On Reviving a Democratic Political Party

The recuperation of the Democratic Party in the state of Oregon in the 1950s is a minor legend that has probably grown a bit too perfect in the retelling over the years. The essential strategy, however, bears repeating. A group of young activists took over the state party apparatus and found that

“the party was fatally burdened by crooks, drunks, has-beens, never-wases and stumble-bums. Our party was not taken seriously by voters in those days. Too many of them knew that it served as an auxiliary to the Republican Party, drawing its financial backing from moneyed Republicans, who thus guaranteed themselves a docile adversary which could either be defeated or managed…. My job as state chairman from 1952-56 consisted mainly, then, of riding the bums out, recruiting first-rate candidates and giving the public competing points of view to choose between. The merit of this approach shows in the election results.”

Those results were that Democrats came back from the dead and won the governorship, all but one congressional seat; won one Senate seat and convinced the maverick Independent (and ex-Republican) Senator Wayne Morse to join up with them, thus giving them both Senate seats.

The current moribund national Democrats are similar to the Oregon Democrats of the first half of the twentieth century. Already younger activists have figuratively taken the helm in the person of Howard Dean. It is harder to get enough money from other sources to completely feed from a different trough than the Republicans, but there is still enough room to offer a competing, positive vision. Republicans are finding that Bush got reelected less for his ideas than for scaring people to the point that they weren’t comfortable with John Kerry. There is still room for better ideas to allow America to make up for the frightened ‘04 vote.