Three Reasons Why Democrats Haven't Triumphed Over Republican Elitism -- Yet


AP Photo/Eric Gay

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton waves to the crowd before she speaks about her new book "Hard Choices" on Friday, June 20, 2014, in Austin, Texas. 

This article originally appeared at The Huffington Post.

When you consider what has been happening to the average working person since the era of Ronald Reagan, it's amazing that the Republicans have fought the Democrats about to a draw.

The recipe of Reagan and both Bushes has been to weaken government, undermine the regulation of market excesses, attack core social insurance programs, tilt the tax system away from the wealthy and towards the middle class, gut the safeguards that protect workers on the job, make college ever more unaffordable, and appoint judges who undermine democracy itself.

That stuff is not exactly popular. Yet Democrats seem largely unable to convert Republican elitism to their advantage. And despite some phony populist trappings, every conceivable Republican candidate for 2016 is even further to the right than Reagan and the Bushes.

If the Republican formula had improved the economy, voters might say that, well, maybe the rich got richer but other folks did OK, too, and you could understand why Republicans gained ground among working people. But that's not what happened.

Between the Reagan presidency and 2008, average economic performance was only so-so and the rich got nearly all the gains, the exception being the middle and late 1990s under Bill Clinton. The economy, you'll recall, crashed on the watch of George W. Bush, as the result of conservative policies that liberated Wall Street to have its way with the rest of the economy.

So, why is there not a groundswell of support for Democrats? Why don't people grasp their own economic interests?

The usual answers include the fact that the recovery under Obama has been weak; that the Affordable Care Act backfired; that there is a backlash among socially conservative white voters who resent everything from Obama's race to the sense that he is too indulgent of immigrants; the usual litany of complaints against Democrats on such social issues as guns, God and gays; and the fact that the Tea Parties have devised a kind of right-wing populism.

But it seems to me that the Democrats' problems run deeper.

Ever since Franklin Roosevelt, the core Democratic proposition has been that regular people need government to offset the power of business elites and the injustices and inefficiencies of a capitalist economy. But that premise has been tarnished—perhaps fatally weakened—in three mutually reinforcing respects:

  • First, Republicans have succeeded in blocking Democrats from pursuing the sort of policies and programs that make a positive difference in the lives of working Americans. New programs that have made it through Congress despite Republican stonewalling, such as the Affordable Care Act, are typically so burdened with fatal compromises—diversion of funds from Medicare, excess subsidies to drug and insurance companies, cumbersome bureaucratic compliance requirements—that they give government (and Democrats) a bad name. Other rare successes are mostly token measures that don't change very much. By contrast, the Democrats' Greatest Hits—Social Security, Medicare, the G. I. Bill, the Wagner Act (and a strong labor movement backed by federal enforcement); college aid in the era when a Pell Grant covered most of tuition costs—made a genuine difference in people's lives.
  • Secondly, as economic conditions have worsened for most working people and government hasn't provided much help, voters begin internalizing the Republican idea that we're all on our own, anyway. Though people support affirmative government and progressive policies in principle, today's voters are increasingly skeptical that government can make much of a constructive difference. What the hell, better to vote for the party of lower taxes.
  • Third, the Democratic Party is less of a counterweight to economic royalists than it once was because many of those royalists are inside the Democratic Party. How can the Democrats offset the malevolent power of concentrated finance when Goldman Sachs provides their top economic policy officials? In addition to counseling against breaking up the big banks, the Obama economic team persuaded the president to support austerity at a time when the economy needed oxygen.

All of this reinforces the media mantra that both parties are equally culpable in the gridlock that passes for today's political democracy—and that Democrats as well as Republicans care more about insiders than about ordinary Americans.

You have to get to the left edge of the Democratic Party before you find leaders and policy ideas that challenge the dominance of finance and that would make a real difference in the lives of working people. As my colleague Harold Meyerson writes in the new issue of the American Prospect, it's time for Democrats once again to earn the hatred of the rich, FDR-style.

Could that happen? The most likely nominee in 2016 is of course Hillary Clinton. If elected, she would be the third basically centrist Democratic president in a row—four, if you count Jimmy Carter. And let's be more precise: Here "centrist" means center-left on social issues and center-right on Wall Street.

Hillary Clinton is certainly preferable to any Republican on the horizon. And with several Republican senators who squeaked through in 2010 up for re-election, a landslide Hillary victory might even sweep in a Democratic Congress.

Even so, it would be a long road back to the sort of Democratic Party that contained the abuses of financial elites and used activist government to better the lives of ordinary Americans—or one that could reasonably expect voters to reciprocate.



This is very correct. There is another factor. The rural folks and moderates have correctly concluded that the Democratic Party is the party of lesbian tree-hugging illegals. And that is not what they are. What has the democratic party done for anyone not in a special interest lately? Of course, Obamacare, but Obama really screwed that up by allowing the republicans to destroy the record. Other than that, nothing. We helped the banksters and put homeowners out of their houses. We give good jobs to foreign nationals while our own children do not have jobs. Democrats think they have the demographic edge, but this is a fallacy. 2014 might upset some apple carts.

You are actually on the right track with the first part of your comment. True, the Dem's represent almost as many special interests as the GOP. However, they also (nominally, anyway) represent many other interests within the party, and this is the problem. Unlike the R's, they have no one size fits all message. The last comment suggested playing to moderate Republicans on the issue of the Iraq war and WMD's. Forget it. Bush II got us into that mess, and moderate R's don't dare trash one of their own, no matter how bad a President he was.

The Republican strategy has been steadfast, simple, and brilliant: Never underestimate how hard a person will fight for a place in the _next to_ the lowest social class.

I do not understand which every Democratic candidate does not appeal to Republican and middle of the roaders by attacking the Republican Party, reminding everyone that they gave us the Iraq War by lying us into it with WMD's, they threw out Gen.Shinseki because he told them they couldn't do it with 100,000 troops, and look instead how many casualties we have had, both dead and permanently injured; they gave us the economic mess of 2008; they opposed Health Care for everyone, and when it passed after much armtwisting the made the conditions that made it a mess to begin with; the opposed education bills; they stood with the power companies that are polluting our atmosphere and endangering the lives of our grandchildren AND SO ON--pick your own issues.

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