Felipe Fernández-Armesto

November 17, 2006

My university's emblem is an elephant. Before taxidermy transformed him, the original Jumbo was London Zoo's biggest ever pachyderm. P. T. Barnum, the unrivalled showman, bought him for £10,000 in a publicity coup and, when the elephant died in 1885, presented the stuffed carcass to Tufts University, to supplement or dwarf the natural history collection he had already donated. Now, elephant-art is scattered around campus. My window stares over Jumbo's effigy - emerging trumpingly, with flapping ears, from the facade of the multistorey car park.

Suggestions that an elephant should adorn the university's tie, however, always meet the same rebuttal: the wearer might be mistaken for a member of the Republican Party, which shares the same badge. That would never do.

Republicans are rare on the campuses of America's leading universities. At Tufts, there is faint evidence of their existence in the form of a periodical they publish from time to time, which expresses their plight admirably. It is a cheap-looking thing, ill printed on shabby paper, with a clamorous tone and sensationalist language. This organ of the political Right - which one might expect to be decorous, self-assured and haughty - has all the fingerprints of an almost clandestine, piratical publication. It is a voice crying in a hostile environment, uttering the protests of a beleaguered minority. Here, the establishment is Democratic and real radicals attack from the Right.

This is the only America I know well. So it is hard for me to share the relief, amounting in some cases to euphoria, at the Democratic Party's victory in congressional and gubernatorial elections. From where I sit, Democratic victory seems as normal as it did in Harry Truman's day, when the Democrats were hailed as the "natural" party of government. And although, in that respect, the parties seem to have exchanged profiles, it would surely have been astonishing, with a Government so corrupt and incompetent, a president so contemptible, an executive so abusive, a congress so ineffectual and a war so evil and unending, if voters in present circumstances had continued to support the Republicans.

Recently, however, Democrats have begun to feel about themselves in the country the way Republicans feel at Tufts: oppressed by an establishment they are powerless to challenge. To a great extent, their predicament has been their own fault. They have alienated most of their traditional constituencies. The Deep South deserted in revulsion from civil rights. At that stage, decent Democrats could cheerfully say, "Good riddance." But since then many blue-collar workers have abandoned "bleeding hearts" in favour of tough policies on security and crime. Catholics have been alienated by some Democrats' indifference to the massacre of the unborn.

Jews have voted for Israel and therefore for inflexibly traditional US Middle Eastern policy. Women, satiated with feminism, vote increasingly for "family values". Even some blacks and Hispanics, who ought to see the Republicans as enemies, waver when they hear the back-to-basics, virtue-steeped rhetoric of the Right. Gays are still pretty solid for the Democrats. But that's not enough of a base from which to win power.

Against this background, it is hard to be hopeful about the durability of the Democratic revival. The congressional victories look more like a protest vote than a permanent swing. This morning, I heard Edward Kennedy celebrate his victory in the contest for the US Senate in Massachusetts. When he spoke of the war in Iraq, he never denounced its wickedness. Instead, he praised the valour of the soldiers and promised them "the strategy they deserve". He did not, of course, say what such a strategy might be. This shows the Democrats' two fatal weaknesses. First, they think that they can win the presidency only by making concessions to their opponents: that is a measure of how far their own natural support has eroded. Second, they have no policy for saving America from the worst of President George W. Bush's excesses. Iraq is intractable, and the US forces are inextricable. Democrats can and will use their new dominance in Congress to harry the Administration with official inquiries into Republican follies and dodginess; but every new disclosure about the war will divide the party between those who advocate resolution - or, as they say, "staying the course" - and those who would rather "cut and run".

There is a way forward. Howard Dean identified it long ago: break the political mould. Mobilise the disenfranchised masses. Get the vote of those too disenchanted to vote. But that is too radical a strategy for the Democratic leaders. On the edge of power, they have the mental timidity of a classic establishment. If they want to sustain electoral success, they need the courage to become revolutionaries.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is Prince of Asturias professor of history at Tufts University in the US.

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