THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY would seem to be in trouble.
Although the Democrats control the White House, both houses of Congress, a majority of statehouses and state legislatures and enjoy a better than 2-to-1 registration advantage over their Republican rivals, it seems clear from reading between the lines of Robert A. Rutland's The Democrats that the party is, at this juncture in its history, highly vulnerable.
With a single historical exception, the Democrats have been the dominant national party in only three circumstances -- at times of national crisis, when they were led by a preeminent public figure or when they were able to put forward a clear, coherent and compelling national program and back it up with effective political organization.
None of these conditions seems to be present now.
Unfortunately, not only this conclusion but almost any other one might wish to draw from Rutland's book must come from reading between the lines. Therein lies the rub.
For what distinguishes a chronicle -- a mere recounting of events -- from a history is that a history attempts to put events within a context -- some framework of analysis, some idea of causality, some intellectual structure, a point of view. The Democrats is emphatically a chronicle and sadly not a very good one.
The only unifying principles in Rutland's chronological trek from the roots of the Democratic party in Jefferson's ideas of limited government through the large-scale governmental social intervention of the New Deal to the present mini-retrenchment are the passage of years and the holding of elections. On one level, he simply attempts too much, by seeking to trace the changes in both the ideas and structure of the Democratic party, the events which and the people who brought about these changes and the social and political context in which these changes took place.
But because he tries to do this in too few pages, the whole ends up to be a muddle. Ideas are inadequately explained or expressed, public figures never come to life, the social context never seems vivid or even clear, events fail to be sufficiently motivated or explained, facts spew out and overwhelm without elucidating.
On another level, Rutland seems to have difficulty identifying his audience. If he seeks to interest a general readership, he needs to do more than mention relatively remote historical phenomena such as the XYZ affair or the Wilmot proviso. If, on the other hand, he wishes to impress an academic audience, he needs to explain why some quotes are footnoted and others not, why the referents for some assertions are given while others withheld.
Rutland is also occasionally inaccurate:
George McGovern did not gain the Democratic nomination because "theoreticians" took over the Democratic Party, but rather because the war in Vietnam polorized both party and nation and the political center collapsed and was discredited.
Jimmy Carter's election was not close because of a "fractured South." Carter won every southern state but one.
Gerald Ford did not lose solely because he pardoned Richard Nixon, but rather because of the Watergate-caused deterioration of the Republican Party. It was also because of his running mate's lack of public appeal; Ford's own gaffe in the televised debate with Carter; and Carter's ability to politically untie what had been, in recent elections, a source of Republican political strength -- the South.
When an author errs about things one knows about, he undermines his credibility for everything else he asserts.
Rutland's book is not without some redeeming features. There are, for instance, interesting anecdotes -- one which shows Thomas Jefferson to be prescient in his belief that public expenditures for roads, bridges and other public works would lead to heavy debt, graft and corruption; another which shows the author of the spoils system, Andrew Jackson, arguing for non-partisan government just four years before his election.
Some of Rutland's observations are also perceptive. He correctly sees the decline in the efficacy of the political party stemming from two events -- the New Deal and television. The New Deal transferred the power of political reward -- money and jobs -- from party to government. Television robbed parties of their control over dissemination of information, development of leadership and access to the political process.
But for each interesting anecodote there are several which neither enlighten nor amuse and for every perceptive insight there are several which seem conventional, oversimplified or wrong.
Rutland might have been better off if he had attempted either more or less -- if he tried to do a larger, more fully developed history of the Democratic party or homed in on only one aspect at the party's development.
The Democrats, as written, seems sadly like a long run-on sentence.