What a pleasant surprise that Al Gore, having tried just about everything else, stumbled on the idea of running as a progressive. Maybe this shift was inevitable. Despite the appeal of centrism to elites, voters just do not elect Democrats to kiss up to business or dismantle government. They can get that, full strength, from Republicans. Voters elect Democrats to be champions of ordinary people.
The success of Gore's shift is a double vindication for the likes of us. This magazine has long argued that Democrats don't get elected by repairing to the center on pocketbook issues. And we've repeatedly documented that most Americans are not sharing in the current boom. Even if average incomes are slightly up, economic security is down. You wouldn't notice this by talking to the donors and lobbyists who dominate American political life. But it's hard to miss if you talk to actual voters.
Seemingly, the Democratic convention was a victory party for the Democratic Leadership Council. But then came Gore's acceptance speech. It sounded as if the candidate had studied back issues of the Prospect. The work of a lonely band of left-liberal strategists and critics who have graced these pages--Stanley Greenberg, Ruy Teixeira, Theda Skocpol, William Julius Wilson--suddenly became the virtual blueprint of the campaign.
Of course, Bill Clinton in 1992 ran as the champion of working families--and governed as a centrist. The same New Democrat crowd will still dominate Gore's inner circle. Even if the Democrats take the House, it is unlikely that they will form a progressive governing majority.
So who will hold Gore accountable to his newfound populism? A revived labor movement will help. But the rest of the electorate is mostly disengaged. In the jockeying for influence year in and year out, the real interest groups with staying power are business groups. Progressive politics desperately needs popular counterweights.
In this special double issue of the Prospect, several articles demonstrate why big money must be put in its place if ordinary citizens are to be energized. Without an activated citizenry, politics is self-negating. Candidates run as progressives because of popularly felt needs, only to become captives of business elites once in office. The voters feel tricked, and they grow rationally cynical.
Therefore, constraining money is not just a good government reform. When money governs, progressive ideas never gain a hearing, and voters give up. But level the financial playing field, and attractive progressive candidates and marginalized issues can gain ground. That in turn can help ordinary voters stay energized, to elect progressives and hold them accountable.
We also continue our ongoing series "Common Wealth," which examines the role of nonprofit organizations in our civic life. In this issue, Michael Trister explores the use of bogus nonprofits as front groups for political candidates.
In principle, citizens' groups are part of the organized polity. But American nonprofits are often depoliticized by their tax status, their pose as civic rather than partisan, and their disconnection from mass memberships. As Karen Paget wrote in these pages, we have "many movements but no majority."
Abroad, political parties serve to mobilize ordinary voters and hold leaders accountable. But U.S. parties are too often empty shells. It is a supreme irony that the soft money loophole, which allows unlimited donations in the name of building stronger parties, has become one more avenue for money to displace citizens. Until we balance money with voters, Democrats will continue to run boldly as progressives--and govern feebly as centrists. ¤