I came out of the Democratic Convention sensing that the leadership is missing a golden opportunity to transform the oldest party in the world, the peoples party of Thomas Jefferson, and direct the energy of its rank and file members towards a fundamental rethinking of the role of government. There has seldom been such a yearning for change in a political organization, such a healthy mistrust of the claims of government officials and of the power of the state in matters of life and death. Instead we see a suffocating conformity among its leaders to support the status quo, the fear of carving out a new identity based on the truth, and the rejection of the anti-authoritarian, anti-war grassroots revolt that could give the party a new sense of purpose.
At a time when official misrepresentations and some Big Brother attitudes on the part of the authorities have generated a popular reaction against authority, an opportunity has arisen to reestablish basic principles that limit the sphere of the state. However, to judge by a convention single-mindedly bent on spellbinding the public into thinking that Democrats are more Republican than the Republicans, the party in opposition might be missing the chance to reform the political culture.
In conversations with delegates, a few Congressmen, activists and some of Mr. Kerrys former rivals, I sensed a mood in favor of limiting the authority of the state: be it the misuse of the military, confrontational diplomacy, fiscal profligacy in the name of patriotism or restrictions on a persons power over his or her life, body and conscience.
No, this does not mean the Democratic masses have suddenly become libertarian. They maintain some ad-hoc idealism regarding public services and still believe the government, rather than voluntary cooperation, is the means to empower communities. But, because of Iraq, the USA PATRIOT Act, and the conservative crusades against moral diversity in society, there is a growing intuition about the responsibility of the individual and the danger of intrusive power. Barack Obama, the would-be Senator from Illinois, perhaps hinted at this in his Convention address when he said: The people I meet in small towns dont expect the government to solve all their problems...people will tell you they dont want their tax money wasted by a welfare agency or the Pentagon...folks tell you that government alone cant teach kids to learn.
An enlightened leadership might have turned these instincts into a force for change. Instead, the bureaucratic mind has prevailed. The party platform and the speeches were filled with promises to create new agencies, expand old ones and improve existing services, whether by giving birth to an international High Commission for Iraq, enlarging the U.S.s active duty forces, having government invest in technology, science and alternative sources of energy, or federalizing parts of Medicaid. The point here is not the arithmetic of all this at a time when the fiscal deficit is around $500 billion, or that Mr. Kerry is at the same time committed to keeping the tax cuts for everyone who makes under $200,000 a year. The deeper problem has to do with the failure to see that time has proven wrong the premises on which many of the great government progams and functions were built (a reason, incidentally, why every four years both campaigns promise an overhaul of most government agencies and programs).
One area in which I got some first-hand experience of the unwillingness to rethink old premises is the policy towards Latin America. I spoke to some of the people who would deal with that area in a new Democratic Administration. Candidate Kerry is getting much advice on foreign policy issues from Rand Beers, a Vietnam veteran who has long served in the National Security Council in both Republican and Democratic Administrations, and was a key player in Plan Colombia, the failed policy of massive military aid that has gained few friends in Latin America and done little to undermine the flow of narcotics. His personal merits are not in question. But it seems that a future Democratic Administration might be hostage to the bureaucratic mind.
So, is all hope lost? No. A transformation of the way politics is conducted at the grassroots level has taken place of late, thanks to the emergence of independent organizations and IT-savvy activists who have revolted against the status quo from outside the traditional channels of the Democratc Party. Those 527s, as they are called after the relevant section of the tax code, that, thanks to the failure of the McCain-Feingold finance law to regulate them, have raised millions. Not all of them make sense, but their presence has given expression to a movement against official lies and invasive authority. Should the bureaucratic mind come to dominate a hypothetical Democratic Administration, they are sure to go back to the streets, the Web and the movie screens, and might help restrain it.