A familiar and self-defeating pattern among Democrats is emerging for a fourth consecutive presidential election cycle. It goes something like this: The favored establishment candidate faces a challenge from the left fueled by grass-roots fervor, money and media attention. Whether that challenger wins the nomination (Barack Obama in 2008) or loses (Howard Dean in 2004), there is always talk about how their following is the start of a movement that can no longer be ignored.Capehart's point is that Democrats don't vote in off-years. Part of the problem is that the leaders of presidential-year "revolutions" (I'd include Ralph Nader in 2000) tend not to win, except for Obama, and he won at a time when just putting America on a timetable for termination of the Iraq War and other within-the-pale proposals seemed to constitute serious change.
That is, until the presidential election is over. After that great day at the polls, despite all the heady talk of political revolution, those fired-up folks go home -- and stay there for the next four years. The campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) swears this time will be different. Sorry to be the skunk at the garden party, but it won’t.
... “We’ve heard that song before,” [Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times] writes. “In 2004, insurgent candidate Howard Dean tried to turn his campaign into a progressive movement, Democracy for America, with negligible results. In 2008, President Obama’s campaign staff tried to remake their grass-roots network into something called Organizing for America, but that effort failed completely.”
Democrats always forget that political revolutions are not quadrennial affairs....
Is the problem that Democratic and progressive voters are just too lazy to vote in non-presidential years? Or is it that the party's candidates aren't particularly inspiring to those voters? I think it's a little of both. Run-of-the-mill Democratic congressional candidates rarely promise big changes from the status quo. On the other hand, voters don't seem to grasp the fact that just keeping power out of the hands of ever-more-extreme Republicans is a worthwhile end in itself.
A lot of the energy that goes into would-be progressive revolutions in presidential election years seems to gravitate in other years to non-electoral political activity -- Occupy Wall Street for a brief moment, but also LGBT activism, the fight to increase the minimum wage, the pro-immigrant movement, and Black Lives Matter. Some of the energy is dissipated because most downballot Democrats don't seem particularly connected to progressive movements. The Tea Party movement very rapidly fielded a large number of candidates in congressional, gubernatorial, and state legislative races who sounded jut like Tea Party activists; if you were an angry right-wing ideologue, it wasn't hard to find a candidate who was worked up about the same issues you were. Progressive voters rarely have that luxury.
There need to be more genuinely progressive candidates, especially in off years -- and maybe that's just impossible, given the realities of campaign finance in America. (Genuinely progressive candidates want things rich donors don't.) The alternative is a focus on political movements rather than elections -- which is unfortunate, because elections also matter. Even disappointing Democratic candidates are better than increasingly awful Republicans. They're still needed to hold the line while non-electoral activists fight for real change in other ways.