The nation is divided. After the last election, one party dominates the government. It has sustained its hold on the presidency and bolstered its majorities in Congress. Its newly elected president will likely appoint several justices to a closely divided Supreme Court. The situation looks bleak for the opposition, which during the campaign failed miserably to articulate what, exactly, they stood for. Their politics, scoffs one columnist, are “hardly more than an angry cry of protest against things as they are.”

But the opposition has been mobilized. The last campaign was an ugly, embittering experience, but it brought countless new soldiers into the party and into the cause. A journalist writes:

It was something more than just finding ideological soul mates. It was learning how to act: how emails got written, how doors got knocked on, how co-workers could be won over on the coffee break, how to print a bumper sticker and how to pry one off with a razor blade; how to put together a network whose force exceeded the sum of its parts by orders of magnitude; how to talk to a reporter, how to picket, and how, if need be, to infiltrate — how to make the anger boiling inside of you ennobling, productive, powerful, instead of embittering. How to feel bigger than yourself. It was something beyond the week, the year, the campaign, even the decade; it was a cause.

The election I have in mind is not the election of November 2, 2004, but the one of November 3, 1964 — when Democratic incumbent Lyndon Baines Johnson crushed his Republican challenger, Barry Goldwater. (Just to keep you on your toes, I substituted “emails” for “letters” in the quote above.) This was the pivotal election that ushered in the rise of the American conservative movement, an unlikely coalition of cultural warriors and economic elites who have dominated the nation’s politics for the last two decades.

Rick Perlstein (the journalist quoted above) chronicles the 1964 election in his book Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. Goldwater was the candidate of the Republican wing of the Republican Party. He went down in blazing defeat, but his campaign galvanized conservatives across the country. “Scratch a conservative today: a think-tank bookworm at Washington’s Heritage Foundation … a door-knocking church lady pressing pamphlets into her neighbors palms about partial-birth abortion … an organizer of a training center for aspiring conservative activists or journalists … and the story comes out,” Perlstein writes. “How it all began for them: in the Goldwater campaign.”

Past is not always prologue, but what happened then does offer Americans some idea of the possibilities for changing what is happening now. The Democratic Party lost the last election, and the defeat was devastating. Yet amid all the confident declarations of its imminent political demise — that the party is a “national party no more,” that it lacks a clear message, that it must change its values to match those of Middle America — we may lose sight of the fact that Democrats are building, as the Republicans did four decades ago, a grassroots network. This fact alone should give Democrats hope moving into the second term of a second Bush administration, even though the fight remains a long and uphill one.

The Republican revolution

Americans have forgotten how sharply political attitudes have shifted in the last half-century. In 1964, conservatives were fighting to be taken seriously in their own party. The Republicans who did win national office were largely moderates. The Republican Party’s only winning presidential candidate in three decades, Dwight Eisenhower, presided over a substantial growth in federal government programs: the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, the federal interstate highway system, the expansion of low-income housing. (He also declared his staunch support for the biggest “big government” program of all, Social Security.)

The blow dealt to conservatives by Johnson’s landslide victory left them chastened. The numbers (61 percent for Johnson, 39 percent for Goldwater) did not lie: The conservative agenda had been roundly — awesomely — rejected. A consensus had emerged, the pundits of the time said, in favor of government solutions to social and economic problems.

“By every test we have,” said presidential scholar James MacGregor Burns, “this is as surely a liberal epoch as the late 19th Century was a conservative one.”

Two years later, the Republicans seized ground in the House and Senate, and ten conservative governors were voted in. Two decades later, Ronald Reagan smothered his Democratic challenger Walter Mondale in a blanket of red, leaving only Washington D.C. and Mondale’s home state of Minnesota untouched. Three decades later, the Republicans swept into power in both houses of Congress. Four decades later, Republicans dominate all three branches of government.

The ingredients of the Republican revolution were, to some extent, the usual mix: wealthy financiers, charismatic leaders, a brain trust of conservative intellectuals. But the heart of the movement was its foot soldiers. Many had been baptized in the ruin of the Goldwater campaign; now they were raising money among their neighbors, running for local offices, and immersing themselves — with zeal and excitement — in the American political process.

In a word, they organized. “These low-budget, no-frills, volunteer driven, high-tech groups packed grassroots punch with blazing efficiency and little overhead,” writes Ralph Reed, one of the architects of the grassroots network of evangelical Christians that came to prominence in the 1980s. “Housewives at kitchen tables, home schoolers perched before personal computers, businessmen burning fax lines, and precinct canvassers identifying voters formed a grassroots network without parallel. At first few took notice of their existence, and the absence of many headline hounds in their ranks delayed their appearance onto the national political scene. Most felt uncomfortable with the limelight. They were simply citizens, parents, and taxpayers organizing others of like mind.”

Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition started off by building a grassroots presence in all 50 states. Their candidates took control of local school boards. They fought ferociously over state legislation and local ordinances. “Rather than tune the rhythm of the group to election cycles,” Reed writes in his book Politically Incorrect, “we focused on the long-term picture, assembling a permanent organization that would represent people of faith in the same way that the Chamber of Commerce represents business or the AFL-CIO represents union workers.”

Slowly, power at the grassroots translated into power in Washington. In the 1992 election, the voter turnout of self-identified, born-again evangelicals was the largest ever — an estimated 24 million, or one out of every four voters.

The cultural conservatives lost that presidential election, but they made inroads at the state and local level. What’s more, the Clinton presidency radicalized evangelicals, bringing countless new activists to the movement. It was, in Reed’s words, “a wake-up call for many churchgoing voters who had retreated from the political arena after the Reagan years.”

The liberal president won a second term, but the cultural conservatives regrouped in larger numbers. They were the troops who voted George W. Bush into office in 2000. They were the ones who stormed the polls in 2004, again in record numbers, to keep Bush in the White House and keep alive the dream — afloat on the backs of 11 state ballot measures — that gay marriage would be outlawed across the land.

They succeeded on both counts.

A battle lost, a war begun

On the other side of the aisle, the question is, “What went wrong?” Much was made of Howard Dean’s grassroots-based, Internet-powered campaign that brought legions of young people into politics. Then the candidate stumbled in the primaries, and the “Dean machine” was written off as hype. Much was made, too, of the bloggers and small donors who gave a much-needed boost to the campaign of Senator John Kerry, as well as the unprecedented numbers of new voters who registered in the months leading up to the election. But when the votes did not materialize for Kerry on November 2, pundits pooh-poohed the Democratic Party’s faith in the not-seen. They shouldn’t have had so much confidence in young voters known to be fickle and unreliable. They shouldn’t have expected to win the ground war in Ohio and Florida. They should have known all along that ordinary Americans care about personality more than policy, values more than health care, terrorism more than the economy.

“Kerry was counting on millions of first-time Democratic voters to carry him through, and millions apparently did turn out, but probably not enough to make the difference,” went The New York Times’ postmortem. “… Only about half the voters yesterday had a favorable view of Kerry, about the same as for Bush, and he dueled Bush only to a draw on who would best handle the economy … Voters who cited honesty as the most important quality in a candidate broke 2 to 1 in Mr. Bush’s favor.” (Christian soldiers, on the other hand, came out in droves for their leader: This time, a third of voters identified themselves as evangelicals, and they voted overwhelmingly for Bush.)

It was not that the Democrats did not have a “ground game” — it was that the Republicans, having been at this for four decades, had a much better one.

Now, staring at the wreckage of the Kerry campaign, progressive activists have many reasons to second-guess their efforts over the last few years. They may be discouraged by their failure to build a winning grassroots organization. They may be tempted to soften their populist rhetoric of equality and opportunity, to retreat from their stands on controversial issues like gay rights — all in an effort to appeal to middle-of-the-road voters who apparently spurned them this last time around.

To some extent this repositioning will be necessary. Without a message that appeals to voters across the nation’s vast cultural and socioeconomic spectrum, there is little hope for victory at the polls.

But the lesson of the Goldwater campaign of 1964 is that political attitudes are not frozen in time. A well-organized network of citizen-activists can change minds and win votes, one person at a time. The triumph of one party and one ideology can, in a matter of decades, be utterly reversed. The good news for Democrats is that time is on their side. Like Clinton radicalized evangelicals, Bush has radicalized progressives. From MoveOn.org to Air America Radio, grassroots organizations and media outlets have sprung up in the shadows of Republican political dominance. They will continue to flourish now that a president as polarizing as George W. Bush will be in office for another four years.

There are leaders in the Democratic Party who recognize the importance of this street-level strategy. “Instead of doing this from the top-down, you need to make people feel they have power over their lives again,” said Howard Dean, speaking at a forum during the Democratic National Convention last July. “The way you win presidential elections is to make sure the local elections are taken care of first. We can’t win a national election unless we’re willing to take our case to Alabama and Texas.”

Democrats can also take heart in the long-term demographic trends in this country, which favor their party. John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira make such a case in The Emerging Democratic Majority — a book whose title alludes to Kevin Phillips’ 1969 classic, The Emerging Republican Majority, which presciently heralded the rise of the conservative movement. Like tectonic plates slowly grinding beneath the surface, the political realignment that Judis and Teixera describe may be gradual and barely noticeable, but they insist it is real. A browner population, a postindustrial economy, and a burgeoning class of educated professionals will help the Democrats win votes and reclaim lost ground over the next decade. With a white population that tends to vote Republican remaining static, the growing Asian, Hispanic, and African American communities can become the foundation for this uprising — if the Democratic Party establishes the grassroots network necessary to reach out to them and mobilize their numbers. (Younger voters, too, must be tapped: They voted in large numbers for Kerry and tend to be less conservative than their elders on social issues like gay marriage.)

Of course, there is no inevitability in history. The blogger revolution and “Dean machine” of 2004 might turn out to be just another political fad. A multicultural America could easily be co-opted by Republicans with enough savvy to shift with the tide. Younger voters, slightly roused by this last election, may very well sink back into apathy. Yet, the possibility exists for transformation — for a profound realignment of American politics. Like 1964, 2004 could be a turning point. Those who despair need only look at what Goldwater’s faithful accomplished in the years after their humiliating defeat. “You lost in 1964,” Rick Perlstein writes of the veterans of that earlier campaign. “But something remained after 1964: a movement. An army. Any army that could lose a battle, suck it up, regroup, then live to fight a thousand battles more.”

Victor Tan Chen is In The Fray‘s editor in chief and the author of Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy. Site: victortanchen.com | Facebook | Twitter: @victortanchen

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