Democrats Buying Electoral Snake Oil

At some point during last year’s Presidential campaign, several donkey watchers wondered aloud how the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy became the party of Michael Moore.

This, of course, was at the height of the hype over Mr. Moore’s film, Fahrenheit 9/11, and not long after he praised the Iraqi insurgency by comparing it favorably with the Minutemen of some local renown. While some were outraged, I found it heartening that the Minutemen at least merited a positive mention among the denizens of the Moore wing of the Democratic Party. There was reason to expect otherwise, what with the Minutemen being white, rural, male gun owners. When Howard Dean, in a rare sensible moment, suggested that the Democratic Party reach out to this subspecies of the electorate, there was much gnashing of teeth and cries of ideological betrayal.

The Moore hype has come and gone, and the Democrats seem to have put some distance between themselves and their de facto spokesman in Campaign 2004. But according to a recent and frightening article in The New Republic, the party of Michael Moore may be on the verge of becoming the party of George Lakoff.

Mr. Lakoff is a professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, and were it not for the fact that this space demands 800 words, I would have been inclined to stop here, because what more do you need to know?

Actually, there’s a good deal more worth knowing, as writer Noam Scheiber demonstrated in the May 23 issue of the magazine. It’s worth knowing that top Democrats, including Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Dr. Dean and former Senator Minority Leader Tom Daschle, take the professor’s ideas very seriously. This is worth noting, because it will tend to confirm the widely held suspicion that highly placed members of the Democratic Party wouldn’t recognize the smell of fertilizer even if they were hip-deep in it.

As, apparently, they are.

We live at a time when phrases like “ward heeler” and “political boss”-generally used to disparage Democrats, since Republicans never were much for ward politics-are considered pejoratives, while the title “professor of linguistics” apparently conveys instant credibility among certain sorts of political professionals. Ward heelers and political bosses are held in bad odor among Democrats today, because they reek of yesterday’s politics. You may recall yesterday: That was when Democrats actually won Presidential elections.

In place of these ill-mannered and suspiciously ethnic types, we now have professors of linguistics like the distinguished George Lakoff, who advises Democrats that they ought to act more like nurturing parents in order to win the hearts of their children-or, in this case, their voters. A political boss or ward heeler would know what to do with an advisor who compares voters to children: Such an advisor would be dispatched to the sidewalk in Olympic-record time.

The Democrats, however, can’t seem to get enough of this sort of gibberish. Few could blame them for engaging in a bit of self-loathing after their awful record in recent years, but this is a bit extreme. Yes, Professor, tell us again why we are so miserable and how we might find success by becoming nurturing parents.

There are Democrats across the country, in City Halls and statehouses and township committees, who understand how to win elections. And yet, in their hour of need, top national Democrats feel the need to consult a Berkeley professor who, I’ll bet, has yet to carry his first nominating petition, work a phone bank or count heads at a county convention.

Of course, national elections require skills beyond those necessary to win local races. Republicans succeeded brilliantly in 1994 when they used overarching themes to turn local Congressional races into a national campaign based on national themes. And that example is instructive: The Gingrich revolution of 1994 was put in place and executed not by amateurs, but by bare-knuckled, head-counting political professionals.

Six years after that historic event, the 2000 Democratic Presidential candidate, Al Gore, had on his payroll somebody whose job was to advise him about the color of his clothes, in order that he might seem a more down-to-earth figure.

The problem with the Democratic Party, I’m convinced, is that its national leaders actually hate politics. That is, they hate the hard work of building a party from the bottom up, because so many of the party’s most prominent supporters, fund-raisers and advocates are used to dealing only with their fellow cultural elitists and socioeconomic meritocrats. They see each other at $1,000-a-plate dinners, but they’re hard to find at the $25-a-head affairs in the local V.F.W. hall.

No wonder they expect to find electoral salvation in campaign theory espoused by a professor of linguistics at Berkeley.