What makes the Democrats tick? Surely, you'll say, it's the obvious thing -- the thing that drives any political party: the desire to take power.
I don't think so. Oh, they'd love to wield power if it fell into their laps -- as they hope it will do next month, thanks to the almost incredible blundering of the other side. And if there were some risk-free way of gaining power -- some Big Red Button they could push -- of course they'd push it.
But these are daydreams. The real, workaday, nine-to-five job of any Democrat is to hold on to what he's got, and risk it as little as possible. And I think that once we really take this idea in, it has some pretty important implications.
The conventional poli-sci picture of parties as vote-maximizing enterprises is deeply rooted in our brains. Reportage on what passes for "politics" in this country concentrates on who's getting votes and how they're getting 'em. Politics seems to be as much about votes as basketball is about baskets.
The difference, of course, is that in basketball, if you lose, you lose. But in our Byzantine, oligarchic political system, the losing party doesn't really lose -- and in fact, even the losing candidates often enough don't really lose either. They may have to play second fiddle for a while, but they're still in the orchestra -- and still getting paid, one way or another. The losing party may have to content itself with a smaller share of the goodies, and less distinguished tables in their favorite restaurants, but they're still in the game. Losing candidates may have to drop back to a cushy civilian job provided by some corporate patron -- don't throw me in that briar patch, Brer Fox -- or, horrors, serve a term in a think tank. But they're still employed.
They'd rather be congressmen, or senators, of course -- and once they become congressmen, or senators, or governors, or state legislators, or mayors, they'll do almost anything to stay in office.
In other words, they're structurally risk-averse. They won't bet their jobs on a strategy that might help the party gain power. Party, schmarty -- as long as the party stands behind me, I could care less about a majority in the House. And since the party's General Will is little more than the arithmetic sum of these individual wills, then the party's drive for power is feeble at best. The party is its individual time-serving careerists writ large, a Leviathan aggregated from a myriad of nonentities, like Hobbes' famous allegory.
If the party were about taking power, you'd think they would figure out that what they're doing is not working -- that they're failures. But they don't see it in that light. Every incumbent occupies his seat because his strategy worked for him; every incumbent is in fact a success story, and you don't change a successful formula.
That's why the only way to make them change is to make the strategy stop working. As long as they get a pellet when they press the triangulation lever, they'll keep pressing it. If they get an electric shock instead, they'll stop. A donkey is at least as smart as a lab rat.
Which brings me to my point: defeat is the only electric shock that will get the donkey's attention. And I mean defeat in the general election, caused by a "spoiler" third party, which is the only effectual kind.
Primary defeats, like Lieberman's, while satisfying, are more difficult to accomplish. Typically there is only one "progressive" challenger, so it's a head-to-head race -- no three-way splits. And then, of course, the only people who come out for primaries are the party faithful. And usually, the challenger is not a millionaire like Ned Lamont.
Moreover, even when primary challenges are successful, they don't necessarily succeed, as in the Connecticut debacle, where in spite of his primary defeat, Lieberman appears to be on his way back to Washington.
But when a third party really makes a long-standing party strategy stop working, then something has got to give.
Consider the fate of New York state's Republican party:
The seeds of the Republicans' current malaise were sown under [governor Nelson] Rockefeller, observers say. With Tammany's demise, state politics shifted from issues of reform versus machine to a more ideological focus. Rockefeller's brand of liberal Republicanism, increasingly out of step with a national party turning more conservative, began drawing more criticism even in New York.
The tensions boiled over in 1970, when Republican U.S. Senator Charles Goodell, appointed by Rockefeller after the assassination of Democrat Robert F. Kennedy, was defeated by James Buckley, who ran on the third-party Conservative ticket....
Since 1974, a year after Rockefeller left Albany, no Republican has won statewide without the support of the tiny Conservative Party, whose power lies in its ability to split the conservative vote if Republicans nominate someone not to its liking.
Now why can't we
As I've said before, I personally would prefer to see the Democratic Party vanish as an institution. But even if you're not willing to go quite that far -- if your goal is to turn the Democratic Party into a real, "progressive" party, rather than to destroy it -- then your immediate strategy has to be the same as mine. You've got to shock the donkey, not reward it for plodding on in its well-trodden path.