Whither the Democrats?
The Democratic Party became a majority party--and from time to time, an overwhelming majority party (as in 1936, 1940, 1944, 1958, and 1964)--thanks to its response to the Depression and the Second World War. Its biggest single constituency was probably organized labor, but the Depression had hit the middle class very hard too, and the postwar benefits implemented by the Roosevelt and Truman Administrations, including the GI Bill, low mortgages, and genuinely progressive taxes helped the vast majority of Americans a great deal. Meanwhile, the bulk of white southerners (although not all) remained loyal. They, however, defected en masse in reaction to the civil rights movement, first in the Deep South, where Goldwater carried five states in 1964, and then all over the region, where Humphrey was shut out, except for a narrow victory in Texas, in 1968. The old Confederacy has become more and more Republican ever since. It is sad but true: 140 years after the end of the civil war, race may still be the single most powerful issue in American politics.
Next in importance, however, it seems to me, is the party's loss of interest in economic issues. The children of middle-class Depression Democrats never knew poverty or economic insecurity. They became interested in poverty in the 1960s but seem to have lost interest in it as they became responsible adults and parents. Corporate America, with the help especially of the Reagan and second Bush Administrations, has been making a sustained and successful attack on organized labor since the late 1950s, but meanwhile, the elite of the Democratic Party and most of its activists have become more interested in social issues than economic ones. Evidence of this arrived this week in the current issue of the Journal Academic Questions, a center-right quarterly, the organ of the National Association of Scholars, which has actually been moving rightward in the ten years during which I have subscribed. It features a survey of the opinions of professors at elite institutions by three political scientists, designed to show liberal predominance. It does, but there are interesting shades of difference among the liberals. Thus, of all professors surveyed, 67% "strongly agreed" on a woman's right to abortion, 44% that homosexuality was just as acceptable as heterosexuality, and 48% that the government should protect the environment even at the cost of higher prices and fewer jobs; but only 25% "strongly agreed" that the government should guarantee employment, and only 38% that it should reduce the income gap. (When one adds those who "somewhat agree", the total goes over 65% for all of these questions, but the deeper commitment to social issues remains clear.) Students at universities are learning a lot more about struggles for women's and gay rights than they are about the labor movement or the New Deal, and it shows. A friend of mine at work on an article on WPA murals in our own state encountered a reference librarian who had no idea what the Works Progress Administration was, and who was astonished that the government had ever attempted such a thing. And as Thomas Frank pointed out in What's the Matter With Kansas, less well-off white Americans have seen less and less reason to vote Democratic over the last three decades.
The new Democratic orientation has made the party very strong among certain groups, including minorities and single women. (The partisan divide between single and married women is one of the most striking data points in breakdowns of voting in recent elections.) But no Presidential candidate has recently dared to brave Republican accusations of “class warfare” by arguing that the rich are too rich, period, and that our economy needs a higher floor. A close friend of mine, a social conservative, would like to see a candidate propose a 100% marginal income tax rate above a certain annual level—somewhere between $1 and $5 million. I find it hard to believe that such a move would not be popular, but when I raised this two years ago with a prominent Washington journalist and lifelong Democrat, he replied that the American people would never buy it because they dream of making that much themselves. Once again we come up against a sad lesson of history: it was only the Second World War, which took the lives of almost 300,000 young Americans, that enabled the government to get marginal tax rates up to 90%. Perhaps, in this sense, economic and social equality really has to be bought with blood—and one can legitimately ask whether it is worth the price. Of course, it is the fear of having to mobilize economic resources, undoubtedly, which is constraining the Bush Administration from asking for a draft and much larger armed forces to carry out its incredibly ambitious foreign policy.
Something, in any case, is needed to make economic issues resonate across the whole lower 75% of our society. A few weeks ago, listening to C-SPAN radio, I heard a panel discussion of prominent African-American commentators, including NPR’s Tarvis Smiley, about the effects of Hurricane Katrina. One after another, they expressed the hope that Katrina would provide some “traction” on the issues of “race, class, and poverty.” That strategy, alas, is politically bankrupt. However much race may have to do with poverty, to associate poverty with non-white Americans has proven electorally disastrous again and again. The only successful social programs in the United States, such as Social Security, Medicare, and the GI Bill, have been designed to apply and appeal to everyone—not just the poor, whom many better-off Americans will always resent. Recent stories about the increasing reluctance of corporations to pay the rising costs of their employees’ health care suggest that health insurance might become such an issue within ten years. But here, again, Democrats may be worried by the fate of the Clinton health care plan, and there seems to be no political support for something more radical such as a single-payer system, even though it is desperately needed to cut down the gigantic administrative costs of the present system.
And lastly, the Democrats are similarly cowed about foreign policy, terrified of appearing insufficiently warlike. To me, whose views about government and foreign policy were reshaped by the Vietnam War, this has been one of our greatest generational tragedies. That war made millions of Boomers skeptics, but the McGovern and Carter campaigns have convinced Democratic politicians that opposition to American interventions is politically disastrous. Iraq may be going very badly indeed, but no major Democratic figure has openly challenged the premises of the intervention, focusing instead on its poor execution. To paraphrase Clemenceau, anti-interventionism is too important to leave to Pat Buchanan. The United States desperately needs leadership that can be realistic about the extent of our influence in the Islamic world, the real issues in the war against Islamic radicalism, and the real range of possible outcomes (of which a peaceful, fully democratic Middle East is not one.) They are not getting it.
Despite all this, the odds against yet another Republican victory in 2008 seem to be growing, and Democratic prospects will soar if they retake at least one house of Congress next year. If the nation and the Republican Party are in total disarray by 2008, the Democratic candidate, like FDR in 1932, will probably be inclined to play it safe during the campaign. One hopes, however, that a Democratic President and Congress might emulate FDR after coming into office. That will be the time to be bolder and to move the country in new directions. But unless we are in the midst of another economic catastrophe—something else that can’t be ruled out—corporate influence will still be enormous.