Ever since the recent election there has been hand-wringing and recrimination on the Democratic side. They need to move to the center. They need bold new themes. They don't have a clear agenda. Their agenda is too cautious. It is too far left.
The Democrats were indeed a sorry sight, with their calcified issues - Social Security, prescription drugs - and tired scripts produced by battle-weary political consultants.
But lost in the commotion is that the Democrats are not alone. The Republican agenda is tired, too. Had the White House not managed to morph Osama bin Laden into Saddam Hussein, the recriminations today might easily be on the Republican side.
Their old war horse of tax cuts, for example, does not have many miles left. Budget deficits loom, and the administration has an expensive war to fight, big-ticket weapons to buy, a big new Homeland Security Department to fund, and nation-building in the Middle East to boot. The last time the US tried to fight a war without paying the price - i.e. Vietnam - the economic effects were not good.
Deregulation and privatization have lost their bloom as well. The Wall Street accounting scandals, and the criminal manipulations of the California energy market, have tarnished the assumption that corporations, left to their own devices, always work for the public good. Most Americans are not eager to entrust their Social Security to these folks. At the same time, it will be hard for Republicans to strike up the old theme of getting government out of our lives, now that they have embarked upon a massive intrusion of government into our lives, in the form of a new Homeland Security department and related surveillance and spying on the American public.
It's not just a Democratic agenda that is in trouble. We are witnessing the end of an entire political cosmology, the one that has defined politics in this country for the past century or more. It has been a Manichean struggle between the government on the one hand and the market on the other. Republicans have rooted for the corporations, while Democrats have been more inclined to use the state. Increasingly, reality does not fit the neat divide.
For one thing, the corporate marketplace and the government are fast becoming the same thing. Whatever one thinks about the prevailing version of the global economy, for example, it is a joint production of governments and corporations. Government officials sit at the negotiating tables while lobbyists whisper in their ears. Or take genetic engineering, which has caused so much concern around the world. Patent monopolies bestowed by governments and fortified by trade agreements make this emerging industry possible.
Not coincidentally, both these developments pose fundamental issues of authority and power that neither major party is willing to address. The mechanisms of the global economy - in particular the World Trade Organization - give unelected bureaucrats the power to veto laws that Americans enact through their own democracy. Genetic engineering gives private companies what one writer called a "padlock on the food chain." When farmers have to pay royalties to a corporation just to plant a seed - think about that word, royalties - then biological serfdom is not too strong a term.
Increasingly, the problems that we face simply do not parse out upon a neat left/right, government/market grid. Take prescription drugs. Democrats want Medicare to ensure prescription drugs for seniors, while Republicans want private insurance companies to do it. That's the old script. But don't we need to ask a more basic question - namely, whether it is good for a society to become so drug dependent in the first place? Is it really good that an entire industry seeks to redefine every state and stage of human experience - shyness, restlessness in children, etc. - as a pathology, and thus an occasion for a drug?
Or take the schools. Republicans favor private schools and vouchers, Democrats favor the public schools. The old cosmology again. Meanwhile, the classrooms of both private and public schools are filling up with advertising for junk foods and expensive sneakers. For that matter all of life is filling up with ads - they are found even on police cars. What good does it do to try to teach values in the schools, when a commercial propaganda machine is drowning out that teaching with nonstop importunings to selfishness, hedonism, violence, and promiscuity?
Such developments are evidence of a fundamental shift that neither party wants to acknowledge. For the past century, the Holy Grail of American politics has been growth. Democrats have wanted to use government to spread the growth around, while Republicans have wanted to leave it be. But both have sought growth above all else. Yet increasingly, the particulars of growth are at odds with the gauzy abstraction. When growth means more huckstering to kids, more porn and pills, more noise and congestion and a thousand other things, then it's time for another look.
When reality no longer is in sync with the abstractions that supposedly describe it, it is a sign of a belief system in terminal decline. Republicans say let the market do it. Democrats say use the government to make sure everybody gets it. But more and more, the question is whether we ought to do it in the first place.
• Jonathan Rowe is a fellow at the Tomales Bay Institute, and a former Monitor staff writer.