The collapse of the Democratic Party over the last four decades is nothing less than historic. It’s the kind of thing folks will study in the future, as what Barbara Tuchman called a “march of folly.”
Ms. Tuchman defined a march of folly as “the pursuit of policy contrary to self-interest,” and nothing has been as obviously contrary to the Democrat’s fortunes as their pursuit of a neoliberal, centrist strategy.
Oh, yes, Democrats will do well in the 2018 midterms, but in too many cases it will have nothing to do with their policies, and everything to do with how Republicans have screwed the vast majority of the American people so that they could – once again – give trillions to the uber-rich and corporations.
And of course, when it comes to creating fear and loathing, nothing tops Trump’s record of incompetence and criminality, and the Republican Congress’s perfidy. His clumsy, amateurish application of the Republican’s sophisticated rhetorical assault on democracy (something the Democrats participated in), together with his bald-faced corruption has resulted in mass revulsion among much of the electorate.
But this is the Democrats’ fate – to win only when the hypocrisy, cronyism, hate and greed that animates the Republican Party becomes so obvious that Americans will vote them out. Bush’s tax cuts for the rich, his fraudulent budget, and his ill-fated war in Iraq were more responsible for the Democrats winning the Presidency and Congress in 2008 than vague promises of “hope and change.” Meanwhile, the Democrats’ race to oblivion continued at the state level, and they lost the House and lost ground in the Senate. By 2014, their brief rein was all but ended, when voters stayed home in droves, and Republicans ended up controlling the House, the Senate, 31 governorships, and 68 state houses.
Their centrist, neoliberal, be-all-things-to-all people approach to politics – which allows them to collect campaign money from corporations, Wall Street and the uber-rich – has create a toxic brew of anger and alienation in middle America. But winning because people are fed up with the other guys is a far different thing than winning because people support your policies. And the Democrats have no real policies. Their centrist, neoliberal, be-all-things-to-all people approach to politics – which allows them to collect campaign money from corporations, Wall Street and the uber-rich – has create a toxic brew of anger and alienation in middle America. And while there is an insurgent force within the party fighting for a progressive platform, the party leaders and pundits are fighting it every step of the way.
The angry and justifiably cynical end up voting for demagogues and tin-horn tyrants who bad-mouth government, while the alienated stay home.
This is the root of the Democratic leadership’s march of folly. In 1960, when the party still embraced New Deal policies – something that would be considered wildly liberal today or even … gasp … socialist – 50 percent of Americans identified as Democratic, and only a little over quarter of Americans identified as Republican. Today, less than 30 percent of Americans are Democrats, while Republicans still come in at about a quarter of the people.
Much has been made of the narrative of line cutters – the sense that many working class whites have that they’re standing still while blacks, immigrants and Hispanics jump in front of them, supported by the government. This is the grist that feeds the demagogues’ mill; the story they’ve ridden to victory.
But folks don’t stop to think why this narrative has such traction. The root cause is that working class Americans are standing still. There’s been little in the way of economic gains for the vast majority of Americans since 1980. And this is the result of policies that favor the rich and corporations, policies supported by both pollical parties. But whereas the Republicans offer the voters an explanation and someone to blame (both false, as usual), Democrats seek to straddle the middle, and manage to feed the anger that supports the Republican’s narrative, and the victories that accompany it.
The rationale neoliberal Democrats offer for embracing this march of folly is that Americans are political centrists.
They aren’t. Even in so-called red states, progressivism plays well.
Middle America seems centrist because they haven’t been given a progressive alternative for decades. Middle America seems centrist because they haven’t been given a progressive alternative for decades. How much traction would the line-cutter’s narrative have, if working class Americans had been given the same share of economic growth since 1980 that they were given in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, when progressive New Deal policies dominated the Democratic party and the country?
Less, certainly, and perhaps much less. When you rig the system to be a zero-sum game, people will fight over the scraps offered them. When all are prospering, it’s harder to play the blame game.
Many liberals and Democrats are feeling bullish as the polls suggest a big Democratic win in the midterms. But it’s important to understand that until and unless Democrats embrace a true progressive agenda, they are still on an historic and epic march of folly that means their only hope of winning relies on Republican overreach. As a result, when they do manage to win because “we’re not as bad as they are,” they hold no mandate for change, which means in the long run, they will be unable to deliver the change that the American people want, deserve and need, which in turn means they will ultimately lose again.
Which makes the Democratic leadership’s devotion to the failed strategy of centrism all the more perplexing. Unless, of course, you factor in the central role that corporate and uber-rich campaign contributions play for the party elite. As Sanders said, too many Democrats would rather retain their power than see the party as a whole win elections.
And so, despite the 2018 gains, the Democratic Party will still be marching towards folly, unless the progressives manage to take it over completely.
That’s more likely now than it has been for some time, particularly since the party reduced the role of superdelegates. But the party’s elite and the pundits who serve them won’t go down without a fight.