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While the Democratic Party in general has remained comfortable with staid proposals and safe positions, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has shown the power of making visionary demands like Medicare for All, tuition-free college education, and a tougher stand against Wall Street and the military industrial complex. (Photo: National Nurses United/flickr/cc)

When Will Democrats Stop Being Losers?

The moment is ripe for enacting a bold and progressive agenda, but the party still seems unwilling to make the urgent leap

John Atcheson

Much was made of the “blue wave” some saw on November 7th.  Blue ripple is more like it.  Don’t expect those results to translate into a 2018 landslide for Democrats, unless the Party figures out what it’s for, not simply what it’s against.

Most of the Party leaders are only too eager to tell you what an idiot Trump is, or how mean Ryan, McConnell and the rest of the conservative wrecking crew is.  But they are loath to tell you what, exactly, they, themselves stand for.

Oh, yes, you will hear some vaguely progressive platitudes, especially around election time, but in terms of real, specific and substantive stands on behalf of the middle class and poor Americans, there’s more rhetoric than substance.

And yes, the Democratic Party Platform is one of the most progressive since the New Deal.  But it’s also the greatest story never told, and you won’t hear many of those progressive ideals pushed by or embraced by the Party’s leaders.  The fact is, much of what is progressive found its way in there from the Bernie delegates, and—as politicians know—Party platforms are where popular, but inconvenient ideas go to die.

So we’re treated to a steady drumbeat of Trump’s latest foibles and failings, or his latest incoherent and fractured rhetoric—and let’s be clear, Trump’s manifest mendacity, idiocy, and incompetence is both startling and frightening.  John Oliver had a particularly scary example  last Sunday on Last Week Tonight, which combined outright lies with complete incoherence.

But the problem is, the majority of Americans know that Trump isn’t fit to be President.  And they’ve known that Republicans have been the Party of, by, and for the rich for a couple of decades now. For a little over a quarter of American voters, that’s just fine.  They’ve been blinded by hate, fear and greed; or they are among the 10 or so percent that prosper under the Republican policies.

But getting a little over 25 to 30 percent of voters has been enough for Republicans to win at every level, because some 45 percent of eligible voters routinely stay home.  And they stay home because they’re convinced the whole political system is nothing more than a rich man’s game in which politicians are bought and sold by the uber rich and corporations like so many pork bellies in the futures market.

And here’s the thing.  They’re right.  There’s almost no correlation between what the people want, and what the politicians produce.  As Gilens and Page pointed out:

When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups     are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a     minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy. (emphasis added).

Buying politicians pays off, as two studies dramatically show. One, authored by Raquel Meyer Alexander, Steven W. Maza, and Susan Schultz, found the return on investment for lobbying to be 22,000 percent (see; “Measuring Rates of Return for Lobbying Expenditures: And Empirical Case Study of Tax Breaks for Multinational Corporations,” Journal of Law and Politics 25, no. 401 (2009): 401–57). That is, for every dollar spent on lobbying, the companies received $220 in tax benefits. Another, more recent and comprehensive study examining the two hundred most politically active companies found that they got an astounding 76,000 percent return on their lobbying expenditures.

As the Smith Project found, Americans overwhelmingly agree (78%–15%) that both political parties are too beholden to special interests to create any meaningful change.

Is it any wonder that “none of the above” won the 2016 race by a landslide? Is it any wonder that more than 1.7 million voters left the top of the ticket blank?

There are two paths to victory.

Republicans have pinned their hopes on Gerrymandering, voter suppression, and a strategy based on hate-mongering, racism, fear, xenophobia, and scapegoating. This is the strategy that allowed a minority of the passionately ignorant 27 or so percent of eligible voters to put Trump in office, and it—together with Gerrymandering and voter suppression—has enabled the Republican takeover of virtually every level of government other than cities.

The other path would be to get some portion of the 45 percent of no-shows to show.  This would require more than simply coming up with a progressive platform and sticking it on the shelf.  It would require more than paying lip service to the people’s interest, while relying on campaign contributions from the uber-rich and corporations to get elected (or, increasingly, defeated).

For example, if Democrats were to talk about the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s People's Budget, which contains a lot more tax reform than the Republican’s corporate-friendly “tax reform,” the contrast would be so stark it would create a real blue wave.

Democrats could be talking about universal access to a college education, transitions to single payer health care, lower drug prices, massive infrastructure investments, increased taxes on the uber-rich, closing corporate tax loopholes, and serious increases in job creation, and cuts to the bloated Defense budget.  And their reform would decrease the deficit while accomplishing all this.  It’s worth noting that the elements in the People’s Budget enjoy the support of the majority of Americans.

Meanwhile, Republicans would have to defend cuts in popular programs like Medicaid, healthcare, Pell grants and other educational support, while backing increases in taxes on tens of millions of middle class families, and cutting them for the ultra-wealthy and causing exploding deficits – all so they can pass permanent tax cuts for corporations. Unlike the People’s Budget, the Republican’s proposal is unpopular with the majority of Americans.

Who wouldn’t want to have this debate?

Mainstream Democrats, apparently.  And that’s why folks stay home on election day.

The fact is, most of the no-shows hold progressive views on an issue-by-issue basis, even if they don’t think of themselves as liberal or progressive.  As a practical matter, that means a Party or politician who put together a coherent campaign representing populist, progressive policies and values would win them over.  That’s precisely what Bernie Sanders—the most popular politician in American by far—is attempting.  If the deck hadn’t been stacked against him, he would have won the nomination, and as Trump’s own chief pollster said, Sanders would have defeated Trump in a landslide.

It makes you wonder why Democrats are arranged in a circular firing squad, trying to ward off the only strategy that could lead to victory—or it would if you didn’t understand that those in charge of the Party have invested a lifetime to doing business the old way; it’s what gets them elected and they’re not interested in giving up their seats even if it means the Party, the people and the country lose.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
John Atcheson

John Atcheson

John Atcheson, 1948-2020, was a long-time Common Dreams contributor, climate activist and author of, "A Being Darkly Wise, and a book on our fractured political landscape entitled, "WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back On Track". Follow him on Twitter @john_atcheson. John was tragically killed in a California car accident in January 2020.

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