The disappearing Democrats

Bill Moyers asks: Where are the two-fisted, partisan street brawlers of yesteryear?

Published March 7, 2003 7:58PM (EST)

Bill Moyers, former special assistant to President Lyndon Johnson, said in a commentary Friday that the Democrats have "walked away from the politics of struggle." Below is the full text of his statement to PBS.

There was a news report in Washington this week about how Democrats and Republicans in Congress conspired to close down the investigation of an alleged abuse of power by a leading member of the House. Now we'll never know the truth of the matter. The story reminded me of a conversation I had many years ago with a constitutional scholar who said the most important function of one political party is to keep the other party honest. "No party investigates itself," he said, "so the public safety depends on each party shining the spotlight of scrutiny on the shenanigans of the other."

Once upon a time, this happened quite often. Both parties could be counted on to mock the deceit, hypocrisy, and pretensions of the opposition, while they cloaked their own vices in the warm pieties of patriotism and altruism. They also challenged one another's belief systems with the two-fisted ferocity of street brawlers. Such spirited partisanship wasn't a pretty sight for children, but it offered choices, got the public's attention, and aroused a robust and sometimes ribald participation in democracy. Politics mattered.

Things have changed. Republicans still love a good brawl - they could appreciate the movie "The Gangs of New York." Because they will claw, scratch, jam their knee to your groin and land an uppercut to the jaw after the bell has rung -- and if they don't finish the job their partisan press will do it for them: Rush Limbaugh and the Darth Vaders of talk radio; the pamphleteers at the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, and a host of publications aided by big business.

But where are the Democrats? As the Republicans were coming back from the wilderness -- lean, mean and hungry -- Democrats were busy assimilating their opponents' belief system. In no small part because they coveted the same corporate money, Democrats practically walked away from the politics of struggle, leaving millions of working people with no one to fight for them. We see the consequences all around us in what a friend of mine calls "a suffocating consensus." Even as poverty spreads, inequality grows, and our quality of life diminishes, Democrats have become the doves of class warfare.

Then there's the other war that's about to happen. Whether you are for or against it, invading Iraq is a reckless diversion of resources and a huge distraction from what ails us. But Democrats signed a blank check over to the president last fall because their leaders wanted "to move on to more important things," namely the midterm elections, which they lost anyway.

Now Democrats in Congress are so deeply divided and impotent that Ralph Nader is thinking of running again. Maybe third parties will eventually invigorate politics. But what I wouldn't give for a revival of that old-time religion, when both major parties locked horns with the devil -- that is, with each other. An Irishman once asked, "Is this a private fight or can anyone get in it?" Well, Democrats could answer that by crawling back in the ring, and duking it out. Who knows? They might even save the Republicans from themselves.

By Salon Staff

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