This was a year the Democrats would just as soon forget. George W. Bush's victory may not have signaled a Republican realignment so much as a consolidation of the GOP's Southern base. But in the most high-stakes election we've had in quite some time -- we are talking about repealing the New Deal, are we not? -- Democrats suffered a stunning defeat.
Yet the year wasn't a total loss for the nation's oldest, if no longer majority, party. In particular, it brought the greatest outpouring of new Democratic activists since the epochal elections of 1968 and 1972, when tens of thousands of preponderantly young, anti-Vietnam War volunteers flocked to the presidential campaigns of Sens. Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy and George McGovern. None of those campaigns prevailed, but in time, the Democratic Class of 1968-72 became the core of the modern Democratic Party.
Over the years, the Class of '68-'72 brought its distinct values -- feminism, environmentalism, reproductive freedom and skepticism about the use of U.S. military power -- into the center of American politics and life. Changing realities and political opposition led Democrats to modify some of those beliefs; Bill Clinton (who'd been McGovern's Texas state coordinator in 1972) revalidated armed intervention in the Balkans, and Democrats backed Bush's action in Afghanistan.
Bush's war in Iraq, though, swelled the ranks of Democratic activists as nothing had since Vietnam. Through its Internet fundraising, the Democratic National Committee tapped so many new donors that it actually outraised its Republican counterpart in 2004. (It's hard to say which is more remarkable: the Democrats rising to financial parity with the Republicans or falling to popular parity with the Republicans in the exit polling.) But it wasn't the party so much as its progressive adjuncts, including the newly minted Americans Coming Together (ACT) and MoveOn.org, to which the volunteers -- as ever, disproportionately young -- flocked.
And flocking, this year, meant moving around. With campaigning concentrated in a handful of states, Democratic volunteers from across the country made their way to Cleveland and Columbus, Orlando and Miami. Until the final weekend of the campaign, when the locals poured in, a trip to an Ohio, Florida or Nevada campaign office of a Democratic "527" group was likely to turn up as many short-term migrants from California and New York as it did homegrown volunteers.
The Democrats' traveling circus has gone home now, but that doesn't mean it has disbanded. The volunteers in the Cleveland office of ACT stay in touch through their own computer chat room, calling one another's attention to upcoming meetings, coming campaigns and new and (presumably) improved strategies. Another group of ACT volunteers -- this one comprised of more than 100 New York-based twenty- and thirtysomethings who work in media and the arts, and who came together while volunteering in Florida's Broward County during the campaign's final week -- has constituted itself, not as a salon, but as a "Saloon," for the purpose of ongoing political activity. At their initial post-election get-together, held in a TriBeCa barroom in a postmodern echo of some long-forgotten Tammany ward meeting, they announced they'd devote the next three months to figuring out how and where to intervene next.
Such gatherings, online or on tap, are not isolated incidents. The leaders of ACT have been deluged with messages from its activists, suggesting campaigns to be launched and urging ACT to hasten its post-election reconstitution. Such long-standing groups as the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters are awash in new volunteers as well. A new generation of activists has formed and is refusing to go away.
Politically, this new generation is distinguished from its 1968-72 predecessors -- and from the Republicans' Class of 1964, the Goldwater volunteers who remade their party over the subsequent two decades -- by its relative absence of a breakaway ideology and by its strategic flexibility. Unlike the McGovernites and the Goldwaterites, the new activists do not feel so embattled in their own party -- not so long as George W. Bush dominates the landscape outside it. Differences among the Democrats pale by comparison. Though almost every one of them opposed to the war in Iraq, the scores of Democratic volunteers I met this year understood why flat-out opposition to the war would not play in the precincts they were walking.
Indeed, the Class of '04 lacks a distinct ideological profile that sets its members apart from other Democrats. It's their numbers and their networking and their determination not to disengage that stamps them as a new political force. As Bush moves to restore a more Darwinistic capitalism, as the U.S. presence in Iraq runs out of raisons d'etre, as unions gear up a national campaign to organize Wal-Mart, the Class will define itself by its activism -- and just maybe it will inject some causes of its own. Lord knows, the Democrats could use some.