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. The invite featured the following quote: "Never before in modern history has the essential differences between the two major political parties stood out in such striking contrast, as they do today."-- Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1945. Goldberg could not believe what he read. "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," writes Goldberg in "Dispatches From The Culture Wars: How the Left Lost Teen Spirit," (Miramax, 2003). His debut book delivers a blunt warning to Democrats: get with it or get trounced.
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 but on CNN. A proud progressive who serves as an officer of the ACLU, Goldberg also enjoys street cred among the Party faithful, and he knows how to sell to young people. He managed Nirvana and has put out hit records like the annoying anthem "Who Let the Dogs Out?"
In his analysis, the Democratic strategy of pandering to the political center by attacking popular culture and emphasizing issues like prescription-drug coverage drives away 18- to 30-year-olds, who since 1972 have deserted Democrats (and voting altogether) with the exception of the MTV-friendly Bill Clinton.
Goldberg singled out Joe Lieberman—"poison for the Party"—for a spanking. The kvetchy Connecticut senator angered music industry bigs by co-sponsoring (with Hillary Clinton) legislation that would have regulated the marketing of records and other media to children. Goldberg hints that he would even vote for President Bush before backing Lieberman. And if Democrats lose the likes Danny Goldberg, George Bush can count on four more years in The White House.
Wallis: You are a wealthy, 52-year-old, Jewish music mogul on Lower Fifth Avenue. "Why are you the man to understand America's alienated youth?
Goldberg: I'm not saying I'm the man to connect with America's youth. I'm just observing that the Left and the Democrats have lost touch with young people. That to me is indisputable. If you look at the election results of 2000, among 18- to 24-year-olds, Gore-Lieberman only tied Bush-Cheney, whereas four years earlier Clinton beat Bob Dole by 19 points among that age group. 19 percent is a couple of million votes. … We've got to reach out. The Left can't win without young people. They never have. They never will.
Wallis: 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 for racy lyrics.
Goldberg: Joe Lieberman cost Gore the election. The general strategy of Gore and Lieberman included an attack on popular culture, [which] was part of the reason that younger people voted for Ralph Nader. I got a letter today from a 22-year-old who just graduated from the University of Florida. His name is Matthew Whitemyre.
Mr. Goldberg, I did not vote for Gore in 2000. I voted Green, although I didn't like Nader at all, and feel that I am more centrist politically than someone that far left. I've grown up watching Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Clerks, Mall Rats, whatever. Basically, the kind of movies that say f*ck all the time. The first two tapes I bought in Sixth Grade were Metallica's "Black Album" and Dr. Dre's "The Chronic." I see firsthand the disconnect that people my age have from politics. The only things that we've seen, which pertain to young Americans are either reductions in funding to schools … trying minors as adults for crimes, imposing curfews, raising penalties for drug use and a denigration of our music and movies.
Blaming Ralph Nader does not accomplish anything. The real key for Democrats is to figure out why people voted for Nader.
Wallis: Conventional wisdom suggests that Democrats will gain 3 percent from the left and lose 15 percent from the middle.
Goldberg: 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 Hilary 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. Thirty million people watch "Friends." That's the center. That's not the left. Popular culture is popular; that's why it's called popular.
Wallis: You didn't address whether Tipper hurt Al Gore?
Goldberg: 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.
Wallis: If Danny Goldberg ran the next Democratic presidential campaign what would be the Party's platform?
Goldberg: 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, schoolteachers. There needs to be a proud, positive description of what government should do for people. … I personally think the drug war is a moral blight on the country. The fact that there are hundreds of thousands of people in jail for non-violent drug crimes that both the candidates for president last time committed is a moral outrage. People will look back and wonder: 'How did we let this happen?' . … 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. If (Democrats) think they are going to pluck Republicans away from Bush, because they are just so charming and intelligent, they are deluding themselves. Even if they lose, because after all the next election is a referendum on Bush, and they can't affect his popularity that much, they at least can leave a legacy for future candidates of an image and a message. Barry Goldwater had the biggest loss in history of the Republican Party, but he articulated an ideology that inspired the [next] generation.
Wallis: How should the next Democratic candidate learn the language of youth? Nightclubs? Malls?
Goldberg: They should watch Jon Stewart every night. Study what Michael Moore has done. They should watch Mario Cuomo's speech from the 1984 convention. They should watch what the right wing does. Newt Gingrich was brilliant at analyzing language and choosing words that could have an emotional effect.
Wallis: Predict the buzz words for 2004?
Goldberg: The [Democratic candidates] have to speak normal American language and not talk about the "lockbox." Bush told his speechwriters before he made his speech in Iraq to make it "so simple that the boys in Lubbock 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. Free speech is popular. That's why this kid in Florida likes movies with the word "f*ck" in it.
Wallis: Should the next Democratic candidate curse during the 2004 campaign?
Goldberg: No, but it is interesting, lest we forget, that George Bush referred to a New York Times reporter as a "major league #######," and it didn't seem to hurt him.
Wallis: Can you imagine Bob Graham or John Kerry throwing himself in a mosh pit?
Goldberg: 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.
Wallis: Pick the right theme song for the 2004 campaign?
Goldberg: "What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?"
Wallis: Any regrets for unleashing "Who Let the Dogs Out?" on American culture? Does that keep you up at night?
Goldberg: I love that song. What keeps me up at night is the worry that I won't find a song as popular to put out.
David Wallis is the editor of Featurewell.com.