Many Democrats examining what happened in the 2014 midterms are asking “what did the voters want?” But the right question is why did only 36.4 percent of potential voters bother to register and vote? Obviously Democrats did not give those voters a good enough reason to take the trouble. Is the Democratic Party relevant anymore?
“New Coke” Democrats
In 1985 Coca-Cola was the market leader, but Pepsi was gaining market share. Coca-Cola’s executives panicked and reformulated its flavor to taste like the more-sugary Pepsi. But Pepsi drinkers already drank Pepsi and Coca-Cola drinkers were left with no brand that they liked. If this sounds like an analogy to the Democratic Party consultants who keep urging Democratic candidates and politicians to be more like Republicans, that’s because it is.
Democrats were considered the majority party from the time of Roosevelt’s New Deal until the 1980s. All they had to do to win was to get a high enough voter turnout. Democratic operations were more about Get Out The Vote (GOTV) than giving people reasons to vote for Democrats instead of Republicans. They just assumed most people agreed with them – because most people agreed with them. But that time has passed.
In the 1970s corporations and conservatives launched a major marketing push, establishing a network of PR “think tanks” that pushed a neoliberal economic line. Since the mid-1970s Americans have been subjected to a constant drumbeat through all purchasable and infiltratable information channels – even a whole TV network that blasts out right-wing propaganda 24/7/12/365 – all constantly repeating a professionally-crafted propaganda narrative that conservatives and their values are good and “liberals” and their values are bad.
Instead of responding and countering this, most Democratic candidates and officeholders instead tried moving to where their pollsters perceived the pubic to be on an imagined political spectrum. Conservatives pushed the public right, no one responded to the propaganda, Democrats chased the inevitable result. In this environment the country’s politics could only shift rightward – and voters who did not want to vote for “Pepsi-like” candidates to the right of them stopped turning out.
So corporate, neo-liberal policies came to dominate our economy. “Free trade”, anti-union, monopolistic anti-democracy policies have killed wage growth and government programs for regular, working people and regular, working people have responded by turning away from the party that was supposed to be watching out for them.
Dave Dayen sums this up at The Fiscal Times, in “The So-So Society: Democrats Have Forgotten What Made Them Great.” (Click through to see his list of potential solutions Democrats could offer.)
This is not the Democratic Party of your great-grandfather’s New Deal or your grandfather’s Great Society. The takeover of the party by more business-friendly interests — which ironically (or perhaps not) dates back to right around 1973, when wages decoupled from productivity — necessarily impoverishes the imagination around issues of economic security and prosperity.
William Greider drives it home at The Nation, in “How the Democratic Party Lost Its Soul: The trouble started when the party abandoned its working-class base.“
Instead of addressing this reality and proposing remedies, the Democrats ran on a cowardly, uninspiring platform: the Republicans are worse than we are. Undoubtedly, that’s true—but so what? The president and his party have no credible solutions to offer. To get serious about inequality and the deteriorating middle class, Democrats would have to undo a lot of the damage their own party has done to the economy over the past thirty years.
As Democrats embraced neoliberal “market solution” arguments and moved away from representing the interests of working-class and middle-class voters, many of those voters had nowhere left to turn and simply stopped voting.
Is Jim Webb The Answer?
In “Who Will Save the Democratic Party From Itself?” Thomas Edsall examines Jim Webb’s prospects as a challenger to Hillary Clinton for the 2016 presidential nomination based on his use of economic arguments rather than “identity” arguments that try to get women, and minorities to vote for them. Edsall examines whether Webb can win “a crucial but alienated segment of the electorate,” which is “voters convinced that Wall Street owns both parties, voters tired of politicians submitting to partisan orthodoxy and voters seeking to replace “identity group” politics with a restored middle- and working-class agenda.”
Edsall turns to four observers to examine this.
Joel Kotkin, presidential fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, argues “that the Democratic Party has been taken over by what he calls “gentry liberals,” an elite that has undermined the historic purpose of the Democratic Party. … Most Democratic politicians and strategists, according to Kotkin, “just have no feel at all — as Harry Truman and Bill Clinton did, for example — for the aspirations of the middle class. This is why they are losing them, and deservedly so.”
Next Edsall brings in Morris Fiorina, a political scientist at Stanford, who is “similarly critical of the ‘upscale capture’ of the Democratic Party.” Fiorina says Democrats took care of Wall Street and wrote to Edsall that, “The result is building disappointment, resentment, and rage in the public, which results in the 2010 debacle.”
MSNBC’s Krystal Marie Ball says of Webb, “He is rough. He is authentic. He cares about issues. He speaks plainly. He doesn’t try to oversmile, for example, he just is exactly who he is. And there’s something very compelling about that, and it is a stark contrast from the very carefully packaged and branded Clinton image.”
Finally, columnist Al Hunt says Webb “could be Hillary Clinton’s worst nightmare” but “seems an improbable candidate” because he “has few relationships within the Democratic Party, and has no serious fund-raising network.”
Edsall then compares exit polls from Webb’s 2006 Virginia senate run to all House Democrats nationwide the same year. He says “The results of this comparison do not support the portrayal of Webb as a candidate equipped to win over key white constituencies.” Other Democrats did better with white voters, so Webb might not be the answer to getting past identity politics.
Identity (Sex and Race) vs. Class (Economic) Campaign Arguments
Maybe the answer lies more in what Democrats offer rather than who. Writing, “Let’s forget Webb for a moment and take the question a step further,” Edsall looks at the bigger picture of whether Democrats can use economic arguments to challenge the party’s current strategy of “identity group, rather than class-based, mobilization, on the assumption that turning out single women, the young, and racial and ethnic minorities is more effective than an uphill struggle to revive support in the recalcitrant white middle and working class.”
Currently the Republican Party appeals largely to older, while males in or reflecting the politics of the Confederacy states – the Fox News demographic. Those older white voters are who primarily turned out to vote in 2014.
It is said that “the map” favors Democrats in 2016 and demographics favor them from that point on. While the country’s demographics are changing and that demographic is fading, Republicans have shown they are able to adapt. This year they did not field candidates who publicly showed themselves to be crazy Tea Party wingnuts, at least during their campaigns. And Republicans showed themselves able to use economic arguments that pretended to reflect the concerns of regular people.
The larger problem is that the voters Democrats are depending on, who Edsall calls the “have-nots” – are not bothering to come out and vote. Like Dayen and Greider above (and most others looking at the 2014 results), Edsall says this is because Democrats do not offer regular people reasons to be optimistic that they can improve things. This is a bad omen for the future of the party:
The Democrats’ lack of credibility on economic issues will hobble, if not extinguish, the party’s prospects. Unless the Democrats develop a coherent, comprehensive strategy for the have-nots, it won’t matter whether the party’s nominee is Clinton, Webb or anyone else.
New Party Needed?
A majority of people can’t stand the Republican party’s policies, its divisiveness and nastiness, its racism and the way it is absolutely and completely owned and operated by the 1 percent – particularly oil companies and Wall Street. Poll after poll shows the public favoring the positions that used to be ascribed to Democrats, including taxing the rich and corporations to provide good schools, infrastructure, services and benefits to regular working and middle-class Americans (see PopulistMajority.org).
But in the last election Democratic candidates continued to follow the “New Coke” strategy and “distanced themselves” from progressive policies and their own president! The result is many people no longer bother to show up and vote. Almost 64 percent of potential voters just stayed home.
Has the Democratic Party lost its meaning and purpose? Is the Democratic Party relevant? A new party that shows up on the scene and offers solutions that benefit working-class and middle-class voters would immediately gain a following. But it wouldn’t have any money.