The Three Curses Faced By Democrats -- And How to Lift Them

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The Democrats are now cursed in three ways that they can overcome only with a new boldness and determination.

Ever since the mid-1990s, we have been writing at The American Prospect about an “emerging Democratic majority” as a result of demographic and generational change. That support has materialized. Votes from Latinos and other growing minorities, as well as the young more generally, have contributed to Barack Obama’s victories and rising hopes for the future.

But those groups are also the source of the first curse facing the Democrats: Their new majority comes from low-turnout constituencies. When voting participation drops, as it typically does in midterm elections, the decline tends to be especially sharp among minorities and the young. While Republicans are blessed with a reliable base, Democratic turnout depends on their voters’ fluctuating interest and enthusiasm.

The Democrats’ second curse stems from Republican entrenchment in the states and the Supreme Court. The 2010 midterms, dominated by older voters, gave Republicans unified control of key swing states, which they have since used to change voting laws, gerrymander legislative districts, weaken unions, and in other ways keep themselves in office. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has removed barriers to money in politics and eliminated federal checks on state voting-rights abuses. The combination may sustain Republican power in Congress and state legislatures at least through the rest of the decade and give historic importance to the 2020 election, which will affect redistricting after the decennial census that year. It’s a common pattern: Those who hold power based on past majorities often use it to entrench themselves when their future grows uncertain, and the Republicans are doing exactly that in the states and the courts.

The third curse afflicting the Democrats results largely from the preceding two: The party lacks the necessary power to deliver on promises of economic revival and social justice to the groups whose enthusiastic support it needs. Republican control of the House has stymied the Obama administration on economic policy and even on immigration reform. The Supreme Court’s decisions on campaign finance also make the Democrats more dependent than ever on fundraising among the wealthy.

Even if Democrats had a free hand and the willingness to use it, the economic challenges would be difficult. Throughout the advanced economies, growth rates have been slowing and inequality has been rising for 40 years as a result of structural changes mainly due to technology and globalization. With every recession since 1980, recoveries have taken longer. But national policies do make a difference, and even when Democrats cannot carry out a program on behalf of working people, they need to advocate policies that make as loud and stark a contrast as possible with those of the Republicans.

Call this approach “moving left to the center.” Obama’s belated emphasis on raising the minimum wage and increasing overtime pay are good examples of the approach. Taxing the 1 percent to finance broadly distributed benefits also fits this description. If the Democrats are going to convince their supporters it is worth the trouble to vote, they need to draw unambiguous distinctions on economics with Republicans.

Such policies will predictably be described as class warfare. But, to use a well-worn phrase, this is about saving capitalism from the capitalists. The objective is actually to get back to an income distribution more like the level that prevailed in the Eisenhower administration. The entire political and legal spectrum has been moved so far to the right that what used to be centrist only seems populist. The purpose of moving left to the center is ultimately to move the center back closer to where it used to be.

In highlighting the Democrats’ three curses, I don’t mean to suggest any reason to envy the Republicans’ position. Gallup recently published two analyses of age and politics: One claimed that the elderly have “realigned” with the Republicans, while the other argued that the young have moved further toward the Democrats. That divergence will help Republicans in 2014, but they should be nervous about its long-term implications.

The shift among the young, the Gallup data show, does not stem only from the growing numbers of Latinos and nonwhites, up from 29 percent to 45 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds between 1995 and 2013. Young non-Latino whites have also shifted toward the Democrats. Since 2006, Gallup reports, Democrats have averaged an 18-point edge among young adults overall (though some data on the youngest of that group suggest recent slippage).

Meanwhile, over that same period, seniors have become more Republican. But no group depends more than the aged on federal expenditures that the GOP is determined to slash. Routinely, Republicans criticize Obama and the Democrats for failing to cut Medicare and Social Security and the next day run TV ads warning seniors that Obama and the Democrats are cutting Medicare and Social Security. That gambit may work when Republicans are out of power, but if they have to govern, they will need to choose between the ideological and demographic parts of their base.

In the next few elections, the Democrats’ three curses may prevent them from reaping the full advantages of generational and demographic change. But in creating a political future, it is better to be cursed with youth than blessed with age. With a little courage, Democrats should eventually be able to turn their rising prospects into a governing majority.


This article originally appeared in the May/June issue of The American Prospect magazine.


Just ONE small problem with the entire thesis of "a growing minority population." Thanks to the Democrat's never ending Great Recession, minority birth rates - regardless of race - are now at or below white birth rates.
Therein, lies Obama's push to allow "anchor children" into the country and setting up legal barriers so they can't be deported.

Gee I guess Mr Starr has it all figured out. Now we can all go home and rest assured the universe is in fine hands.

"The third curse afflicting the Democrats results largely from the preceding two: The party lacks the necessary power to deliver on promises of economic revival and social justice".
This is indeed a problem. Socialist policies cannot deliver economic revival, period. It does not matter what Dems do. Whatever their economic recipes, they always fail. Look at the anemic recovery after the last recession. Growth rates under 2% and negative for the last quarter. Jobs barely getting back to the per-recession levels . No reason to celebrate because of the significant growth in population. All this despite new 7 trillion added to the National debt. Oh, yeah, this is all Bush's fault.
I wonder when Americans of modest means will see through the Dems' demagoguery and realize that they are much better off with the free market system. This will be the fourth and decisive curse for socialist Dems.

As others have pointed out, the growth of the minority population has already slowed between birth rates and immigration rates (more people moved from the US to Mexico last year than vice versa) and the assumption that minorities will continue to vote in the same proportions they do now is pretty silly.

A couple of things for the author to ponder (presumably sleeplessly)

- European voters took a sharp turn to the right during the recent Euro parliamentary election; in France (where the elected a socialist president only 2 years ago) not only made a rightist party the predominant factor in their delegation but it was the leading vote getter with those 35 and under.

- In Illinois, the Republican candidate for Governor has secured the support of Chicago's largest black church and a Latino member of the Obama campaign team .

You have a lot more than 3 curses to deal with.

The author of this article is forgetting one important thing about the old conservative baby boomers. These were the same young liberal radicals of the 60s that were supposed to give the democrats a permanent majority. What happen they got jobs Carter came to office and the rest is History. The young generation is always more liberal until they have families and need to support them. I think that is why liberal progressives do their best to destroy family values and to keep people poor.

Scuse me. We, the baby boomers of the left during the long 60s did not go all conservative. We're still here and a far left as ever. It's just that we, the college-educated children of the upper middle class were a minority then, and still are now. I'm as far left-liberal as I was then because I had a family to support and because I couldn't have done that on pink-collar sh*t work--as a waitress, supermarket checker, secretary or on any of other jobs open to me as a woman without government intervention.

I'm not out to destroy your "family values"--I am just responding to the fact that they ceased to be operative decades ago. If I could have gotten the guarantee of a permanent housewife career--lifelong financial support without ever working outside the home--I would have jumped at it. But by the time I entered the marriage market that wasn't a serious possibility. Since sex was free, men weren't in a hurry to get married. And even if they could be inveigled into marriage, they weren't going to guarantee financial support--or lifelong commitment.

Maybe there were places where my contemporaries were marrying and being given in marriage, and where they went conservative once they had kids. But that is not where I lived and is not, increasingly, where most 20 and 30-somethings now life.

Always comes down to turnout. If Dems weren't so darn scared of Tea Party in 2010- The 2010 fluke never would have happened ! Dems fear fighting for votes. GOP is just stronger in back alley fights.

I like Starr's article, but the three curses notwithstanding, with the third curse as the zinger, it may be that more than politics and non-voting constituencies and the Supreme Court stop full blown Keynesianism in its tracks (TAP, Krugman, Reich). And the reason is the problem of growth and growth economics itself. The conditions for a new social compact built on Keynesian demand or even substantive Keynesian social democracy (built on a mixed economy). There are limits to Keynesian policies, which is not to say that monetary policy is any answer -- both are forms of growth economics and related to supply and demand. It might be said, and I have said it in Dissent, that the Obama people underestimated even the tools they had at hand in dealing with The Great Recession; even if Roemer had won out against Geithner, even if the Republicans wanted a job program -- the problem of delivering to Obama's constituency, given declining growth, would have remained. And given that the elites of the new global economy create fictitious capital at a faster rate than growth, even with Piketty's global tax, what Alasdair MacIntyre would have called a liberal's red light, resources would not be sufficiently distributed so as to deliver. Sure austerity is a problem, but so is the very structure of the new economy (see all the works of Jerry Davis on shareholder capitalism and the structure of ownership and management in a fragmented and dispersed global economy, all of which allow hedge fund managers to rise to the top of the amoral plutocracy and stay there. Let me take the argument further: growth economics will not work and maybe no economics will work. To create a better society and a world of balanced economic development we need to see the world in a different frame: moral, going all the way back to Kant; without ideology but pragmatically in Dewey's sense which in no way means considering only what will work politically. The liberal red light (in Alasdair MacIntyre's formulation) of increased taxation might help to find more resources -- in the absence of growth, scarce resources for the common good, but it won't go all the way to deliver to the constituency with which social democrats are "cursed." We need to sweep away both growth economics and neoliberalism -- market fundamentalism --as well as a Marxism that shares the view of the capitalists that everything is about economic power and endless accumulation of wealth. We need to have another look at Rousseau and Kant and indeed Jane Austen, to grasp the moral dimension in modernity and we need to understand that there are other forces in so-called post-modernity than those wholly absorbed by turbo-capitalism. Politics yes, but culture and education, without suggesting the melioristic and failed formula of communitarianism. We need to rethink the Left to deliver.

Curse #4 is Reagan Democrats not yet re-joining the Democrats. I have faith that more and more workers will re-join us given that their bread is buttered on our side. We are, after all, the worker's party.

We should find out from those who've already returned those things that did the trick.

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