There are two ways to practice politics: you can either follow polls or shape them. For four decades now, Democrats have been poll followers, and Republicans have been poll shapers.
Recently, President Obama urged the Democrats to continue being poll followers, saying, "The average American doesn't think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it." The evidence suggests he’s wrong about that, but even if he isn’t, Democrats need to change the mind of the average American, not be led by it.
Here’s why. “The system” was designed by and for corporate America and the ultra-rich, and it has robbed people of their power and their livelihood, and undermined the Democratic Party.
Back in 1968—4 years after conservatives got slaughtered in the national elections, Republicans had begun the process of shaping polls, first by engaging racism, xenophobia, greed, anger and hate in Nixon’s southern strategy, and later, by investing in a comprehensive and strategic effort aimed at discrediting government as a force for good, and celebrating the free market as the deliverer of all good things by pure serendipity. The campaign was based largely on a blueprint penned by Lewis Powell in 1971, and it was launched in earnest with the election of Ronald “government is the problem” Reagan in 1980. Today, the modern Republican Party is a product of both strategies.
Democrats, meanwhile, responded by preemptively capitulating to the rightward sweep of politics. Rather than confronting the conservative challenge to New Deal values, they began to follow the polls and the polls – shaped by the corporatist’s coup—dragged them ever further to the right, and ever further away from politics as if people mattered.
This whole rightward drift is nothing less than a Kabuki Dance engineered by the oligarchy. That’s “the system” we now inhabit.
First let’s look at how it’s hurt the American people
By now, this is a familiar story, but it bears repeating in this time of a daily news cycle that routinely abandons the big story describing the downward sweep of the arc of history and the decline of a civil society, for the latest symptom of that larger malady—Trump.
From the late 1940’s until the late 70’s, income in the US grew at about the same rate for every sector of the population. In fact, the bottom 50 percent gained a bit more than the upper echelons of the economy.
Back in 1980, the share of national income going to the top 1 percent was just a bit over 10 percent and the bottom 50 percent’s share of all income was about 20 percent. By 2015, that situation had reversed, with the top 1 percent getting about 20 percent of the national income pie, and the bottom 50 percent getting 10 percent.
The story is worse when it comes to distribution of wealth. From the late 40’s until 1980, the share of wealth held by the top 1 percent fell slowly but steadily until, in 1980, the top 1 per cent held about 24 percent of all household wealth.
But today, the ultra-wealthy—the top .01 percent—now have as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent of Americans. And the three wealthiest individuals in America now have as much wealth as the bottom half of all Americans.
And it’s not just wealth and income. Corporations and the rich have amassed enormous power and influence over government, too. As Gilens and Paige put it in their landmark study:
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The Stakes Have Never Been Higher.
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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).
Bottom line: people have steadily lost power and money since the 1980’s, while corporations and the rich have dramatically increased their share of wealth and power over that time.
The Demise of the Democrats
The story for the Democratic Party is just as bleak. After the Great Depression, until the 70’s, the Democrats were a majority party, with half of all voters registering as Democratic, and only about a quarter registering as Republican. Today, they are near parity.
In 1978, Democrats controlled both legislative branches in thirty-one states, while Republicans had majorities in only eleven.
By 2016, Republicans controlled both legislatures and the governorship in twenty-five states, while Democrats controlled all three institutions in just six states. Nebraska, which has a unicameral, nonpartisan legislature, isn’t counted in this total.
Republicans controlled both legislative bodies in thirty-two states, while Democrats did in just thirteen.Currently thirty-four states have a Republican governor, while only fifteen are headed by a Democrat, and one—Alaska—is headed by an independent.
But since Sanders’ 2016 run, there’s been a revolt, with progressive poll shapers attempting to take over the Democratic Party, and as a result, Democrats have been making gains again, taking over the House and sweeping the off-year elections.
“The system” is broken, immoral, and anti-democratic
When neoliberals and centrists talk about “the system,” they’d like us to think about the democratic republic defined by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and the nearly two centuries of respect and practice that governed those implementing the Enlightenment values contained in these documents. But that system is gone. It has been replaced by an oligarchy.
The time to follow polls is long gone. If we are to restore our freedoms, we must shape polls, not follow them. Fortunately, leading a progressive rebellion against the oligarchy is not only the moral thing to do; it’s smart politics, too.
When neoliberals and centrists defend "the system" or warn against upending it, they’re more likely expressing concerns about their losing their personal power base than they are about the Party winning elections.
But that’s “the system” that enabled Trump to win in the first place.