Just months before the 2002 election, Danny Goldberg, the music industry macher who shells out big bucks to progressive causes, received an invitation to a Democratic Party fundraiser. It featured the following Franklin Delano Roosevelt quote: “Never before in modern history have the essential differences between the two major political parties stood out in such striking contrast as they do today.”
Goldberg was astounded. “It seemed to me a terrible commentary on today’s Democrats that they had to go back to the 1940s to evoke a contrast with Republicans,” Goldberg writes in “Dispatches From the Culture Wars: How the Left Lost Teen Spirit” (Miramax Books), his debut book that delivers a blunt warning to Democrats: Get with it, or get trounced.
Democrats, judging by raves from Paul Begala and Chris Matthews, are unlikely to dismiss “Dispatches” as just another whiny book by a spoiler from the party’s Ralph Nader wing. Goldberg, who spouts sound bites like the politician he one day may become, makes his case — that Democrats are alienating youthful voters — not in empty union halls or campus lobbies but on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. A proud progressive and officer of the American Civil Liberties Union who co-published Tikkun from 1997 to early 2001, Goldberg enjoys street cred among the party faithful. At the same time, he knows how to reach youth, having managed Nirvana and put out hit records like “Who Let the Dogs Out?”
During an interview in the lower Fifth Avenue offices of Artemis Records, the indie label he founded in 1999, Goldberg, 52, blasted party elders for not acting more like party animals. In his analysis, the Democratic strategy of pandering to the political center by attacking popular culture and emphasizing alter kocker issues like prescription drug benefits drives away 18- to 30-year-olds, who since 1972 have deserted Democrats — and voting — with the exception of the MTV-friendly Bill Clinton. Goldberg singled out Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut for criticism, hinting that he would vote for President Bush before backing Lieberman.
And if Democrats lose the likes of Danny Goldberg, George Bush can count on four more years in the White House.
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Forward: Some pundits argue that Ralph Nader cost Gore the election. Others hypothesize that Gore lost because he refused to let Bill Clinton campaign for him. Make the case that Gore lost because of Tipper, who attacked musicians because of their lyrics.
Goldberg: Joe Lieberman cost Gore the election. The general strategy of Gore and Lieberman consciously included an attack on popular culture, [which] was part of the reason that younger people voted for Ralph Nader.
Conventional wisdom suggests that Democrats will gain 3% from the left and lose 15% from the middle.
I didn’t see the Republicans beating up on popular culture in 2000. I think the spirit of Lee Atwater animates a lot of the way George Bush handles things. This president bantered with Ozzy Osbourne at the Washington Correspondents Dinner. He invited Bono to the White House.
When Lieberman and Hillary Clinton introduced the Media Marketing Accountability Act that would have given the FCC the power to regulate the marketing of entertainment, not one Republican would co-sponsor it…. Joe Lieberman criticized NBC for moving “Friends” from 9 o’clock to 8 o’clock; 30 million people watch “Friends.” That’s the center; that’s not the left. Popular culture is popular; that’s why it’s called popular.
You didn’t address whether Tipper hurt Al Gore.
The Tipper Gore syndrome cost Al Gore votes. Tipper Gore started in the ’80s criticizing rock lyrics. And Al Gore agreed with her and identified with her attacks on pop culture…. I think that syndrome of baby boom Democrats, thinking that they could cleanse themselves of some ’60s vibrations that they think are inappropriate has politically backfired.
What have Republicans learned from MTV?
They certainly know a lot about the power of images. I was on a show with David Frum, who was a speechwriter for Bush. He proudly cited on the show how Bush was filmed in a pickup truck, showing he was a regular guy, but it was a propane gas-powered pickup truck. The photo substitutes for a [conservation] policy that would actually get us off oil dependency.
If Danny Goldberg ran the next Democratic presidential campaign, what would be the party’s platform?
A positive belief in government. After 9-11, a squandered opportunity was the chance to remind people why Democrats have historically liked government: Government is emergency workers, firemen, policemen, people who guard nuclear power plants from terrorism, school teachers.
There needs to be a proud, positive description of what government should do for people.… Talking about broader issues and not just focusing in such a segmented way on issues that are more important to older people like Social Security and prescription drugs. They are important political and moral issues but they are not the only issues….
Will you join a campaign?
I don’t aspire to run a Democrat’s platform. I’m trying just to agitate from the outside to wake them up to one particular deficiency. What I would certainly do is study the American language and use language that could appeal to people. Michael Moore and Jon Stewart convey very left-wing ideas in much more accessible language than the people who agree with them in Congress.
How should the next Democrat candidate learn the language of youth? Nightclubs? Malls?
They should watch Jon Stewart every night. Study what Michael Moore has done. They should watch Mario Cuomo’s speech from the 1984 [Democratic National] Convention. They should watch what the right wing does. Newt Gingrich was brilliant at analyzing language and choosing words that could have an emotional affect.
Predict the buzz words for 2004.
The [Democratic candidates] have to speak normal American language and not talk about “the lock box.” Bush told his speechwriters before he made his speech in Iraq to make it “so simple that the boys in Lubbock [Texas] can understand it.” I don’t think that Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt told that to their speechwriters.… There’s been too much of an insular, academic nature to the Democratic culture. The Republicans have enough people from big business that at least they have conventional marketing savvy, and I think there is some neurosis about what people consider to be identifying with the ’60s that kept Democrats from embracing very popular aspects of the culture.
Could you imagine Bob Graham or John Kerry throwing himself in a mosh pit?
Alan Keyes did that on Michael Moore’s show, and that didn’t seem to help him win the nomination. A cautionary tale for candidates.
Of the nine declared Democratic candidates, who seems most authentic to you?
I’m not going to single someone out. I don’t want to get called to do a fundraiser. I like eight of the nine. I think Joe Lieberman would be poison for the party, because he’s so to the right on culture, and I don’t think he could appeal to anti-war Democrats. A Democrat has to appeal to both pro-war and anti-war Democrats.
Pick the perfect theme song for the 2004 campaign.
“What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?”… by Nick Lowe and popularized by Elvis Costello.
What would you say to George Bush if you were given the chance?
Why did you really go to war in Iraq? Do you really think that the tax cut will create more jobs? Please don’t run for re-election.
David Wallis is a contributor to The New York Times Magazine, The Times of London and The Washington Post, among other publications.
David Wallis is the opinion editor of the Forward.