task. Progressive forces have much less ground to make up than conservatives did when they began. But they cannot expect to make up that ground simply by waiting for the Republicans to fail, or for demographic trends to change the electorate in their favor, or for a charismatic candidate to emerge. They should, rather, try to emulate, at least in some ways, the great success of the right in turning itself from a frail “remnant” (as some conservatives liked to call themselves in the 1950s) into a mighty force that now dominates American politics.


The rise of the right began not so much with ideas or candidates or popular support as with infrastructure. Within months of the 1964 election, work was already under way. Richard Viguerie began constructing a vast mailing list of conservative donors from a list of 12,000 Goldwater contributors and expanded from there to more than 4 million contributors and 15 million names by the mid-1970s. Conservative campaigns had for many years been less well-funded and less well-organized than those of their rivals. In most recent elections, they have been better funded and better organized.

The right has constructed an intellectual infrastructure as well. It has created think tanks -- The Heritage Foundation; the Hoover Institution; the Cato, Hudson, Manhattan, and American Enterprise institutes; and many others -- that over time became well-endowed with money, strategies, and tactics for the war of ideas. The Federalist Society has spent years grooming aspiring lawyers to become judges. Conservatives have created their own media -- not just the small political magazines that both the left and the right have had for years but talk radio and FOX News and the large networks of evangelical cable and radio stations. The right has produced a stable of conservative journalists and pundits, who increasingly dominate political talk shows. This infrastructure operates with remarkable coordination and discipline. Those who have attended Grover Norquist's weekly breakfasts, which fill a large hotel ballroom in Washington, have been struck by how effective the meetings are in shaping a message that many very different groups then consistently deliver.

That infrastructure has now spread into Congress. Beginning in 1993, congressional Republicans became united in their effort to ensure the failure of the Clinton presidency. There was not a single Republican vote for Bill Clinton's tax increase that year. The filibuster, a tactic party leaders had seldom used in the past, became a routine tool of derailing any legislation Republicans did not like. The impeachment drive in 1998–99 was almost wholly partisan. Virtually no Democrats supported it. Republicans have abandoned bipartisanship as either a goal or a value. This exceptional party unity has essentially removed the Senate and the House as the checks and balances the Constitution envisioned -- except to the degree that the Democratic minority can at times derail conservative efforts. Years of Republican judicial appointments have made a large proportion of the federal judiciary reliable partners of the right as well.

And conservatives have been astoundingly effective in recent years in the mechanics of turning out their voters. They have mobilized churches and community centers and retirement homes and other institutions through which friends and neighbors bring other friends and neighbors to the polls -- as opposed to, say, anonymous college students calling Democratic voters and offering them a ride. Democrats bring voters to the polls by the carful, Republicans by the busload.

Progressives used to have an infrastructure, too: urban machines, labor unions, networks of intellectuals and university professors who provided a reliable source of ideas. But urban machines have disappeared, labor unions have declined, and the number of professors and intellectuals available for political duty has dwindled.

Liberals need to build a new infrastructure. They have already made a start. This magazine, founded 15 years ago to bring the world of ideas into progressive public discourse in much the same way that The Public Interest had done for the right, is one example of that effort. There are new progressive think tanks (John Podesta's Center for American Progress, for example) and older progressive foundations that have become more energized (such as The Century Foundation, whose board, I should disclose, I chair). Political organizations committed to Democratic and progressive goals have become significant forces in campaigns and elsewhere: MoveOn.org, which helped mobilize hundreds of thousands of people to increase turnout on election day; NARAL Pro-Choice America, which has helped make women's choice a winning issue in much of the country; the American Constitution Society, formed to offer an alternative to the Federalist Society; and others. Democrats, largely thanks to Howard Dean, learned to use the Internet earlier and more effectively than the Republicans. And Air America has begun to offer a challenge to right-wing radio.

But progressives still have a long way to go to catch up in the number, size, and resources of their institutions. Building such institutions is an essential part of the task of revival. Without them, the Democrats will remain at a significant disadvantage.


The greatest success of the modern right has been transforming conservatism into a populist phenomenon, drawing heavily from the lower middle class, the working class, and, perhaps above all, the once-Democratic South. The greatest dilemma Democrats face is how to win a significant number of those voters back. To do so, Democrats need to turn much of their attention away from culture and back toward class.

That was Franklin Delano Roosevelt's triumphant strategy in the 1930s, much aided, of course, by the Great Depression. In the 1920s, the Democratic Party had torn itself apart debating cultural issues that divided its diverse constituencies. Battles over prohibition, immigration, the Ku Klux Klan, and other explosive questions paralyzed the party (producing the famous deadlock at the 1924 Democratic convention, in which it took 103 ballots to produce a candidate with no hope of winning). But even before the Depression began, Roosevelt was thinking about how to escape these divisive issues and turn the party to questions that would cross regional and cultural boundaries. Roosevelt won two landslide victories -- with huge Democratic majorities in Congress -- by talking not about culture but about class. The New Deal coalition was united by shared economic interests, shared suspicion of corporate power, and shared commitment to aggressive government efforts to improve the lives of ordinary people. At times, Roosevelt used a language of class conflict in a manner almost without precedent in the history of the presidency. “We have earned the hatred of entrenched greed,” he said in his 1936 State of the Union address. “They seek the restoration of their selfish power. … Give them their way and they will take the course of every autocracy of the past -- power for themselves, enslavement for the public.”

No one should wish for today's Democratic Party to adopt such language or to portray itself as the adversary of the corporate world. Nor should anyone wish for a government that ignores racial justice, as the New Deal did. That would be both bad politics and bad policy, as it was to some degree even for Roosevelt. But Democrats today need to have a clear economic message to reach those who were known in the 1930s as “the common man.” Bill Clinton was most successful when he was identifying with the plight of lower-middle-class and working-class people caught in a painful economic transition. John Kerry, perhaps less credibly, tried to use those issues as well, as did Al Gore in 2000. That both men failed to win does not discredit the value of the effort; if anything, it suggests that the efforts have not been strenuous enough.

It will not be easy to wean working-class Republicans from the cultural resentments that have displaced their economic resentments -- nor, for that matter, to wean some Democrats themselves from their preoccupation with culture wars and identity politics. Both parties have been complicit in ignoring and obscuring the terrible impact on the social fabric of the growing inequality of the last 30 years. Both have paid too little attention to the erosion of the many protections that once provided a level of security for working people. The right has done so by choice, the left by inadvertence. But the past notwithstanding, there is an opportunity for Democrats and progressives to revive such issues as health care, the minimum wage, corporate malfeasance, workers' rights and workers' safety, and other areas of economic security more emphatically and successfully than they have done in recent years.


Re-engaging with issues of class and power is a risky strategy. It's certain to evoke accusations of “class warfare” and “demagoguery” from the right, and from some centrist Democrats. It's also unlikely by itself to reverse the party's fortunes unless progressives can come to terms with cultural issues.

How should progressives respond when they discover that many, perhaps most, Americans strongly oppose some of the values in which they deeply believe? How should they answer those, even within their own ranks, who claim that it is a grave political error to support the rights of gays and lesbians, protect women's access to legal abortion, believe in the immorality of the death penalty, oppose the unregulated sale of weapons, resist the intrusion of religion into politics and government, and defend affirmative action? There may be room for pragmatic compromise on some of these issues, but only up to a point. To jettison deep commitments for political advantage is an unworthy way to gain office. The Democratic Party paid a huge political price in the 1960s and '70s for supporting the civil-rights movement, a price it is still paying. But no one, I hope, would argue that Democrats should not have done so.

I would like to think, however, that the power of “moral values” is not permanently wedded to a single set of issues and prejudices; that it is, rather, closely connected with a perception of principled conviction and commitment. President Bush gained many votes on the margins from outlawing late-term abortions, lobbying for a constitutional prohibition against gay marriage, and calling for “faith-based initiatives.” But I suspect he gained many more votes by conveying an image of certitude and self-assurance rooted in moral and spiritual values. Kerry recognized this as a problem for Democrats early in his campaign and began talking extensively, if not often convincingly, about “values.” His mistake was not in raising the issue but in failing to define his own relationship to it. Indeed, one of his greatest weaknesses in the campaign was his image as a man without deep conviction, a “flip-flopper.” This hurt him not only among people who said they cared about “moral values” but among those who were principally concerned with fighting terrorism, who also voted overwhelmingly for Bush. Kerry and the Democrats seemed to such voters to lack the courage and moral fiber desired in a leader.

Many have argued that Bush's advantage on this issue can be explained in large part by his open identification with Christian faith. More than any previous president, Bush has been exceedingly open about his religiosity and has shown no reluctance to invoke his own evangelical beliefs, and his claim of a personal rebirth in faith, in explaining himself to the nation. Kerry is an active Catholic who reportedly wears a crucifix and regularly attends Mass, but he lost the Catholic vote and seemed to many Americans to be without religious affiliation of any kind.

Twenty-three percent of voters this year identified themselves as white evangelical or born-again Christians. Seventy-eight percent of those voted for Bush. White evangelicals have been voting Republican for years. Nevertheless, many progressives have been especially alarmed by the growing size and activism of this group in the electorate, and by what they fear is the close-minded anti-intellectualism it represents. It is not comforting to think of voters making decisions in response to what they consider commands from the Bible or direct instructions from God, and it is undoubtedly the case that a significant group of Christians does just that. But most evangelicals are not so dogmatic. They find in their faith not just a set of beliefs but a source of personal stability and safety. Their attraction to Bush is, I suspect, as much a result of his image of certitude as it is of his religious beliefs.

Whatever role religion may have played in the 2004 religion, there is no compelling reason to believe that deep and public faith is a necessary ingredient of political success. Reagan's enormous, if erratic, popularity owed little to his faint public religiosity and much to the widespread belief that he was a strong, principled leader with deep convictions. FDR, as beloved and admired a president among ordinary Americans as we have had in our history, won the loyalty of his following with an image of strength and commitment largely unconnected to faith. The claim that Democrats cannot hope to revive without identifying more closely with Christianity is not supported even by our relatively recent history. There are important moral values that exist independent of religion; sources of commitment other than spiritual; personal strength not derived from faith.

But this does not mean that progressives should shun religion, either. Just as there are sources of conservative conviction in religion, so are there sources of progressive commitment to helping the poor, protecting the earth, working for peace. There is no reason not to recognize and respect them. Nor should progressive politicians who have a grounding in faith hide it from voters. The separation of church and state is a profoundly important principle of American government, a principle that the Bush administration has often sought to undermine. But protecting that separation does not require that religion be hidden from view and banished from public discourse. Least of all does it suggest that progressives should look with fear, mistrust, or scorn on the millions of Americans to whom religious faith is a fundamental part of self-identification. Clinton was entirely comfortable in religious settings -- not just black churches, where he was famously beloved, but also in the enormous white Pentecostal churches of the South, where he was a frequent visitor. It would be hard to imagine Kerry fitting comfortably into such settings, but that does not mean future candidates could not do better.


To many Americans, and to even more people around the world, the most dangerous and frightening aspect of the Bush administration has been its handling of the nation's response to terrorism and its international relations more generally. The abrogation of international agreements, the contempt for international organizations, and the brusque dismissal of allies all preceded September 11. We now know that plans for an invasion of Iraq did as well. The war on terrorism has been handled with a striking incompetence that has alarmed no one more than those most deeply committed to it. The war in Iraq, reviled by many Americans and most of the world even before it began, has proceeded with, if anything, even greater incompetence than the war on terrorism. Of all the areas in which Bush seemed most vulnerable, this surely was one of the greatest. Of all the issues that led progressives to wonder how Bush could possibly win, this was probably the most powerful.

Kerry's response to Bush on issues of foreign policy was sensible and, to most progressives, reasonably persuasive. Americans were misled into the war in Iraq. The war is a disastrous stalemate. Our alliances are in tatters. And the war on terrorism remains largely unfought. A Democratic administration would work to disengage responsibly from Iraq, re-engage allies, and fight the war on terrorism in a more serious way. Why did this argument have so little traction with voters?

The Bush administration was perhaps more clever than we realized. A fight against terrorist groups -- a difficult, shadowy, complicated effort with few assurances of success -- would have no public face capable of providing a political advantage. Overthrowing a state is something the U.S. military knows how to do and something that fits more comfortably in most people's image of war. The war in Iraq has not proceeded well, to put it mildly; but it nevertheless gave some credibility to the administration's effort to portray itself as having the strength and resolve necessary for leadership in a dangerous world. Bush's flyboy appearance on the deck of an aircraft carrier to celebrate a “mission accomplished” was widely and justly ridiculed, but the image of a virile warrior in the end probably outweighed the irony of his false claims of success.

Not since John F. Kennedy have the Democrats been able to produce a plausible military leader. Jimmy Carter was a graduate of the Naval Academy, but he appeared hapless and ineffectual when confronted with a military challenge (most notably through the failed helicopter raid to rescue the Iranian hostages in 1980). Clinton waged a series of successful military campaigns without ever overcoming the image pinned on him in 1992 as a draft evader. Gore and Kerry, both Vietnam veterans, failed to compete as military leaders with a man who had chosen not to serve in Vietnam and had not even fulfilled his minimal obligations as a specially privileged member of the Texas National Guard. It is ironic, perhaps, that the most plausible military leader of the two decades before Bush's presidency was Reagan, who also missed his generation's war but who knew how to act like a man who understood battle.

Unspoken but clearly felt in the comparisons between Democrats and Republicans in recent decades has been a particular conception of masculinity and patriotism. Kerry's impressive war record wilted quickly in the face of withering attacks from the Swift-boat avengers, but also in the face of the self-confident, masculine swagger that seems to be a natural part of the president's demeanor. Clearing brush in Crawford beats windsurfing in Nantucket any day. A key to Bush's victory is that he outpolled Kerry by 11 percent among men (and by a higher percentage than that among white men), while losing by a small margin among women.

Democrats have also had difficulty identifying with patriotism. Despite decades of efforts to flood the party's conventions with flags and patriotic music, Democrats are still associated in many minds with the anti-war movement and the other protests of the 1960s, and of course they now lead the anti-war movement of the early 21st century. Progressives rightly argue that opposing a mistaken and disastrous war is itself a patriotic act. But they must find a better way to have both a responsible foreign and military policy and a comfortable relationship with military culture and national pride.

This is a particular problem in the region with which Democrats most urgently need to reconnect: the American South. It is the area of the United States in which the military is most visible and revered; in which the culture of masculinity is perhaps the strongest; in which a nationalistic patriotism is especially powerful. Bush has a terrible record of support for U.S. military forces, but he is wholly at ease on military bases -- just as he is at ease at NASCAR races, football games, and other masculine activities. Democrats need to find a way to reconnect with that world, not by catering to its prejudices but by learning to respect its public culture and to demonstrate comfort with it.

The rebuilding of the Democratic Party, and of a progressive coalition capable of supporting and guiding it, will be the work of years, perhaps even decades. There will be victories along the way, to be sure, and many opportunities for progress. But reconstructing a majority coalition capable of dominating the future in the way the old New Deal coalition dominated the past will be no easy task. It took conservatives a generation to rise from the rubble of 1964 into their present commanding position, and even now their grip on power is not entirely secure. Democrats cannot assume that they will rebuild themselves any more quickly. But the task is far from hopeless. In the meantime, there is the challenge of opposition -- the task of keeping alive an alternative vision of what America is and can be; of fighting honorably but doggedly against the most dangerous goals of the right; and of never, never giving up.

Alan Brinkley is provost and Allan Nevins Professor of History at Columbia University.