Published on
the Maine Sunday Telegram

A Party Pulled Apart: New Democrats Lose Touch with True Base

Immediately following Richard Nixon's resignation, President Gerald Ford famously proclaimed, "Our long national nightmare is over." Yet Watergate's causes lay in more than the paranoia of one man, and his resignation did not purge the body politic. Vietnam-era wounds exacerbated by economic insecurity, cultural conflict and racial polarization have never fully healed. The extraordinary postelection saga in Florida did more to illuminate if not to exorcise these issues and concerns than a bland and tedious campaign.

Some mainstream Democrats now continue the process of denial by blaming Gore 's loss on Katherine Harris, Florida's Republican secretary of state, or even Ralph Nader. They would be well advised to acknowledge that President Clinton's and Al Gore's truncated concept of the Democratic Party finally came back to haunt it.

With their longstanding ties to the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), Clinton and Gore governed on the premise that moderately affluent suburbanites are the swing vote in American politics. To appeal to these voters, the party sought to project an image of greater conservatism on social issues and moderation in fiscal policy.

Clinton never completely neglected the traditional bedrock of the Democratic Party, blue-collar whites and African-American voters. Nonetheless, despite rhetorical support for affirmative action and labor rights, trade agreements and welfare "reform" dramatically harmed these groups. To the extent that it worried at all, the DLC assured Democrats that these voters had nowhere else to go.

Yet as Ray Teixera and Joel Rogers demonstrate in "The Real Majority," blue-collar voters did have other options. They helped make Ronald Reagan president in 1980, and their return to the Democrats aided Clinton in 1992 and 1996. Votes of elderly Americans were also pivotal in both years. Clinton benefited from a weak economy in 1992 and from Republican threats to Medicare and Social Security in 1996.

Gore lost not because affluent suburban professionals deserted him but because:

1. The economic gains of the last few years have only belatedly and weakly benefited many working-class Americans.

2. He was a less than convincing advocate on behalf of these groups.

3. Republicans have been smart enough not to run against Social Security or Medicare.

4. Democrats have too readily embraced the worst features of Republican wars on drugs and crime.

Nationally, unions did a stellar job in getting out the vote, but their inability to convince a large minority of their members about Gore has been less widely noted. Thirty-seven percent of the vote from union households went to Bush, according to exit polls by the Voter News Service. In Florida, Bush received far more of the votes of self-described liberals than did Nader. Indeed, had Gore been able to retain the votes of these liberals, he would be president-elect.

New Democrats respond that efforts to hold these liberals through trade reform, the minimum wage, and universal health care would alienate middle-class suburban professionals. Perhaps, but over the long term, Democratic losses among the working class, not simply to Republicans but to the ranks of the nonvoter, have cost the party more than it can ever hope to gain among affluent suburbanites. Syndicated columnist Jim Hightower recently pointed out: "In 1992, the under-$50,000 crowd made up 63 percent of voters. In 1996, after Clinton and Gore had relentlessly and very publicly pushed NAFTA, the WTO and other Wall Street policies for four years, the under-$50,000 crowd dropped to 52 percent of voters. After four more years of income stagnation and decline for these families under the regime of the Clinton-Gore 'New Democrats,' the under-$50,000 crowd dropped this year to only 47 percent of voters."

Democrats' relative indifference to their other two key constituencies played an equal role in the election. Unlike Clinton in 1996, Gore could not carry a majority among Florida's senior citizens. Republican promises to save Social Security through partial privatization were effective in part because they were slickly packaged. But Clinton opened the door to these proposals by endorsing implausible scare stories about Social Security. The Social Security system will be able to meet all obligations to the elderly through most of this century unless U.S. economic growth slows to a level unprecedented in the last century. Our nation has far more likely and pressing problems than Social Security, and Democrats should be leaders in getting this message out.

Traditional Democratic advocacy of racial justice was also compromised by the DLC's overreach on social issues. New Democrats were right to insist that crime is an important issue. Their critique of some liberals for disregarding the issue or naively assuming that economic growth alone would end crime was well placed. But drug and crime wars that are racially discriminatory, inattentive to important civil liberties, and draconian in approach carry immense social and fiscal costs.

Democrats supported voter mobilization efforts among African-Americans. Nonetheless, Florida Democrats did little to monitor or challenge the pre-emptory and biased proceedings of a private firm (with ties to Republicans) in removing those ineligible to vote from the list. Just as basically, even well into the recount procedure, many Florida Democrats were silent about inequities in voting technologies or about the massive disenfranchisement of African-Americans either improperly classified as felons or denied voting rights for crimes that most states designate as misdemeanors. They worried about the "soft on crime" label or were concerned about the divisive effects of race.

Democrats now pay an increasing price for pandering to and further inflaming fears about drugs and crime. Thirty-one percent of African-American males in Florida can no longer vote, according to Reuters news agency, and the cost of the drug war everywhere now cuts sharply into funds needed for education and job creation. Worse still, a drug war that has always disproportionately targeted the drug habits of poor and minority communities deprives these communities of the human resources on which the economic success of any community depends. In addition, by disproportionately burdening poor and minority communities, current drug wars make the conventional conviction – that personal behavior is the principal cause of poverty – into a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the process, ugly cultural stereotypes about poverty and race are reinforced.

Fortunately, as the costs of the drug war escalate and its failures become apparent, more Americans now appear willing to take a nuanced view of drugs and crime. Surely citizens seek and deserve protection from violent criminals, but extensive jail time – and permanent denial of voting rights – for such crimes as simple drug possession would probably not stand electoral muster even in Florida.

Democrats need the votes of working and middle-class whites as well as minorities if they are ever to become a governing majority. Some Democrats recognize this, but the DLC-led majority of the party has done little to meet the major economic needs of the great mass of potential voters. Eager to portray themselves as enemies of big government, they have been all too reluctant to support such reforms as expanded educational opportunities, labor rights, an adequate minimum wage, and fair trade treaties. Yet such reforms would both meet the needs of the working class and blunt attacks on Democrats as the party of "special privilege" for racial or cultural minorities.

Nor have they been willing to invest in even the basic infrastructure of democracy, state-of-the-art voting machines and adequate numbers of fair and well-trained election officials. The vast majority of Americans support an equal right to vote. When that right is in effect abridged by biased registrars or inadequate machinery, the damage isn't confined merely to minorities. Poor and working-class citizens of all ethnic backgrounds find it harder to mobilize for the reforms around which a new progressive majority might coalesce.

Too many mainstream Democrats have abandoned the party's longstanding commitment to expand economic opportunity for all Americans. Some have even joined the political right in pandering to or exacerbating cultural anxieties by supporting government in its worst incursions on personal freedoms. Democrats are now paying the price for their flawed and morally myopic vision.

John Buell

John Buell

John Buell has a PhD in political science, taught for 10 years at College of the Atlantic, and was an Associate Editor of The Progressive for ten years. He lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His most recent book, published by Palgrave in August 2011, is "Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age." He may be reached at

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