By all indications the Democratic Party is in for a bath this November in the midterm elections. Although it would be better to have a multiparty system, we need to at least have a strong two-party system. What should Democrats be doing to remain a strong party and to restore their competitiveness?
1.Reconnect with working people, working class. For too long now the Democrats have been too much the party of trial lawyers, Hollywood executives and corporate interests. The party needs to reconnect with working people. During his campaign for president in 2000, Vice President Al Gore repeatedly used terms like “for working men and women” and “working families.” Yet his deeds did not live up to his rhetoric. Gore was the Democratic mouthpiece in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Gore was given widespread adulation for defeating businessman Ross Perot in a debate about NAFTA in 1993, helping to usher in NAFTA’s implementation in 1994. The only problem with this was that Gore was arguing on the wrong side of the issue and Perot was right when he described NAFTA as that “giant sucking sound” of jobs leaving the U.S. and going to Mexico if the free-trade agreement was put into operation. Workers, especially those from the rust belt, lost a great deal from NAFTA. Those who benefited were CEOs and others at the top, and maybe some people in states bordering Mexico. But for the vast majority of American workers NAFTA was a loss and it was distressing seeing the Democrats arguing for it.
The Democrats have signed on to a lot of other bad trade agreements in recent years, deals that hurt the working people of the United States and transfer our vital manufacturing job base to other nations. The Democrats have also parroted the false corporate argument that globalization and outsourcing are inevitable. When U.S. corporations take jobs overseas, they are acting penny wise and pound foolish. They receive cheaper labor costs but these savings are not passed on to the consumer. Furthermore, the money sent overseas does not re-circulate here at home. If the work was done here, the money would re-circulate, making all of us, including the corporations, richer.
Gore lost the 2000 election (at least in the Electoral College) not because he had Florida stolen from him. He lost because he couldn’t connect with working people in states like West Virginia, Kentucky, Arkansas and his home state of Tennessee, all of which voted for George W. Bush. Winning any of those four states that had previously backed President Bill Clinton would have put Gore over the top in the Electoral College. And a primary reason Gore lost connection is the Democratic Party’s growing affinity for the Corporate Power and its increasing dismissal of the working folks on Main Street.
2. Realize what era we are in. The pendulum swings back and forth in America. We were in a progressive era from the election of 1932 (which swept in the Roosevelt era to grapple with the Great Depression), until the midterm election of 1966 (which saw severe Democratic reversals). The issues the nation was dealing with during the 34 years from 1932 to 1966 favored progressive or liberal solutions that came from the New Deal of FDR, the Fair Deal of Harry Truman, the New Frontier of John Kennedy and the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson. This era was followed by a conservative era for 40 years, from 1966 to the midterm elections of 2006. Over these four decades the pendulum swung the other way and the issues facing the United States were better addressed by conservative politicians who pledged to put the brakes on the excesses of progressives.
However, starting in 2006 the pendulum started to swing back and nearly all issues we face, from climate change to the Great Recession, are best addressed by progressive or liberal solutions. Yet the Democrats have been strangely cautious and have retreated back to Clinton-era answers. Clinton was president in the midst of a conservative era and had to fit his program into that reality. Democrats today should be much bolder. For example, Roosevelt was an activist and took forceful measures in 1933, especially in the first 100 days of his administration. He was rewarded by picking up seats in the midterms of 1934, en route to being overwhelmingly reelected in 1936. He didn’t stick with the failed policies of his predecessor, Herbert Hoover. Yet, after running on the theme of “Change We Need,” President Obama has been very timid and has just shaded differences with the Republicans. He is very hesitant to break with the past, appointing Clinton-era people with Clinton-era ideas like Lawrence Summers for his economic team, and continuing the George W. Bush policy in Afghanistan even though most Americans realize there is nothing further to be gained there.
Even when an idea is put right in the Democrats’ lap they are slow and shy and retiring. Case in point is the gay marriage issue. In 2004, presidential candidate John Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards (remember him?), used their very tiptoes to sidestep the issue of gay marriage by conveniently saying it should be left up to the states. But as was shown with interracial marriage, it can’t be left up to the states. When someone is married in Michigan and his job is transferred to Mississippi, you can’t have Mississippi saying he is no longer married. Either he is married all over the U.S. or he is not. In the Loving vs. Virginia case in 1967, the United States Supreme Court, by a 9-0 vote, declared Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute unconstitutional, thereby ending all race-based legal restrictions on marriage in the United States. The Democrats should be in the forefront of the gay marriage debate. Young people, who formed such a large part of the Democratic base in 2008, are strongly in support of gay marriage. The most liberal states in New England have been moving in this direction. Yet, instead of hitting this one out of the ballpark, the Democrats continue to drag their feet on the issue and on the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military policy. They are even leaving an opening for the libertarian wing of the GOP to outflank them on the issue and make gays and lesbians comfortable enough to vote with the GOP based on other issues.
3. Remember Harry Truman. In 1948 Truman issued Executive Order 9981, racially integrating the U.S. Armed Services, and he also accepted the Democratic Party plank of supporting civil rights. This led to the defection of Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrat Wing of the party, who formed their own party and challenged Truman from the right. From the left, Truman faced former Democratic Vice President Henry Wallace, who ran on the Progressive Party ticket. And that didn’t even take into account the regular Republican opponent, Thomas Dewey.
With his party split three ways and with Democrats already in control of the White House for 16 hectic years, Truman’s prospects seemed bleak at best. But he did not run away from his record. He did not scamper to the nearest corner and shrivel up like a prune. Instead, he ran a spirited and combative campaign. Americans like a fighter. They like someone who has strong convictions and will stand for something and fight for someone. They rewarded him with perhaps the greatest upset victory in U.S. history.
4. Stop taking your base for granted. Democrats often ignore their traditional base, assuming these voters have no place else to go and will remain loyal no matter what. For example, the GOP has used immigration as a wedge issue, so the Democrats assume Latinos will flock to the Democrats this fall and for a generation to come. But if the Democrats will not fight for immigration reform that includes a pathway to legalization and citizenship for undocumented workers, then Latinos may opt to stay home or even sometimes vote with the GOP based on other social and economic issues. You can’t consistently win someone’s vote by default. You have to give them a reason to vote for you.
African American votes are also taken for granted. This is the first African American president, after all, right? Ironically this may be a problem. The far right has constantly thrown out there that the President is anti-white. In this atmosphere, this administration was quick to throw Shirley Sherrod under the proverbial bus, even though the accusations against her were twisted and inaccurate. The President, or his administration, was so anxious to dispel charges of being anti-white that he harmed an African American who had supported him. The administration was quick to nervously point out that the decision to ask for Sherrod’s resignation didn’t rise as high as the President but stopped with Tom Vilsack, the secretary of agriculture. That being the case, why was Vilsack retained in his job, even after he reportedly offered his resignation?
The President also has been known to appear before black audiences and lecture them about their shortcomings and bad habits. He is possibly being used by the white establishment to say to African Americans what white leaders cannot say with credibility because of the troubled racial history of the nation. President Obama emerged from the womb of a white woman and was raised by his white mother and white grandparents. His black father abandoned him and his family. So a stronger argument can be made that Obama would be less hospitable to black Americans than to white Americans. Yet the narrative is presented in the opposite direction, which makes him even more conscious of needing to be favorable toward white Americans and, as a consequence, more inclined to sacrifice African Americans to meet this goal.
Also ironic is the fact that President Bush could stand more staunchly against Islamophobia than can President Obama. This is because so many Americans believe President Obama is himself a Muslim, or is at least sympathetic to Muslims because of his name, that he has to guard against this and cannot speak as forcefully as he needs to when issues like the so-called Ground Zero mosque is up for debate.
The fact is the unemployment rate for African Americans, Latinos and the young has risen during the Obama administration. To assume that these constituencies will automatically come out for the Democrats, without galvanizing them around issues they can support, is an assumption that can be ruinous to the Democratic Party. The same holds true for labor groups, environmentalists, pro-choice women and other elements nornally associated with the Democratic Party. Ignore them at your peril.
5. Remind Folks of What You’ve Done For Them. The Democrats helped General Motors and Chrysler in their time of need, whereas the Republicans were willing to let them go under. The Democrats also extended Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) when the GOP repeatedly tried to derail the extensions. Yet many people who were directly helped by the auto bailout or the EUC extension have been out merrily marching alongside the Tea Party. The same holds true with Social Security and Medicare. We all remember seeing the video of the person who shouted at a rally in 2009, “Keep the government’s hands off my Medicare.” Democrats are the party who created and preserved Medicare and Social Security, whereas the GOP has tried to privatize and even curtail these worthy programs. It might help to remind folks of this reality, especially since the Democrats have the most difficulty reaching older voters.
The Democrats are running the risk of turning what should be a progressive era lasting decades into a completely wasted opportunity that was swallowed up by a counterrevolution. Unless the Democratic Party addresses the issues mentioned in this article, the party will not be able to sing the Muddy Waters lyrics “I got my mojo working” any time soon.
Gore trounces Perot in Nafta debate, The Independent, Rupert Cornwell, Thursday, 11 November 1993