How to save the Democratic Party: Path to nirvana requires total economic revamp

Dems may be content to win every other election cycle -- but here's a long-term plan that could change everything

Published November 13, 2014 11:59AM (EST)

  (Reuters/Adam Hunger)
(Reuters/Adam Hunger)

By now you may have heard that the 2014 midterm elections sucked for the Democrats.

The party never even came close to retaining its Senate majority; states that were considered "battlegrounds," like Kentucky, Arkansas, Kansas, Georgia, Colorado and Iowa, all saw Democratic candidates losing their seats by 5-15 percentage points more than the already dire polling averages projected. The House of Representatives now has its largest Republican majority in decades. The picture at the state level is somehow even worse. Republicans have taken a supermajority of state legislative chambers. Combine that with 31 governorships, and Republicans now have "total control" of half the state governments in the country -- while the Democrats will have slightly more than a handful.

This does not represent the death of the Democratic Party. The Senate map will "flip" to become much more favorable to Democrats in 2016. The Democratic base will show up in stronger numbers in a presidential cycle. And the party will likely nominate a certain formidable candidate as its choice for the Oval Office.

But then what?

In the Democratic Party's best short-term scenario -- retaining the White House and retaking the Senate in 2016, while perhaps clawing back some but not all of the GOP's gains in the House and the states -- what will they then hope to do with those gains? Republican control of the House will ensure that no major legislation is achieved. Gridlock has worked swimmingly for this House Republican majority and the soon-to-be Senate Republican majority. And the 2018 election cycle will be another Republican-tilted one, as Republicans have opportunities to make up for their 2012 Senate losses in a midterm electorate. At some point -- 2020 or 2024 -- the country will tire of a Democratic president. Not because it loves Republicans, but it doesn't love Democrats either, and winning four straight presidential elections is a difficult feat for any party when nothing's getting done.

This is political stagnation. Majorities come and go every couple of years depending on what the map looks like. Rhetoric largely comes down to appeals to identity politics. Polarization makes it so that nothing of any importance can get done on the federal level unless one party controls the White House, House of Representatives and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. As far as domestic policy goes, the most practical purpose of holding the presidency is the ability to make judicial nominations, issue an executive order here or there, and block the other party. That, and pacifying whatever narrow special interests are held captive by, and make significant donations to, either party.

Stagnation is the result of neither party having the ability, even if they were to simultaneously hold the White House, the House of Representatives and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, to cobble together an enduring majority. But the problems are different for each party.

For the Republicans, the problem is not a lack of purpose. They will always have a purpose -- to undo the major achievements of liberals and the Democratic Party from 1933 onward. Their problem is that most of their ideas are not broadly popular. So when electorates get tired of Democrats and vote in Republicans, Republicans overreach in short measure and are elected out. After a while electorates get tired of Democrats and vote in Republicans ... etc., etc.

Lack of purpose is the Democratic Party's problem. Consider the main elements of Democrats' 2014 economic message: raising the minimum wage, increasing infrastructure spending and ...?? Those are both fine things, but they don't represent a purpose. "A defeat of this magnitude," as the American Prospect's Harold Meyerson wrote after last Tuesday's drubbing, "suggests that the Democrats are in the same fix as most of the center-left parties of Europe -- parties that purport to be the economic advocates of the middle and working classes, but preside over abysmal economies with no clear sense of how to make them better."

Let's oversimplify things a bit (a bit!) and suggest that there are two choices for the Democratic Party, purported economic advocate of the middle and working classes: 1) confront the fundamental problems that they've been too frightened to take head-on and propose the solutions for them -- solutions the public may take some time to warm to, and yes, could cost Democrats some elections in the short term, or 2) continue down the path they're on, in which they win approximately every other election based on the demographics of presidential electorates, appeals to social issues, and attacks on the scary Republicans.

One of the best pieces of post-election analysis diagnosing those fundamental problems for which Democrats presently "have no clear sense of how to make ... better" came from Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall. The fundamental problem is represented in a chart, one you may be familiar with. "The gist is that while productivity growth has been relatively consistent through the post-war period," Marshall explains, "productivity became unchained from wages in the early 1970s. Despite a modest bump up in the 90s and another small one in the aughts it's really never come back." In other words, average hourly compensation in real terms has more or less been flat for the last 40 years. "Democrats don't have a set of policies to turn around this trend," Marshall writes. "Republicans don't either, of course. But they don't need to. Not in the same way. As a party they are basically indifferent to middle class wages. And their policies stand to make the situation even worse."

If the party of working- and middle-class people wants to really be the party of working- and middle-class people, then, it needs to confront the fact that it has no answers for this problem. And part of the reason for that is that it's spent the last 30 years abetting the neoliberal policies that have made it so. In order to stay "relevant" in the '80s and '90s, leading Democrats acceded and thus provided political legitimacy to free trade, financial deregulation, welfare reform and the decimation of organized labor -- sugar pills that stimulated economic growth in the short-term, but in the long-term only gutted middle- and working-class economic security. The result is that Democrats and Republicans no longer have credibility among working people. Democrats are the only party that ever had it, though -- and when they did, they enjoyed the most enduring political coalition of the 20th century. Do they want it back?

After making the diagnosis, Marshall gets stuck where so many others do: What's the fix? If there was a politically easy one, the Democrats probably would have already done it. That much is true. There isn't a politically easy one.

This lack of imagination within the mainstream Democratic mind stems from its devotion to market-based solutions only. The championing of The Market as God -- conservatives' great ideological achievement -- has closed the center-left to alternative ways of constructing a sound political economy. That means, as the Week's Ryan Cooper writes in a piece responding to Marshall and others, that the simplest policy solutions are the ones most often overlooked.

Poverty and stagnant wages have a common root: a lack of money. And if you ignore the simplest imaginable solution to this problem — namely, handing out money — then restoring economic growth to the middle class is going to be really tough. Indeed, it might be impossible!

After the stark failure of neoliberal policy, blunter methods of raising incomes are at least worth a shot. These include policies like a universal basic income, a universal child credit, a climate dividend, and cash transfers known as helicopter drops.

The immediate response that the center-left will have to these suggestions -- along with expansions of existing redistributive programs or a renewed commitment to strengthening labor law and organizing workers -- are that they're too far to the left of the median voter and will crush Democrats in the next election cycle or two. That may be true! Years of what Cooper dubs "neoliberal agitprop" have made the country reflexively hostile to terms like "income transfers" or "redistribution of wealth." Every Democratic politician and their grandmother will get on board with "equality of opportunity," but talking about "equality of outcome" is strictly verboten. It just doesn't play. Mainstream Democrats are all about describing the problem of "widening income inequality," but when the most immediate answer to that trend -- giving more money to people -- presents itself, it's time to run for the hills.

The long-term project would require changing these attitudes and building a political movement around them. That may mean eating an election or two along the way. That's a trade-off that the conservative movement was willing to put up with in the '60s and '70s. But eventually, they were able to change the country. You'll never change a thing if your overarching concern is always about scraping through the next election by whatever means necessary. Because even if you win, what are you going to do with that?

One thing that brings this all to mind -- other than that it seems like a generally worthwhile thing to write about! -- is Hillary Clinton. As far as anybody can tell, the purpose of the Democratic Party right now is to get Hillary Clinton elected president in 2016. There's a whole breed of center-left Democratic columnists and operatives whose entire lives up to now were dress rehearsals for this moment: telling reluctant Democrats to get in line for Hillary, or face destruction. 

Look. It will be interesting to hear what Hillary Clinton has to say about economic issues, just as a pure curiosity thing. And she's not an evil human being or anything. But she's not the person who's going to save the Democratic Party in any meaningful sense. She is of the generation of Democratic politicians who found temporary success in turning the party into the hollow, neoliberal vehicle that's now running on fumes. She's even married to the leader of this faction. She will pay just enough lip service to progressive causes to get through the Democratic primary, and that probably won't require much. But her presidency will not lead to a rethinking of the ideas that have gotten Democrats into this horizonless state. She may stop Republicans from achieving some of their worst deeds, but her candidacy will also mean a delay of the regenerative process that the Democratic Party needs if it has loftier hopes, and seeks a higher purpose, than trading meaningless elections with Republicans for the foreseeable future. The 2016 election strategy will be another grind-it-out affair centered on presidential electorate demographics, social issues and the scary old Republicans.

The suggestion isn't that liberals should work as hard as possible to organize their support around a different Democratic presidential candidate. It's to stop focusing so hard on the process of picking a presidential candidate altogether. The primacy should be on putting together a blunt, fearless economic policy and pushing for it for however long that takes. It can be liberating to detach yourself from the election calendar sometimes. There's a whole world out there.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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