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Where have you gone?

Where have you gone?

What's that you say, Joe Democracy?

One of my favorite historians is Claude Bowers, an Indiana journalist who was born in 1878 and moonlighted during the 1920s and 1930s by writing evocative books about Jefferson, Jackson, and the Reconstruction period. Mr. Bowers was also a noted political speaker who gave keynote addresses and key nominating speeches at Democratic Party conventions in the 1920s.

Democrat? Readers who know that I'm most often identified these days with the Republican side of things might wonder about my preference for a political activist on the other side. But one reason I like Mr. Bowers is that he was not on the other side. He was a Democrat when that party opposed increases in centralized power and fought for middle-class America. He was a conservative Democrat who was then in the mainstream of a party that respected and tried to protect families, churches, and small businesses.

Mr. Bowers would have no place in today's party, however; Democrats now make noises about limiting government but can't beat their addiction to taxing and spending. President Clinton proclaimed in his 1996 State of the Union address, "The era of big government is over," and then made an initial request to the returning Congress: $8 billion more in new spending for the current fiscal year. His fiscal year 1997 budget offered a $358 billion increase over the levels proposed in Congress' seven-year balanced budget plans.

There's something deeper than budgetary dishonesty going on here. Serious moral errors infect the liberalism that is at the core of the modern Democratic Party. Professor J. Budziszewski, a colleague of mine at the University of Texas, noted seven of them in the March issue of First Things. Among the moral errors are perfectionism, the doctrine that human effort is adequate to cure human evil, and neutralism, the notion that we should become tolerant by suspending judgments about good or evil.

Perfectionism, of course, makes God's grace unnecessary, and neutralism makes God himself boorish for insisting that we should discern good from evil, and then fight for the good. The liberals who now dominate the Democratic Party talk neutralism ("all cultures are equal") and in practice undermine God-given institutions such as family and church. They see these institutions as blocking the drive to a free, uninhibited, perfect humanity.

Republicans often portray today's Democratic Party as an assemblage of dollar-seeking interest groups with elegant public relations names like the Children's Defense Fund, Planned Parenthood, and the National Education Association-but that's only half the story. Washington reporters (89 percent of whom voted for Bill Clinton in 1992, according to a recent survey) complain about the religious right, but the White House and federal courts still promote the sacraments of the religious left, including abortion, radical feminism, and the welfare state.

The brawling Democratic Party of the Bowers era has become a cult that shuns those who do not embrace every one of its doctrines. In 1992 Bob Casey, then governor of Pennsylvania and a staunch Democrat in every area but one, wanted to present a pro-life message at the party convention; he was told that no dissenting voices were allowed. It's all very sad, because the Democratic Party had great debates for over a century, before it became a party of national elites and the government-dependent.

There is one continuity between the old Democratic Party and the new: Each made or makes its peace with racism. The old party, with its solid South base, demanded preferences for whites; the new party, with its solid African-American base, demands preferences for blacks. Both bigotries were, are, and ever will be wrong. If the Democratic Party became colorblind and at the same time opened its eyes to the evil of abortion and the folly of big government spending, it could draw back into it millions of Bowers democrats.

And maybe donkeys will fly: Why even contemplate such an unlikely notion? The reason is that political parties change; keeping one moving in lockstep for very long is like stuffing a live octopus into a string bag and expecting that none of the arms will hang out. At this moment Democrats are optimistic, but only a year ago, reeling from their 1994 electoral whomping, some rethinking of mission was occurring.

Political trends may again change before the end of the century; if they do, Claude Bowers could become must reading, and a Simon and Garfunkel tune, with new lyrics, could be more than a mournful dirge. Let's sing it together: "Where have you gone, Joe Democracy? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you."