The Politics of Evasion: Democrats and the Presidency

By and / 1.1.2010

The Democratic Party’s 1988 presidential defeat demonstrated that the party’s problems would not disappear, as many had hoped, once Ronald Reagan left the White House. Without a charismatic president to blame for their ills, Democrats must now come face to face with reality: too many Americans have come to see the party as inattentive to their economic interests, indifferent if not hostile to their moral sentiments and ineffective in defense of their national security.

Nor have matters improved for Democrats since the presidential election. On a variety of measures, from party identification to confidence in dealing with the economy and national security, the Democratic Party has experienced a dramatic loss of confidence among voters. A recent survey shows that only 57 percent of Democrats have a favorable image of their own party.

Democrats have ignored their fundamental problems. Instead of facing reality they have embraced the politics of evasion. They have focused on fundraising and technology, media and momentum, personality and tactics. Worse, they have manufactured excuses for their presidential disasters — excuses built on faulty data and false assumptions, excuses designed to avoid tough questions. In place of reality they have offered wishful thinking; in place of analysis, myth.

This systematic denial of reality — the politics of evasion — continues unabated today, years after the collapse of the liberal majority and the New Deal alignment. Its central purpose is the avoidance of meaningful change. It reflects the convictions of groups who believed that it is somehow immoral for a political party to pay attention to public opinion. It reflects the interests of those who would rather be the majority in a minority party than risk being the minority in a majority party.

This paper is an exploration of three pervasive themes in the politics of evasion. The first is the belief that Democrats have failed because they have strayed from the true and pure faith of their ancestors — we call this the myth of Liberal Fundamentalism. The second is the belief that Democrats need not alter public perceptions of their party but can regain the presidency by getting current nonparticipants to vote — we call this the Myth of Mobilization. The third is the belief that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the Democratic Party: there is no realignment going on, and the proof is that Democrats still control the majority of offices below the presidency. We call this the Myth of the Congressional Bastion.

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