How Can the Democrats Win?
Start with big ideas and long-term vision
With Responses From
Jun 1, 2004
53 Min read time
In order to win, Democrats must embrace an economic liberalism superjumbo, and they must stick with it even if they lose, in order to win big.
I begin with a parable about politics. Once upon a time, in 1916, William Boeing founded an aircraft company with a single-minded commitment to building the best airplanes the world had ever seen. With America’s entry into World War I, the company boomed, then went bust when the war ended. So Bill Boeing converted his factory into a carpentry shop—anything so that he could survive to keep on developing airplanes. That became the Boeing way, the very essence of the company’s corporate identity: the willingness to stake itself to the long term for the sake of building something enduring.
Seed capital from big government helped, of course. The technology behind the bombers that Boeing built to help America win World War II would soon contribute to another American triumph: the invention of cheap and readily available passenger air service. Only a week after the B-52 bomber made its maiden flight in 1952, the Boeing board of directors celebrated their success by sinking $16 million into a project to develop a jet-propelled passenger plane. It was a huge gamble. It paid off. With the rise of the 707, Boeing became one of the world’s great corporations.
In the 1960s Boeing took an even mightier gamble, setting more than 12,000 engineers to work day and night to turn a failed military transport into the aeronautical equivalent of the Model T—a “jumbo jet” to bring transcontinental flight to the masses. The course was numbingly hazardous. It also appeared foolish, since the market for passenger jets was depressed. At one point during the $2 billion saga the company went 18 months without a single domestic passenger-jet order. The first 747 sold in 1970. That year and the next, the company was forced to lay off 60 percent of its workers to keep the project going. Boeing even considered dropping out of the aviation business altogether. This era was made famous in local history by a billboard reading, “Will the last person to leave Seattle please turn off the lights.”
Well. Long story short, Boeing’s persistence paid off. In 1978, airlines ordered eighty-three 747s, and Boeing’s returns were the highest of the Fortune 500 companies. Boeing made $20 billion over a decade on that original $2 billion investment. Bullheadedness carried the day.
A nice little story, but in order to turn it into a parable, I must introduce our second character, the upstart. In 1967, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom established a consortium, Airbus, to take on Boeing’s de facto monopoly. The strategy was plainly Boeing-esque: Airbus’s ownership structure and managerial culture were self-consciously crafted to eschew short-term profit, to patiently cradle a long-term risk. And long-term the risk was: it was eight more years before the company sold a single plane. By the late 1980s the consortium had paid off only $500 million of a $25.8 billion debt. Airbus’s member nations had thrown $13 billion from their treasuries down an apparent abyss.
So it is not surprising that in the middle of the 1990s, when an Airbus executive boasted of plans to far surpass Boeing by the year 2003, Boeing’s imperious CEO Phil Condit simply laughed.
Phil Condit was the CEO hired to fix what was seen, in the context of contemporary American capitalism, as a fatal flaw in Boeing’s institutional model: its long-term orientation. Wall Street didn’t like it. “All stock markets tend to value short-term profits more highly than long-term profits,” explains the British commentator Will Hutton.1 That was why in the middle of the 1980s, Boeing’s stock traded at $7 a share even though the company’s net worth was equivalent to $75 a share. In 1987, the Texas corporate raider T. Boone Pickens attempted a hostile takeover of Boeing with the goal of “unlocking” the hidden value buried within: selling off slow-moving divisions, liquidating excess capacity, trimming research and development—turning a dinosaur into a lean, mean, short-term-value-producing machine.
Pickens lost the battle—Boeing fought off his raid—but Wall Street won the war. Boeing began to play by stock-ticker rules. Plans for bigger, better planes were cut back. So were investments in R&D, personnel, and overhead. Condit described the new strategy: “We are going into a value-based environment where unit cost, return on investment, shareholder return are the measures by which you’ll be judged.”
By 1997—the year Phil Condit was laughing at Airbus—Boeing had become a Wall Street favorite and a powerful force, engineering a hostile takeover of its competitor McDonnell Douglas. By then Airbus had begun the most ambitious civil aviation project in the history of humanity, a “superjumbo” nearly 50 percent larger than the 747 and, it promised, more fuel efficient than a family car. In 1997, Boeing announced that it wouldn’t try to compete: no more foolish gambles for them. Bill Boeing would have rolled over in his grave, but Wall Street loved it. Boeing’s stock price shot up to a record high, $60 a share.
The last laugh, of course, belongs to Airbus. After six more years of carefully shepherding its paleo-capitalistic vision, eschewing short-term gain all the while, Airbus now fills almost 60 percent of new commercial-aircraft orders. The A380 superjumbo, set to fly early next year, has frozen sales of 747s. Boeing has become so desperate to maintain its market position that it engineered a deal to lease 767 jet tankers to the Pentagon—which not only reversed its previous strategy of using Pentagon money as seed capital for advances in civilian aviation but, as Boeing now admits, involved unethical practices. Phil Condit resigned amid the scandal. That pleased stockholders: Boeing now trades at a healthy $44 a share.
A company called Boeing will likely hang on for the foreseeable future. But, writes one financial journalist, “the odds are good that Boeing will be out of the commercial aircraft business in ten years.”
Is that an unhappy ending? Only if you are a citizen of the United States. According to a report by two University of Buffalo researchers, commercial aviation is “the single most important sector of the U.S. economy in terms of skilled production jobs, value added and exports.” And so the political-economy lesson of our parable is plain to see.
But I promised you a parable about politics. So let us bring out the political resonances from the aeronautical shadows.
It was around the time the CEO of Boeing brought on a short-term boost in his company’s fortunes by announcing that he was canceling plans to design a superjumbo that the chief executive of a certain political party stepped into the well of the House to announce that he would not be extending his own institution’s long-term, risky, carefully stewarded, sometimes even apparently foolhardy grand project. That would be Bill Clinton, declaring that “the age of big government is over” in his 1996 State of the Union Address.
It worked. His stock—his party’s stock—shot back up, and he won his reelection even after the historic blow by Newt Gingrich’s conservatives, the rival upstarts stewarding their own multigenerational political project.
The New Deal, inaugurated in the 1930s, succeeded in some goals at first and failed in others, but always instilled its vision in the next generation of Democrats. Some parts of the vision—health care for the aged under Social Security—took 30 years to reach fruition. And until the Democrats abandoned universal health care in the 1990s, they’d been trying for almost 60 years. But after their electoral traumas of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, jettisoning such dinosaurs seemed to be what the market demanded.
We are left with a political party whose fixation on shifts in public opinion can be hawk-like, one that concertedly questions core principles in the interests of flexibility. This may have helped in the short term. And certainly, elections in America being winner-take-all propositions, the short term is of paramount importance. Nothing I’m going to say should be interepreted as deviating from a fundamental commitment to beating George W. Bush at the ballot box in November—this isimperative to the future health of the United States. But beating George W. Bush in November is not the only problem Democrats face. Another, the one that is my focus here, is that Democrats sometimes win their immediate battles in a way that brings them perilously close to making Boeing’s kind of mistake. How, instead, can Democrats begin winning in a way that puts them back on the road to their former position as the dominant party in the United States?
The year 1977 was the Democrats’ most bountiful in terms of a key indicator: party identification. Fifty-one percent of Americans called themselves Democrats. Only 21 percent called themselves Republicans. Now, a just about equal number call themselves Democrats and Republicans.2 Coincident with this shift was a breathtaking historical reversal: the Republican Party became the party of great dreams, with a long-term project, “conservatism,” that Republicans have stuck with even when it seemed foolhardy, even when its individual tenets were demonstrably unpopular.
Why does this matter, as long as the Democrats are still able to win plenty of elections? It matters for a bedrock political-science reason: party identification is the most reliable predictor of whether someone will vote for a given candidate.3 It is a mighty store of value, party identity, “which we now know is a form of social identity,” notes the Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, “not unlike ethnicity or race, with considerable durability over time.”
The fewer people who identify themselves as Democrats, the harder you have to work—and the greater the cost—to get them to vote Democratic in any particular election. You have to play by stock-ticker rules; you have to cater to their short-term whims.
So when does the Democratic Party end up looking like Boeing—so hollowed out by short-term thinking, so stripped of people proud to identify with it, that it can’t compete in the big leagues at all?
* * *
Let me step back briefly. We are in the middle of a presidential election now, and I pray that the Democrats win it. But I’m not offering advice here as to how. Some people say that the Democratic Party needs to start “getting tough”—to fight back as partisans, as the Republicans fight as partisans; that they need to think more in terms of politics, not just policy; that they need bolder leaders, better slogans, bigger ideas; that they have to learn how to mobilize their “base.” And all these things surely are true.4
But my argument is about what the Democrats have to do to win the elections of 2018. Why 2018? It’s an off-year election. Presidential elections are short-term projects. For the Democrats to “win” in 2018, they will need more than a president in the White House: they will need to take back both houses of Congress. They will need to win back the operational control of the government they enjoyed through much of the 20th century. Then they will once again be the dominant party in American politics. They will have won the war. And they will not win the elections of 2018 without winning many elections along the way.
My argument is structural. It is about time horizons, why a long-term time horizon is valuable in itself. This is an argument for the day after the 2004 vote. If the Democrats lose, as is quite possible, it will be time for a very, very long march and a moment-of-truth decision about what kind of party the Democratic Party is going to be: the party of the stock ticker, as it is now, or the party of the superjumbo, as it was then. If the Democrats win, whatever strategy John Kerry happens to have used during these few months will get reified as the answer for the Democrats: no long-term strategizing will seem necessary. We need to think about 2018 in either event. Which means we need to think big.
And that is the opposite of the message that the consultants associated with the Democratic center have been monotonously driving home for the last 20 years. As Al From and Bruce Reed of the Democratic Leadership Council put it in a memo last year deriding the rise of Howard Dean, even most Democrats “don’t swoon when they hear a candidate say it’s time for Democrats to dream again.” What is striking is that experts associated with the party’s more liberal factions think in similar terms.
Stanley Greenberg is the Democratic pollster most closely associated with the argument that the Democrats need to focus on the traditional core of their liberalism—economic fairness—in order to prosper electorally.5 His new treatise The Two Americas: Our Current Political Deadlock and How to Break Itpresents the remarkable finding that no less than three quarters of Americans favor a federal mandate “requiring business to offer private health insurance for their employees”—a radical reform by today’s policy standards. But what is striking is that in this entire book, Greenberg only makes a few substantive, specific policy prescriptions—and the most prominent is a recommendation for an individual health-care mandate, that government should require citizens to buy their own health insurance “much as drivers have responsibility for acquiring auto insurance.”
It reminds me of the time Nelson Rockefeller, upon his inauguration as governor of New York in 1959, tried to mandate that every New Yorker spend about $2,000 in today’s dollars on a home bomb shelter. He was shocked when his advisers told him how many citizens would balk at such a piddling and crucial expense.
Where does this come from, this astonishing lack of political will that finds liberal pollsters, armed with liberal poll results, thinking with the economic arrogance of billionaires? To begin to understand this, it behooves us to talk about liberalism and the baby boomers.
To start with some matters of definition. This beast we call “liberalism”—in its genus Americanus, at least—is a notoriously complicated animal. Its philosophy is rooted in the notion of human beings as autonomous agents. With the realization that formal autonomy meant little without the means to sustain a decent life, its practical definition in this century came to encompass the various kinds of government arrangements democratically devised to share the social burden. What we now mean by the word was summarized with unmatched elegance by Maury Maverick, the Texas congressman who led a caucus in the 1930s that tried to push the New Deal to the left. He called liberalism “freedom plus groceries.” As a definition, it cannot be improved upon—although scholars may prefer John Rawls’s formulation, that for justice to thrive the minimum worth of liberty must be maximized.
The groceries part, the different ways in which liberals devised to vouchsafe enough material resources for everyone (whatever the divergent conceptions of “enough”), makes for a complex history. I won’t get into the technicalities except to note the existence of the commitment as one of liberalism’s constants and to observe that such a commitment almost invariably requires a political imagination geared toward the long term.
Now consider the shifting terrain represented by the “freedom” part of Maury Maverick’s formulation. In the second half of the 20th century, it expanded considerably: activities once seen as outside the normal purview of civil life came increasingly to be seen by liberals as advances worth struggling over politically. At the same time, the battle was joined by conservatives—and, in my own reading, the relationship of conservatism to liberalism is very much a chicken-and-egg kind of thing—politicizing their own, contrary vision of the proper social order.
That’s a mouthful. Let me restate it in just three words: the ’60s happened. Civil-rights movements pushed boldly to extend the American promise to those previously excluded. Soon, there came a rise in antinomian violence. In the dark recesses of many white voters’ minds, such violence, both quasi-political (street riots) and apolitical (street crime), came to seem inextricably linked to those civil-rights movements and to liberalism itself. It was around the same time that many civil-rights activists turned to expressions of ethnic particularism that some liberals were pleased to embrace, though other liberals saw them as betraying liberalism’s very core ideals. Meanwhile, new ideas about how, and how aggressively, to deliver the groceries came to the fore. President Johnson promised a War on Poverty, driven by a wizardly new Keynesian confidence that an economy of unprecedented abundance could deliver more groceries to everyone. The surge in expectations led to some aggressive activism on the part of the poor themselves and to a short-lived technical consensus among experts on both the left and the right that a “guaranteed minimum income” was a natural goal toward which both Democratic and Republican policymakers should aspire.
All these developments were not without their backlashes. They came together in 1972 when the Democrats ran a candidate, George McGovern, who was presumed to embody the soul of the new liberalism in all its grandiosity. The candidate of “acid, amnesty, and abortion,” as his critics dubbed him, whose main domestic plank was a guaranteed minimum income for all Americans whether they worked or not, whose dashiki-wearing delegates shoved aside old political bosses for representation at the Democratic National Convention, lost in one of the most humiliating landslides in American presidential history. Liberalism had come to seem not a universalist creed, something for all Americans to embrace, but a particularist creed.
The problem that followed from the McGovern campaign was that when people thought about the Democratic Party, the image that came to mind was toxic to Democratic candidates’ electoral fortunes, especially in the South and parts of Middle America. The image was of people who burned the flag, of homosexuals and feminists traducing the traditional family, of a reflexive disdain for the projection of American power abroad, of tax-and-spend liberals who lectured Middle America about its moral shortcomings. Most damagingly, the reforms of the 1960s and ’70s were interpreted as a payoff to uppity blacks. An extreme form of that perception was expressed by the longtime Democratic Party warhorse Harry McPherson, who told The Washington Post after Walter Mondale’s 1984 defeat, “Blacks own the Democratic Party. White Protestant male Democrats are an endangered species.” A more realistic indictment came from the DLC’s Will Marshall. He said of that 1984 election, “It helped convince me that the national Democratic Party drag was such that good candidates were carrying an albatross around their necks with the words ‘Democratic Party’ written on it when they went in to elections.”
It may not be exaggerating to say that all big-league Democratic strategizing ever since has been a series of attempts to overcome this image. Like so many in politics today, most Democratic consultants are still telling stories about the 1960s.
* * *
I often reflect that the modern-day folks who are most hung up on the 1960s are not the baby boomers who followed the Grateful Dead or who still put messages about sticking it to the Man on the bumpers of their microbuses, but the boomers who are consciously or unconsciously obsessed with the idea that they might be accused of once having done these things or of still thinking this way.6 Among this group are Democratic analysts who present clear evidence that white, middle-class, Middle American voters no longer harbor these stereotypes themselvesbut who, these analysts, draw conclusions contrary to that dataas if the stereotype were as fresh as this morning’s newspaper.
Stanley Greenberg makes for the most interesting case. It is Greenberg’s argument of long standing that the new appeals for rights associated with the ’60s social movements were perceived by the white middle and working classes as a costly intrusion on their own prerogatives. Costly to them literally—and here I quote Kevin Phillips from The Emerging Republican Majority (1969)—because “the Democratic Party fell victim to the ideological impetus of a liberalism which had carried it beyond programs taxing the few for the benefit of the many . . . to programs taxing the many on behalf of the few.” But also costly figuratively, costly psychologically, because the new social lassitude associated with liberalism affronted cherished values.
In its worst incarnation this backlash was frankly racist, but it has always been Greenberg’s special contribution to remind us that even the most racially motivated grass-roots retreat from liberalism was never a retreat from liberalism tout court. “The white steelworkers in Alabama and the white mineworkers in South Africa,” he wrote in the preface to The Two Americas, “whatever their awful role in excluding blacks, were not without social democratic impulses.”
Thus the basic policy prescription of the School of Greenberg. Over the last 50 years, according to Greenberg, the divisions between Democrats and Republicans “have become increasingly cultural, crowding out other important issues for the country.” Thomas Byrne Edsall and Mary Edsall’s Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics (1991) describes the result: “Conservatism . . . capitalized on these conflicts with growing sophistication.” People who once were Democrats for economic reasons now voted for Republicans for cultural reasons. The conclusion: Democrats should stick to economic populism and distance themselves from the kinds of freedom associated with the 1960s.
But the School of Greenberg’s economic populism, it is important to note, was of an explicitly limited sort. This is another legacy of the 1960s. Back in liberalism’s mid-century heyday Democrats repeated a maxim about why their big-government programs were a political natural and the Republicans’ limited-government nostrums a political nonstarter: “Nobody shoots Santa Claus.” But in the wake of the stagflation of the 1970s, as John Judis and Ruy Teixeira observe in The Emerging Democratic Majority(2002), “A growing number of Americans had come to believe that government intervention”—associated with Johnson-era economic liberalism—was the cause. “In September 1973 only 32 percent of Americans agreed that ‘the best government is the government that governs the least’; by February 1981, 59 percent agreed.”
The upshot: stick to delivering the groceries. Just do it in small, measured doses.
The Democratic Leadership Council takes the same critique further. It says, more or less, that delivering groceries (what they call “outcomes”) is illegitimate—that Democrats should focus on giving people the opportunity to get the groceries for themselves. Of course, liberals like Greenberg embrace the same abstraction. But in practice, the followers of the DLC pressure the government to do much less.
Central to the present DLC strategy for saving the party is a focus on “wired workers” as the key swing voters the Democrats must win in order to prosper. They “are optimistic about their economic prospects,” writes the DLC pollster Mark Penn, “and they favor a small, nonbureaucratic form of government activism that equips people to help themselves. . . . Outdated appeals to class grievances and attacks upon corporate perfidy only alienate [these] new constituencies and ring increasingly hollow.”
It’s easy to take cheap shots at the DLC’s expense, but in fact it’s perfectly reasonable to suppose that postindustrial “knowledge workers” hold great potential for the Democratic coalition. But not for the reason the DLC supposes—just the opposite. One of Ruy Teixeira and John Judis’s most important points in The Emerging Democratic Majority is that the white-collar workers the Census Bureau classifies as “professionals,” as opposed to “managers,” used to form the most reliably Republican voting bloc, but they have gone for the Democrats 52 to 40 percent over the last four elections. One reason: “they have had their autonomy undercut by corporate and institutional managers who have introduced work rules, overseen their output, controlled the prices they charge and the incomes they receive.” In a word, they have been proletarianized—proud craftspeople increasingly falling pray to “alien market standards of performance that conflict with their own standards of excellence.”7
But then Judis and Teixeira introduce a baby boomer kind of hang-up into their analysis.
The main argument of their book is that the increasing numbers of such voters make an eventual Democratic majority a near inevitability. But when they talk about what kind of political vision Democrats need in order to reach them, they assert, without adducing evidence, that these voters are skeptical of “the government’s supplanting and repealing the operation of the market.” These voters “want incremental, careful reforms that will substantially increase healthcare coverage and perhaps universalize it, but not a large, new bureaucracy that will replace the entire private healthcare market.” They believe the most important role of government is to “equip Americans with the tools to be effective workers in a high-tech society, but they don’t want government to guarantee everyone a job through public spending.”
Now maybe the members of Judis and Teixeira’s emerging Democratic majority indeed think in pretty much the same way as do Mark Penn’s “wired workers,” and maybe to veer toward economic populism is to risk losing their support.8 But might not it also be likely—especially with fears about the outsourcing of professional jobs abroad being the hottest new political issue—that the reason these people are becoming Democrats is despitethe party’s turn from market interventionism, not because of it?
When its intellectuals are ready simply to presume the validity of a theory that may in fact be the opposite of the truth, it’s no wonder the Democratic Party has become so timid.
* * *
When social scientists render conclusions at odds with their own data, it is reasonable to wonder why. Again, one reason may be generational. Dissenters who do call for a bolder Democratic Party—one thinks of Robert Borosage of the Campaign for America’s Future—are sometimes dismissed as throwbacks to the ’60s. Well, I can’t be dismissed as a throwback. The ’60s ended when I was less than three months old. The traumas that shaped the world view of a Teixeira, a Greenberg, a Judis were the post-’60s backfirings of left-of-center boldness. The same goes for Al From, whose formative political experience, he has told me, was McGovern’s loss in 1972. The traumas of my own political generation, conversely, were the backfirings of left-of-center timidity.
Which may be why, when I read these writers’ stories about the history of the past 25 years, I don’t know what they’re talking about.
When Al From sent out the memo to potential members announcing the formation of the Democratic Leadership Council in 1985 he blamed the Democrats’ decline on “consistent pursuit of wrongheaded, losing strategies” such as Walter Mondale’s “making blatant appeals to liberal and minority interest groups in the hopes of building a winning coalition where a majority, under normal circumstances, simply does not exist.” As a historian, I looked up the record. And what I learned was that Walter Mondale’s grand strategy for his general election campaign was a promise to cut the deficit by two thirds in his first term through $92 billion of spending cuts and a tax hike. He also promised $30 billion in spending to restore some of Ronald Reagan’s cuts in social services—the money coming from other cuts elsewhere.9
Now I’m not sure what kind of strategy it would have taken to beat Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” in 1984. But deficit reduction surely was not it. Deficit reduction was also not a direct appeal to liberal and minority interest groups.
Cut to 1988 and the Dukakis campaign, the inspiration for the famous 1989 DLC monograph by William Galston and Elaine Kamarck The Politics of Evasion: Democrats and the Presidency, which argued that the Democrats had degenerated into “liberal fundamentalism.” But the closer I studied the actual content of that campaign, the more I trusted the assessment of Sidney Blumenthal in his book on the 1988 election, Pledging Allegiance: “Dukakis’s very inability to offer any definition of liberalism was taken as perhaps his most encouraging trait” by Democrats that year, he writes. “It was seen as an enormous shrewdness, a form of wisdom. Dukakis’s politics of lowered expectations, his career of slashing budgets and tax cuts, made him seem a new kind of Democrat, a man of his time.”10 Thus, under the slogan “This election is not about ideology, it’s about competence,” did Dukakis, incompetently, run. I’ll buy anyone a steak dinner who can, without a trip online or to the library, come up with a single “liberal fundamentalist” program that Dukakis advocated that year.11
And what about Bill Clinton in 1992? I once interviewed a liberal political activist who explained to me that the DLC loses every election but always manages to win the battle to interpret every election. It’s an exaggeration with more than a grain of truth. “Bill Clinton would not have been able to win the election if he had not run as a New Democrat, addressing the problems of cultural breakdown, the perceived practical failures of government, and public doubts about the welfare state,” the New Democrat historian and loyalist Kenneth Baer writes. As for cultural breakdown, any American who read a newspaper in 1992 knew that Bill Clinton had tried marijuana, violated the sanctity of his marriage vows, and dodged the draft. They voted for him anyway. And anyone who heard Bill Clinton speak during the 1992 general election season knows that a constant refrain was a promise of $50 billion a year in new investments in cities and $50 billion a year in new funding for education—and, what’s more, a first hundred days to rival FDR’s, culminating in the passage of a plan to deliver health care to every American. He also, of course, made noises about his toughness on crime, his commitment to beat down government bloat, his (vague) pledge to “end welfare as we know it.” He made rhetorical flourishes about issues like school choice. But the argument that DLC talking points won him the election cannot be sustained. It would also be wrong to argue that nobody-shoots-Santa-Claus-style liberalism did it. It was Ross Perot who won the election for Clinton, taking away many votes that ordinarily would have gone to Bush. Bush, with the economy as it was, had the lowest approval rating of any president seeking reelection in history. My little mutt Buster could have beaten George H.W. Bush in 1992.
* * *
Revisionism might seem a knottier course as our story progresses. Wasn’t it Clinton’s turn to a paleoliberal plan for universal health care that slew the Democrats in the 1994 Congressional elections, his neoliberalism that allowed him to get, as the subtitle of Dick Morris’s memoir Behind the Oval Office puts it, “Reelected Against All Odds”?12
But isn’t it also logical to hypothesize that the Democrats lost Congress not for proposing health care, but for losing on health care?
A suggestive piece of evidence comes from Greenberg, who had his focus groups write imaginary postcards to President Bush and his Democratic opponent. The most poignant comes from a Florida swing voter, who wrote, plaintively: “Dear Democratic Nominee, What can you actually do better. What happened to the health care programs you promised us 8 years ago?”
The point is supported by an argument of the political scientist Martin Wattenberg, who has demonstrated that “registered nonvoters in 1994 were consistently more pro-Democratic than were voters on a variety of measures of partisanship.” This suggests that the real triumph of the Republicans in 1994 was not ginning up any kind of new national consensus on their issues, but in motivating their own core voters to create a temporary mirage of such a consensus. And thus, when the Republican congress tried to legislate, radically, based on this purblind “mandate,” the more massive electorate in the presidential year 1996, more reflective of the ideological predilections of registered voters as a whole, found the Republican Senate leader Bob Dole easy to reject. “Whereas the credit for Clinton’s comeback in 1996 is often given to the triangulation strategy designed by his pollster Dick Morris,” Wattenberg concludes, “these results suggest that another plausible factor was the increase in turnout from 1994 to 1996.”13
Let me clear the decks, and let me do it bluntly. There is a more elegant explanation for why the Democrats succeeded in every election of the 1990s but one. It is, simply, that the core Democratic message of economic populism appeals to people—despite, not because of, the Democrats’ retreat from that selfsame message. And that the old ’60s bugaboos no longer keep people from voting for Democrats because so many voters are too young to remember, or care.14
Look at the data on the white, working-class counties of the industrial North that at mid-century were once so reliably Democratic but whose Wallace-Nixon-Goldwater Democrat turn so traumatized liberal confidence by the 1980s.15 Jefferson, just south of St. Louis, went 57 percent Democratic in 1960, 42.6 percent in 1968, 38.6 percent in 1972, and 36.71 percent in 1984. Macomb, north of Detroit: 63 percent for JFK, 66 percent for Ronald Reagan in 1984. They’re all now safely back in the Democratic column. Ninety percent of former Reagan-Democrat counties returned to the Democrats for Clinton’s first presidential run. They’re still Democratic.16
Now to point this out is to grant part of the DLC’s point: that this is testament to Clinton’s success in making the Democratic Party worthy of these people’s trust again. But I’d like to call a witness on my behalf. His name is . . . Bill Clinton. “The more they believe that you’re careful with tax money and responsible in the way you run the programs and require responsibility from citizens,” the former president told The American Prospect in an important interview last fall, “the more the public in general is willing to be liberal in the expenditure of tax money. . . . The Democrats ought to all pocket some of the gains I made.” To believe deep down that white, blue-collar voters might somehow slip back into an atavistic pining for George Wallace is to insult these voters and traduce Bill Clinton’s accomplishment. The Democrats need to start trusting that their 1990s gains were real, and that people vote for Democrats bcause they’re attracted to economic populism, not repelled by it.
Another place where Democrats need to start trusting these gains is in the realm of foreign policy. Recent events—the testimony of Richard Clarke, the spectacle of stonewalling from the Bush White House that followed, the stalemate in Iraq—point out just how threadbare the old stereotypes about wimpy Democrats and muscular Republicans remain. In polls, people still claim to trust the Republicans over the Democrats to keep them safe. But the numbers are becoming softer all the time. After the disasters of the 2002 off-year elections, Bill Clinton lamented in an address to the DLC, “When people feel uncertain, they’d rather have somebody who’s strong and wrong than somebody who’s weak and right.” Here is an example in which the Democrat who can’t trust that Bill Clinton’s gains were real is Bill Clinton. George W. Bush has recently been serving Democrats a campaign issue on a platter: that an appearance of strength, when rooted in incompetence, strategic blindness, and ideological obsession, is weakness. If Democrats can’t convert the distrust produced by George Bush’s numbskull unilateralism into a trust in Democrats on this issue, perhaps they don’t deserve to win elections.
I understand why it might be hard for baby-boomer Democrats to shed the sense that they have to look a little more like the Republican Party in order to restore voters’ trust: getting spurned by Reagan Democrats was the shock that defined their political lives. Bill Clinton is an outstanding example of this reaction: from his gubernatorial loss in Arkansas in 1980 “he drew the lesson that he could not actively push a liberal agenda in the face of a dominantly conservative and racially polarized state.”17 Same for Joe Lieberman, Indiana Senator Evan Bayh (now DLC chairman)—who watched his father get strangled by Ronald Reagan’s coattails—and Stanley Greenberg, who, holding focus groups in Macomb County, Michigan, in 1985, found voters raging that “blacks constitute the explanation for their vulnerability and for almost everything that has gone wrong in their lives” and that the Democratic Party was in thrall to them.18No wonder he’s careful not to offend those same folks now.
But Greenberg presents no evidence in his latest book that any of that vituperation remains. Instead, when Greenberg asks voters to describe the Democratic Party, he doesn’t get back a description of the party of hippies, welfare queens, and gays; he gets a description of the party of . . . nothing at all:
“I think they lost their focus,” says one informant.
“I think they are a little disorganized right now,” answers another.
“They need leadership.”
“On the sidelines.”
Which brings us back to the question of stock tickers and superjumbos. Who wants to identify with an unfocused, disorganized, leaderless, sidelined, fumbling, confused, losing, scared organization? Vote with it sometimes, maybe, but identifywith it? No one I know. Even if that institution happens to offer more of what people say they want. If people don’t know what you stand for, they won’t identify with you. Change your message to try to win each passing election, and soon you may start losing them all.
So what’s the alternative? What should the Democrats’ consistent, long-term message consist of? I will avoid prescribing what it should be, other than to note that for reasons of history and structure it must tend to the work of economic equality. There are really two reasons to stay away from details. First, they would distract from the real point of this essay, which is not about programs but about structure. Second, there are lots of possibilities for programs, and it would be misleading to focus on some favored set. It could be universal single-payer health care. It could be free college education or universal pre-kindergarten or both. It could be a program to make the government the employer of last resort, putting the underemployed to work rebuilding infrastructure. It is not the work of a day, a month, or even a year to settle on what the course should be. I argue here only that there must be a course.
Why must these programs tend to the work of economic equality? One reason is structural (or “path-dependent,” as the social scientists say): the modern Democratic Party’s strongest store of cultural identity, of value built over time—its “brand identity,” as the marketers put it—is in its work to producing economic equality. Abandoning it makes as much sense as McDonald’s deciding to drop the hamburgers and remake itself into a chain of pancake joints.
Another reason is more simple—numbskull simple. Any marketing executive will tell you that you can’t build a brand out of stuff the people say they don’t want. And what do Americans say they want? According to the pollsters, exactly what the Democratic Party was once famous for giving them: economic populism.
* * *
In The Two Americas Greenberg presents a fascinating chart that records his subjects’ rankings of our country’s problems. It reads like the score for an Old Democrat symphony. Of the top eight concerns, only one, by the traditional reckoning, helps the Republicans: “Rogue nations, like Iran and North Korea, armed with weapons of mass destruction and working together with global terrorist organizations.” It’s ranked in second place, designated “extremely serious” or “very serious” by 72 percent of respondents. But before that, in first place, is the biggest problem: “the state of healthcare in America,” a major concern for 77 percent. Four through eight read thus: “two-parent families spending 22 or fewer hours with their children every week in order to work and earn enough”; “the state of education in America”; “the middle class being squeezed, because their incomes are stagnant while prices are skyrocketing for housing, college tuition, and health care, with employers contributing less each year”; “big corporations having too much influence”; and “the growing inequality of income in America.” (The issue in third place, “rapidly rising federal deficits,” represents a tactical disadvantage for the Bush administration.)
All these are rated major problems by 52 percent or more. When you get near the bottom of the list, you start getting Republican issues: “out-of-control government spending and programs”; “outdated government regulations”; and “the high taxes on businesses and individuals.”
That would be the crown jewel of the Republican agenda, which only 15 percent rate an “extremely serious problem” and 15 percent call “very serious.” All three of the above are worried over by less than 45 percent of respondents.
Greenberg asks a group of voters what they think about “big corporations”: “They spit out, ‘money,’ ‘greed,’ and ‘Enron.’ They ‘try and run the little guy out’ and ‘have too much control over the little people.’ . . . ‘They want more and more and more.... ‘It really makes me question and just lose faith in everything that we are supposed to believe in.’”
It is a topic, he concludes, that one of his focus-group subsets approaches “with revulsion formerly reserved for Hollywood.” These people do not come from one of his swing-voter subsets. They are “Country Folks,” rural men and women without a college education, a demographic that went for Bush over Gore almost two to one.
It’s a story you find again and again, buried in his pages. Fifty-two percent of elderly non-college-educated men call themselves Republicans, only 39 percent Democrats—and only 37 percent of them believe that regulation does more harm than good. As for his national sample as a whole, “a 55 percent majority favors a larger government effort to reduce the differences between high- and middle-income people. The majority reaches 65 percent to aggressively shut down corporate loopholes and shelters. . . . More than 60 percent of Americans say CEO wrongdoing is a ‘widespread problem’ in a system that is failing”—a figure “well in excess of the percent getting ‘very angry’ about the federal government spending the social security surplus, as a modest point of comparison.”
From this, Greenberg makes an extraordinary admission: “The anticorporate reaction is not the strongest among the Democratic loyalists; it is not a ‘base strategy’ in conventional political terms. The anticorporate appeal reaches into the contested world, and even the Republican loyalist world.”19 So why aren’t these people Democrats?
* * *
I suspect that in part it has to do with the fact that responding to these concerns would require a commitment to economic liberalism, which means a commitment to the kind of time horizon that Democrats, so fixated on the two-year election cycle, don’t even know how to think about. If you can’t see beyond the two-year election cycle, you certainly can’t be thinking about a commitment as serious as “a larger government effort to reduce the differences between high- and middle-income people.” That simply takes a while—in the conception, in the execution, and, not least, in the political promotion. Instead—to take a notorious Dick Morris idea that made it into Clinton’s 1996 State of the Union Address—the voters get the federal promotion of school uniforms.
It’s not that any Democrat ever sits down and says, I only care about what happens in the next two years. The sentiment has been displaced. It is expressed every time a Democrat fetishizes the problem of reaching “swing voters” above all else.
Those who vote neither habitually for Democrats nor habitually for Republicans are, of course, important voters: there are many of them, more of them all the time, and without a sizable number of them, neither party would win any pluralities.20
But what, structurally, is a swing voter? We return to the example of Boeing. Swing voters are like short-term stockholders. They are attracted to one position or another because of what’s in it for them at any particular moment. When that position no longer pays, it is abandoned.
Try to woo a bloc of swing voters—“soccer moms,” “NASCAR dads,” whatever—who are by definition fickle, and a political party hollows itself out by ignoring stakeholders who aren’t short-term: activists, institutions like labor, minorities whose commitment to the Democratic Party is historic.
By this theory, the analogue to T. Boone Pickens or “Chainsaw Al” Dunlop is . . . Dick Morris.21
Bill Clinton hired Dick Morris to prevent what was seen, in the context of a single career, as an unacceptable horror: a looming reelection loss. Morris persuaded him that the modern Democratic Party’s founding principle—long-term investment in programs to create more economic equality—was unacceptably inflexible. For Clinton and Morris, the solution was plain. The Democratic Party had to shed everything that was slow-moving and lumbering in its ideological presentation. They had to turn a dinosaur into a lean, mean short-term vote-producing machine.
The Congressional losses of 1994 touched Clinton’s deepest anxieties, and made him willing to weaken the institution thatmade him, for personal survival. Dick Morris did it the way a CEO would. By showing indifference to any stakeholder but the swing voter, he gladly risked the loyalty of those who had been willing to stick with the institution through thick and thin. “The fact that it would anger Democrats was not a drawback but a bonus,” Stephanopoulos recalls of Morris’s strategy—just as angering long-term stakeholders is a bonus for a corporate manager looking to prove to Wall Street his macho bona fides. It gives the stock a goose. The only risk being, of course, the long-term health of the institution.22
Political scientists, having established that party identification is the best predictor of voting behavior, need to study how many party identifiers the Democrats lost specifically as a result of this kind of thinking. They need to measure the opportunity cost of doing what Dick Morris said needed to be done to win the 1996 election and the opportunity cost of the Morris-like habits that currently saturate Bill Clinton’s party. Now that Dick Morris has been disgraced, it’s easy to laugh at him. But we all know what happens to those who laugh imperiously in parables. He lost the battle. But did his legacy of stock-ticker thinking also lose Democrats the war?
* * *
Some of the evidence is close at hand. It’s hard to identify with a party when you don’t know what it stands for or how it differs from its opponent. According to exit polls taken during the 2002 congressional elections, only 34 percent of voters thought the two parties differed on the one issue the Democratic leaders Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle made the core of the congressional campaigns: providing prescription drugs under Medicare. Meanwhile, on another issue of widespread voter concern—the economy, encompassing both the recent corporate scandals and mounting unemployment—the leadership offered no coherent ideas at all. So it was that voters who rated the economy their most important issue voted Republican in House elections 52 percent to 48 percent at a time when the president presiding over the faltering economy was a Republican.
I have noted that many voters no longer remember the Democratic Party’s reputation as the institutional embodiment of the worst excesses of the 1960s. But there’s something else they don’t remember: that the Democrats were once the clear and obvious institutional embodiment of their own economic interests.
How do we know this? Judis and Teixeira make a fascinating observation about the increasing number of voters who refuse to identify with a party: “When the new independent vote is broken down, it reveals a trend towards the Democrats in the 1990s and a clear and substantial Democratic partisan advantage. . . . once these independents are assigned the party they are closer to, Democrats enjoy a 13 percent advantage over Republicans.” They add that among the 15 most independent-rich states, ten belong to the Democrats—big ones like Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, and Virginia. Two of them swing. The other three are tiny.
Here’s a riddle: what is a swing voter? More and more, it is an American who thinks like a Democrat but refuses to identify as one.
As President Clinton put it in the American Prospect interview, “The public is operationally progressive and rhetorically conservative.” And if it is true that party identification—which, as Greenberg argues, is a form of social identity that endures over the long term—is the best predictor of voter behavior, isn’t getting this selfsame public to identify with the Democratic Party much, much more than half the solution?
* * *
So how to do it? Democrats must stop looking leaderless, fumbling, unfocused, disorganized, and confused. They must give voters something to identify with. They must no longer judge themselves sophisticated when they cancel all the old long-term dreams. They need new long-term dreams.
Ronald Reagan used to say that there are no easy answers but there are simple answers. The answer to this problem is simple, and not easy. The Democrats need to make commitments, or a network of commitments, that do not waver from election to election. If you are trying to build an institution that commands respect and power unto generations—that can reproduce itself—wise superjumbo projects have intrinsic value, whatever their precise content, whether they end up failing or succeeding. The investments pay off, not in immediate profit, but in the equity that comes from sweat. Because they require patience, they build fortitude. Because they require their stakeholders to take risks, they inspire an evangelical commitment to redeeming the risk. Even if they don’t succeed, they leave something behind: an institutional infrastructure, a rich network of stakeholders at multiple levels of commitment and intensity—an institutionalsoul.
Think about this mystery: why, if so many of their individual issues poll abysmally—demonstrated in the Greenberg data cited above—have the Republicans been able to pull even with the Democrats in voter identification and win back operational control of the U.S. government?
The right wing of the Republican Party after World War II had a theory: the reason the Democrats were the dominant political force was the Republican establishment’s stock-ticker-like devotion to whatever happened to be the political fashion of the moment—its self-conscious embrace of swing voters. (Conservatives called the Republican establishment’s ideology the “dime-store New Deal”: the Democrats’ ideas, only cheaper.)
The conservatives’ original willingness to stake themselves to the long term was reflected in gallows humor: “I think we had better pull in our belts and buckle down to a long period of real impotence. Hell, the catacombs were good enough for the Christians,” the publisher of the National Review, William Rusher, joked in 1960. When they finally got their moment in the sun, nominating one of their own for the presidency in 1964 by hook and by crook, the results were so disastrous that Richard Rovere of The New Yorker, voicing the consensus view, proclaimed, “the election has finished the Goldwater school of political reaction.”
They would, of course, eventually be vindicated. Conservatism went bust, conservatives made some adjustments—anything to keep on building conservatism. That became the conservative way, the very essence of its political charter: a willingness to stake itself to the long term. Progress was steady. In 1966 a bunch of new conservative governors and congressmen were voted in. In 1980 Americans elected one of them, Ronald Reagan, as their president. In 1994 Republicans achieved what a previous generation would have deemed impossible: control of Congress. And in 1995 Bill Clinton paid Reagan tribute by adopting many of his political positions, which had also been Barry Goldwater’s positions.
What had happened in the interim, and why? Obviously, an enormously complex and contingent history unfolded, too complex to do justice to here.
But one reason for their success was formal. It was their longer time horizon. They built the brand. They made sure everyone knew what it meant to be a Republican. And this very willingness to commit became the margin of difference that allowed a set of not all that popular ideas to become a winning platform.23
Shortly before Halloween of 2003, a very self-satisfied Newt Gingrich gave an interview to Susan Stamberg on the subject of power. She asked him if he missed the perquisites of being Speaker of the House. He answered, “If you’re trying to do big things, petty power isn’t very interesting; it doesn’t really matter very much, if you’re trying to do something historic . . . Remember that I spent from 1978 to 1994—that’s 16 years—to create a majority. So I’m comfortable with long-term projects. . . . I kind of measure things different [than most].”
The Democrats need to start making these kinds of measurements: to dream some political and policy dreams that are big enough to take 16 years or more to build.
Conservative political ideas are bad, and they have been winning. Liberal political ideas are good, and they can win. But this final message is for all of you who might have been nodding along with the presentation the whole time, smiling in agreement: you shouldn’t have been, at least not if you were following all my points. For this argument is for the objective necessity of political risk for irreversible commitments. And irreversible commitments are not anything to smile glibly at. If risk is not frightening, it is nothing at all. Republicans began their march to an irreversible commitment to the full conservative program in 1964. It led that year to an atrocious defeat. I’m not saying the Democrats need to embrace an economic liberalism superjumbo, and then lose, in order to win. I’m saying that they must embrace an economic liberalism superjumbo, and they must stick with it even if they lose, in order to win big. Dream again, or die.
1 I draw much of this story from Hutton’s important A Declaration of Interdependence: Why America Should Join the World (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003). See also his “The American Prosperity Myth,” The Nation, September 1, 2003.
2 On January 19, 2004, Time reported that 45.5 percent of Americans identify themselves as Republicans, 45.2 percent as Democrats. The postwar numbers before Watergate were not quite as high, but comparable.
3 Republican identifiers vote Republican 90 percent of the time. Democratic identifiers vote Democratic less often, consistent with the argument developed here that the Democratic Party lacks a sufficiently consistent profile for voters to identify with. See Warren E. Miller and J. Merrill Shanks, The New American Voter (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), 148. See also Bruce E. Keith et al., The Myth of the Independent Voter(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).
4 See, for example, Michael Tomasky, “Dems’ Fightin’ Words,”The American Prospect, August 8, 2002, and George Packer, “The Silent Majority Party,” The New York Times, April 6, 2001.
5 See Stanley Greenberg, Middle Class Dreams: The Politics and Power of the New American Majority (New York: Times Books, 1995).
7 A remarkable index of the shift, according to Judis and Teixeira: “In the first half of 2001, when Congress was considering a patients’ bill of rights, the majority of AMA contributions—67 percent—went to Democrats rather than Republicans.” Doctors, when they were independent entrepeneurs, had traditionally been an extraordinarily conservative constituency. The American Medical Association was the only mainstream professional association to endorse Barry Goldwater, and it distributed record albums of Ronald Reagan campaigning against Medicare in 1961. See Rick Perlstein,Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (New York: Hill & Wang, 2001), 184–186, 362.
8 Greenberg makes a similar argument more explicitly in The Two Americas: economic populism is a dangerous zero-sum game because it turns off an important new part of the Democratic base, well-educated professionals attracted to the Democrats for their cosmopolitan, tolerant orientation. “The corporate frame . . . a full-throated cry about disproportionate power and uneven opportunity . . . might attract blue-collar and noncollege working-class voters at the expense of potential support among the Postgraduate Men, Well-Educated Women, and the Young and the Restless, who rate big corporations closer to 50 degrees. It may limit the ability to get an audience with the Privileged Men in the Republican camp, the one group that seems least comfortable there on cultural grounds.” But this is an argument made mostly on faith; he provides no explicit evidence that these voters are turned off by economic populism, and my hunch is that there is little evidence to be found. Fifty degrees is not far from the sample as a whole’s rating of big corporations, 45.8 degrees. And, as noted above, the increasing “proletarianization” of white-collar workers suggests a trend toward more solidarity and economic populism, not less. In fact, the one anecdote he provides makes the opposite point: “In fact, the 2000 election was something of a test run, as these loyalist groups—Super-Educated Women, Secular Warriors, and Cosmopolitan States—gravitated even more strongly to the Democrats, as if they had never heard Gore’s populist rhetoric.” He doesn’t consider that they might have heard it and not minded it—or even embraced it.
9 See Jack Germond and Jules Witcover, Wake Us When It’s Over: Presidential Politics of 1984 (New York: Macmillan, 1985), 472. On the stump to blue-collar workers, Mondale would lecture on the “misalignment of currency.” The Mondale consultant Pat Caddell, when he read the debate book prepared for Mondale, told Germond and Witcover, “It’s Reagan’s best arguments against our best arguments. That’s when I really panicked. I said, ‘We’re losing in our own goddamned debate book.’ ”
10 That Dukakis retreated from liberalism is not to say that the Republicans didn’t succeed in labeling him as a liberal—an important distinction. If he had actually professed a robust liberalism, George Bush couldn’t have called him more of a radical than he already did: “ ‘I’m not running against Jimmy Carter, I’m running against George McGovern,’ Bush crowed,” writes Blumenthal—even as the Dukakis campaign ostentatiously distanced itself from George McGovern.
11 Two (unemphasized) proposals qualify by my preliminary reckoning: a program to make college loans universally available, to be repayed by payroll deductions upon graduation—Dukakis’s one “surefire applause line”; and a plan to cover most, but not all, of the 37 million Americans who didn’t have health insurance. The latter was announced September 20, the only time “when all three networks turned on Bush for at least one news cycle” (Jack Germond and Jules Witcover, Whose Broad Stripes and Bright Stars: The Trivial Pursuit of the Presidency, 1988 [New York: Warner Books, 1989], 405–406, 407).
12 For the conventional wisdom on health care, see the cover of the December 5, 1994, New Republic: “THEY BLEW IT: The fundamental STRATEGIC MISTAKE of the CLINTON PRESIDENCY is now clear. If President Clinton had pushed for WELFARE REFORM rather than HEALTHCARE REFORM IN 1994, we would now be talking about a great DEMOCRATIC REALIGNMENT, rather than a great REPUBLICAN REALIGNMENT.” And of course Clinton’s politically unsophisticated handling of the gays-in-the-military issue hurt him badly as well. On Morris: “Getting Reelected Against All Odds” is the subtitle of the paperback edition (Los Angeles: Renaissance Books, 1999). The hardcover title is Behind the Oval Office: Winning the Presidency in the Nineties (New York: Random House, 1997). The paperback is a crucial document for the argument I am making here. It includes over 300 pages of reproductions of meeting agendas written by Morris for the Clinton campaign, often recommending ways to outflank the Contract with America from the right, such as his call on April 5, 1995, for announcing a “monthly ‘body count’ ” of deportations of undocumented immigrants.
13 Martin P. Wattenberg, Where Have All the Voters Gone?(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002), 105–120. Another intriguing argument debunking the idea that 1994 evidenced a conservative turn in the electorate as a whole is Walter J. Stone and Ronald B. Rapoport, “It’s Perot Stupid! The Legacy of the 1992 Perot Movement in the Major-Party System, 1994–2000,” PS: Political Science & Politics 34, No. 1 (March 2001): 49–58. Stone and Rapoport demonstrate that the GOP successfully reached out to Ross Perot’s 1992 voters, inheriting that movement’s momentum as an out party campaigning against the status quo, with Newt Gingrich the policy entrepreneur padding out the Contract with America with Perovian reforms like term limits. Perot also endorsed the congressional freshmen, calling on supporters to “give the Republicans a majority in the House and Senate and say, all right, now, we’re gonna let you guys have a turn at bat.” The 1994 elections were not a popular mandate for conservatism.
14 Even considering the low numbers of young people who vote, the median age of the American voter is 47, which means he or she was 15 years old when the candidate of acid, amnesty, abortion, and the guaranteed minimum income carried the Democratic standard.http://www.bc.edu/centers/crr/papers/summary/wp_2004-07.pdf.
15 Walter Lippmann even labelled these voters “Goldwater Democrats” in 1964. And the turn of blue-collar Democrats in Michigan to the Republicans because of the Democrats’ advocacy of civil rights was a topic of discussion after the Democrats lost the state house there in 1962 (Perlstein, Before the Storm, 213–214, 396).
17 Philip Klinkner, “Bill Clinton and the Politics of the New Liberalism,” in Adolph Reed Jr., ed., Without Justice For All: The New Liberalism and the Retreat From Racial Equality(Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999), 12.
18 Note, however, that this was not the exclusive opinion of working-class Democrats, as the McPherson quote above suggests. For Lieberman’s experience, see Joseph Lieberman, In Praise of Public Life: The Honor and Purpose of Political Service(New York: Touchstone Books, 2001), 60.
19 Greenberg recently warned in a New York Times op-ed, “Democrats have begun fighting a class war. . . . but Mr. Kerry should not settle for a campaign waged on such narrow terms”—contradicting his book’s finding that these terms are anything but narrow (“Fly High Above the Battlefield,” March 7, 2004).
20 According to a Pew Research Center survey released March 3, 2004, of registered voters nationally, 38 percent are committed to John Kerry, 33 percent to George Bush, and 29 percent uncommitted.
21 To belabor the comparison but to broaden the social critique, in this analogy a bloc of swing voters resembles an institutional investor. The rise of these massive blocks of capital, controlled by pension and mutual funds, has precisely because of their aggregated power come to drive corporate decision-making. And institutional investors, Will Hutton notes, on average “turn over 40 percent of their portfolio in a year, looking for higher returns.” Back in the time when a company like Boeing could thrive, in 1960, “Wall Street turned over only 12 percent of its entire capitalization.” It is a source of the cult of the short-term in American capitalism. The irony is that though the development of a majority “investor class” has been treated as a democratizing force in capitalism, it is the opposite. Pension- and mutual-fund holders’ money is invested by cartels, cartels that have weakened the voice of individual investors; the style of corporate management these cartels demand, by systematically ignoring stakeholders other than shareholders, weaken citizens’other stakes in the economy—their stake, for example, as members of a “working class.”
22 It also may have hurt short-term health not just of the party but of Clinton himself. One of the results of Clinton’s concessions to the Republicans in his famous 1995 budget address may have been a realization among Republicans that Clinton was alienating his own party, and that he wouldn’t stand up for his beliefs—rendering him a more vulnerable opponent than they had previously thought. Thus they were more willing and better able to orchestrate the attacks that he was forced to spend his entire second term defending himself against.
23 Among liberals, another theory for the Republicans’ success has become dominant. It is that the Republicans have mastered the dark art of political fear-mongering, a tactic beneath the Democrats. The “fear” argument is absurd, bathetic, and self-congratulatory. Presidential politics has always been an arena of fear, a dark continent. Conveying a political vision is almost always like telling a bedtime story: the voters’ fears must be named, described, to convince them that this particular candidate is the one to vanquish the scary monster under the bed—that this candidate, not the opponent, is the guarantor of security. The title of Greenberg’s recent op-ed, “Fly High Above the Battlefield,” is an emblem of the problem: flying above the battlefield has never won Democrats presidential elections (with the possible, extraordinary exception of Jimmy Carter in 1976). Instead, it has lost them elections (certainly Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956 and Dukakis in 1988). Greenberg believes in a message he calls the “JFK Opportunity Democrats.” Presented with studied vagueness, it is an appeal to sunny optimism and high-minded consensualism. Beyond the oddity of embracing as a model a campaign that basically produced a tie, I wonder where this idea comes from that Jack Kennedy’s political style was especially high-minded, his message one of sunny optimism. His most celebrated moment as a campaigner, the first debate against Richard Nixon, was a scary litany of Soviet advances. His central domestic campaign plank, Medicare, was sold through images of Grandmother dying sick and alone. As president, much of the time he was on TV he was warning America that the world might soon end. No, “fear” is not the secret to the Republicans’ success—unless you are referring to the Democrats’ timidity in the kind of fear-naming that is a natural and legitimate part of any successful political campaign.
Originally published in the summer 2004 issue of Boston Review.
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June 01, 2004
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