Call it the Election That Never Was.
We’ve heard a lot of talk about this week’s election, but the election we needed is the one we didn’t see. The important issues, the issues that affected people’s daily lives, were never debated. Voters never heard a genuine exchange of views and never had a chance to vote on competing visions of the future.
It has been suggested that the Democratic Party can run and win on social issues in 2016, but that seems less likely after this year’s results. If voters can reject a personhood amendment and elect a far-right Republican on the same ballot, social issues aren’t likely to be the cure-all some Democrats are seeking.
It’s clearer than ever: If Democrats don’t offer bold solutions to some fundamental economic issues (we’ll offer eight of them, but there are more) then the implications for their party – and for the country – are profound, and dire.
Grading On A Curve
It’s true that this was never expected to be a good year for Democrats. But the results were worse than expected, even given this year’s special circumstances. The gubernatorial results alone demonstrate that this election was a party failure, despite the mitigating circumstances, even if we’re grading on a curve. As political strategist Celinda Lake noted when we interviewed her afterwards, this was a “wave” election – and it broke against Democrats.
Waves break quickly, but they form slowly. Public disaffection with President Obama – and, by extension, his party – built over years. If Democrats want to turn the tide for future elections, there’s not much time to waste.
Political insiders may sneer at the choices made by “low information” voters. But every member of the electorate is a high-information voter about at least one subject: his or her own life. They bring that information into the polling booth and vote accordingly.
Times are still hard for a lot of people. People understand intuitively that “the system is rigged,” but only a few leaders have explained why and by whom. Most Democratic candidates offered no explanations for the continuing hard times and few meaningful ideas for ending them.
For far too long, President Obama avoided confronting Republicans, embracing some of their proposals as his own and paying a price for their unpopularity – a cost his party now also bears. We saw that pattern repeated this year as Republicans once again ran to Democrats’ left on Social Security, punishing them mercilessly for supporting the supposedly “bipartisan” Simpson-Bowles benefit cut.
Democratic candidates understandably struggled with the president’s unpopularity. But many seemed to confuse his image with their party’s, abandoning its traditional strengths in an attempt to distance themselves from him.
If so, they miscalculated. Democrats seemed timid and non-confrontational, especially in the South. They seemed unwilling to bring a fight to even the most aggressive opponents – opponents who didn’t hesitate to savage them at every turn. Too many Dems seemed indecisive and apologetic, agreeable ciphers rather than courageous leaders, even as their opponents assumed empty postures of courage or decisiveness. (A friend wondered last night if Alison Lundergan Grimes would acknowledge voting for herself when the voting was over.)
In a race between a candidate and a non-candidate, the candidate wins every time.
The Groucho Paradox
To be fair, Democrats were fighting forces that had been years in the making. And yet, in a much-remarked upon and seemingly paradoxical outcome, voters who rejected Democratic candidates simultaneously embraced Democratic ideas – or ideas that used to be considered Democratic – in referendums and propositions around the country. They voted to increase the minimum wage everywhere it was on the ballot, in six states and three cities – and they did so by wide margins. Voters in solidly red Phoenix, Ariz. “soundly” rejected a measure that would have cut pensions for city workers.
Voters also relaxed marijuana laws in two states and the District of Columbia. They would’ve done the same in Florida, according to polls, before Sheldon Adelson financed a massive campaign against it. (The measure still garnered 57 percent of the vote, but needed 60 percent to pass.) And in a move to protect reproductive rights, two states rejected so-called “personhood” laws.
To paraphrase a Groucho Marx line: They like everything about you, Democrats, except you.
The success of these initiatives presents a striking contrast to candidates’ performance. Alaska’s minimum-wage increase passed by 69 percent, but Democratic Sen. Mark Begich lost. In Arkansas, the minimum-wage measure passed with 65 percent of the vote, even as incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor went down to defeat. (Pryor sent mixed signals on the minimum wage, supporting the state measure but opposing a Federal increase.)
The seeming “paradox” of voters choosing Democratic policies while electing Republican politicians isn’t really a paradox at all – if Democrats haven’t campaigned on those policies.
The Debate That Wasn’t
Meanwhile, in some alternate universe, the Election That Never Was was fought over the economic issues that affect most Americans. Here are eight issues that were hotly debated in that campaign – a campaign which, needless to say, had a very different outcome:
1. The American majority has lost 75 years’ worth of wealth.
Economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman have measured the loss: The majority (defined as the “bottom” 90 percent of Americans) has lost all of the wealth it accumulated after 1940. Decades of postwar growth built the middle class, but the wealth that the American majority accumulated over nearly three-quarters of a century is now gone:
The authors measured wealth by totaling up home equity, stocks and bonds, the value of pension plans and other assets, and then subtracting the debt people hold. The result? All of the majority’s wartime and postwar wealth is gone now.
It hasn’t disappeared, of course. It’s been shifted upward – to the top 10 percent, and (most dramatically) to the top 0.1 percent:
And while the wealthiest among us have been grabbing an ever-growing share of the pie, the nation has been trembling in fear of … what? ISIS? Ebola?
This wealth shift has undone nearly 75 years of progress, with profound implications for the financial well-being of most Americans, but very few voters even heard about it.
2. Student debt is destroying a generation.
We already knew that student debt has reached unprecedented heights, locking young people into a spiral of almost insurmountable debt even as they enter a highly limited job market. Thanks to a new study, we now also know that it is degrading the quality of their lives. A new study shows that students who struggle with educational debt of $50,000 or more suffer in four out of five aspects of well-being, as measured by the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index: a sense of purpose, financial well-being, community relations and physical health. (There is no evidence that they experience loss in the fifth measurement, which is social.)
The total amount of student debt in this country is approximately $1.2 trillion. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York estimates that more than 13 percent of student debt holders owe $50,000 or more, and the average senior with student debt owes more than $26,000.
What kind of society wounds the lives of its children, the generation that will forge its future? And why was student debt only mentioned in passing in this year’s election, with no proposal for fundamentally changing a system which causes so much harm and perpetuates inequality?
3. Banks are still robbing, cheating, and breaking the law.
The ongoing financial catastrophe that some call the Great Recession (I prefer The Long Depression) still haunts us – most of us, that is. Banks, the institutions whose criminality and fraud caused the crisis, are doing just fine, thank you very much. They were rescued by taxpayers, the criminals within them were never prosecuted, and their senior executives never paid a price for running institutions that functionally became crime syndicates.
Instead of facing criminal investigations, bank executives were allowed to negotiate “settlement deals” that forced other people to pay a penalty for their misdeeds. These bankers didn’t even have to admit they broke the law. All they had to do was promise not to break the law again.
Now, in what must be the least surprising story to come out of Wall Street in a decade, we learn that they’ve broken that promise, too.
Democrats in the White House protected bankers (although Dems on the Hill did take some initial steps to rein them in with Dodd/Frank). Republicans in Congress groveled at their feet. And nobody talked about Wall Street criminality during this election, despite the fact that the wrongdoing goes on.
4. The economy continues to grow more slowly than expected.
Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have based their decisions – or at least their public arguments – on the economic projections provided by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). As it turns out, the CBO has consistently expected the economy to do better than it has:
Its predictions have become consistently more grim – but the economy’s performance has been grimmer still. Throughout this year-long campaign, almost nobody asked why – or what could be done about it.
The austerity measures that Republicans foisted on the nation, often with the president’s rhetorical support, stifled growth considerably. These austerity policies cost the nation millions of jobs and billions in lost wages – and were never debated, even though roughly 90 percent of the electorate considered the economy their number one priority.
5. People need jobs – lots of jobs.
Labor force participation is at historic lows. Even the official unemployment rate, which is a less reliable measure in periods of protracted joblessness, is extremely high. Our infrastructure – roads, schools, bridges, power plants – needs trillions of dollars in repairs.
But Republicans have refused to spend the money needed to create those jobs or fix our infrastructure. Even the president’s American Jobs Act, an underpowered measure laced with tax cuts to lure the GOP, was considered “too liberal” to be politically feasible.
How often did you hear specific job programs – not magical talk about tax-cut prestidigitization, but real jobs programs – discussed in this election?
6. Social Security is a core value.
The polling is clear: Americans want Social Security expanded, and they want millionaires to pay for it. But most Democrats (with a few notable exceptions) equivocated on the issue for years. Even House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, widely considered a liberal stalwart of the Democratic Congress, publicly praised the Simpson-Bowles plan, which included cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
Predictably, Republicans ran to the left of Democrats on this issue – again. In 2010 they used a mythical “Seniors’ Bill of Rights” program to steal Democrats’ thunder on the issue, despite their attempt to privatize Social Security a few short years before. This year they ran ads against Democrats who supported Simpson-Bowles, claiming (with some accuracy) that these Dems supported a plan that would cut Social Security.
To be sure, Mark Begich made Social Security expansion a signature issue in Alaska, and he lost too. But Begich was fighting a rising tide of perception – and running in a heavily red state. Bruce Braley in his Iowa Senate race embraced it, too. But Braley’s move, which came in the waning weeks of his campaign, had the air of a deathbed conversion.
Should we expand Social Security benefits, or cut them and privatize the program? This year we never had a real debate on its future.
7. Climate change is a trillion-dollar problem – and could drown much of New York City.
How’s this for a dose of reality? A new study shows that much of New York City now lies in a flood zone, putting an estimated $129 billion worth of property at risk. Multiplied out to every coastal city in the nation, the risk runs into the trillions – and it’s greatly exacerbated by climate change, according to experts.
Yes, climate change is real – and it is already beginning to have a devastating impact on our economy.
Republicans continue to do the Koch Brothers’ dirty work by denying the reality of climate change. And yet, incredibly, the fate of the planet itself was never debated in this year’s election.
(One of the neighborhoods that is expected to be flooded in a near-future New York is Wall Street. You can file that under “Silver Linings.”)
8. The Republicans have no plan for fixing the economy.
Consider this quote:
“… It (The Republican economic platform) just struck me as sort of a compendium of modest expectations. If you ask me, ‘What’s your ballpark guess for how many jobs are going to be created?,’ it’s just not many.”
Or this response to the GOP’s economic proposals:
“I don’t think any of these are particular game changers.”
That’s just what Republican economists think. Needless to say, independent and left-leaning analysts are even less impressed.
The Republicans don’t have a plan to fix our economy. Even their favorite economists say so. Did you hear that come up in this year’s campaigning?
Democrats allowed themselves to be outplayed by Republicans who obscured their own policies and, in too many cases, sounded an awful lot as if they were Democrats themselves. That shouldn’t have been a surprise. Republicans are very good at finding Democratic strengths and undermining them.
This year’s political jujitsu involved a lot of sympathetic talk from Republicans about the economic plight of the majority, and a lot of backtracking from their own fringe social and economic views. (Cory Gardner’s successful Colorado campaign is an excellent case in point.) Time and time again, they tapped into the sentiments of voters who are frustrated with the status quo – and time and time again, the Democrats let them.
Democrats who have been hoping to avoid tough economic issues in 2016 may have just had their hopes dashed by the Republicans, who have proven to be more skillful shapeshifters than anyone realized. That means Democrats will need to stake bold economic positions, and they’ll need to demand that Republicans defend their own views. That’s a real debate … and it’s a debate they can win.
This election wasn’t just a failure for Democrats. It was a failure for democracy. The democratic process calls for an honest choice between two competing visions of the future. But these critical issues, and other like them, weren’t even debated.
The Republicans’ gain was everyone else’s loss – and that won’t change until we learn a lesson from the Election That Never Was.