Last week's Newsweek cover story "Rethinking the Marriage Crunch" signaled a new low for trend journalism. Twenty years too late (and a long, long time after a lot of other people shot it down) the magazine admitted that its notorious claim that a woman who delays marriage until after 40 "had a better chance of being killed by a terrorist" than of finding a man was total hogwash.
Never mind the cultural effects of the infamous story, and the message to women that they'd better focus less attention on their careers and more on attracting Mr. Right. Oops, sorry--we got it wrong, gals, the magazine reported. Actually, reality is a lot rosier than those gloomy predictions.
The big mistake for the magazine--and, more importantly, for the authors of the study that showed, erroneously, how hard a time women in their 30s, 40s, and beyond would have finding love--was assuming that the past would be an accurate predictor of the future. A massive cultural change was afoot just as the study by three researchers at Harvard and Yale--Neil Bennett, David Bloom, and Patricia Craig--later sensationalized by Newsweek --got under way. In the mid-1980s, as numbers of women in higher education and the workforce soared, Bennett, Bloom, and Craig noted that women in their twenties were staying single. To determine whether these women would ever get married, they looked at the experience of previous generations--and "discovered" the hoary prediction that these women risked ending up as old maids. The fact that June Cleaver's marriage prospects might differ significantly from those of her younger sisters who had completely different professional, educational, and social lives never occurred to the study's authors.
But it was obvious to a whole generation of women who stayed in college, went to work, and married later--never considering the marriages in their early twenties that seemed so normal to their parents.
Now comes another trend story--this one about politics--that ought to raise similar red flags.
In the current issue of The New Yorker, Jeffrey Goldberg--who has done courageous and fascinating reporting from Islamic fundamentalist schools and terrorist training centers--goes to Washington to take up the question, "What is the Democrats' Best Way to Win?" The answer, disappointingly, is more of the same "third way," focus-group-driven politics that sent voters fleeing from John Kerry and, to a lesser degree, Al Gore.
Goldberg stacks the deck with this tediously inside-the-Party-leadership piece of analysis. He writes about a disastrous meeting between Missouri farmers and Teresa Heinz Kerry, and the would-be-first-lady's out-of-touch insistence on telling the farmers they should consider going organic. It's a telling anecdote, but the lesson Goldberg draws—that the whole package of left-to-liberal politics is an impossible sell for white, rural voters—is simply wrong. These hog farmers are already Democrats. An economic populist like Tom Harkin--who was to the left of Kerry--had no trouble connecting with them. Of course a rich Northeastern candidate is a fool to come in and tell them to consider producing organic yogurt. But the more leftwing Democrats--Bernie Sanders, Russ Feingold, to name just a couple--would have no trouble. As we all found out, Kerry putting on a NASCAR jacket was not the answer.
Goldberg goes on to describe Howard Dean as a madman, delivering a speech with his face turning purple and the veins sticking out on his neck (will that hackneyed caricature ever die?). He writes, dismissively, of Dean's plan to funnel money to state party leaders instead of focusing all of the DNC's funds on the next round of Congressional races as if it were corrupt. State party leaders were big supporters of Dean in the past, Goldberg writes, implying that the money to rebuild the party's infrastructure is personal payback.
Wherever you come down on the wisdom of spending all the party's resources on winning the next election versus taking a more long-term view, it is simply dishonest to ignore the fact that there is a legitimate debate going on. Dean and Rahm Emanuel are not the only people arguing about how the Democrats are going to build a farm team and— as the Republicans have managed to do so effectively— plan for a political comeback.
But the worst part of the Goldberg piece is its insistence that the Democrats abandon principle and shape their politics around vague notions of what NASCAR dads, soccer moms, and other fictional composite swing voters think. “For God's sake don't lead!” is the message to the Democrats: Listen to what the pollsters tell you and let the fuzzy, noncommittal opinions of swing voters lead you.
This is exactly the strategy that has produced the recent crop of bland, uninspiring, and ultimately losing candidates the Democrats have put up. Voters found the all-things-to-all-people style of politics off-putting and untrustworthy. And yet there is a whole political-consulting industry in Washington dedicated to pushing this same losing proposition. It worked for Clinton, after all. So, Goldberg says, we need another Southern governor who tacks right and triangulates to help the Democrats win again.
But times have changed. Bill Clinton is gone--and with him the particular charismatic charm that helped him pull off that sunny, centrist political strategy. We are living now at a time when many voters--even Republicans--have a deep distrust of the current government, are aware that their political leaders have been lying to them, and are looking for leadership through an era of terrorism and war. Someone with his finger in the wind is exactly the wrong candidate for times like these.
You don't have to be a futurist to see that the "third way" leads nowhere.