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Are the Democrats Dead (Again)?

For election after election, the Democrats failed to present either an effective counter to the Republican myth-makers or a program that would effectively address the needs of workers who felt left out.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speaks during a news conference with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) at the U.S. Capitol January 25, 2019 in Washington, D.C.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speaks during a news conference with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) at the U.S. Capitol January 25, 2019 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

Have we ever seen a more incompetent Federal Government?

For more than 40 years, the Republican party has been captured by neoliberal right wingers who've led this country further and further into decline while a tiny portion of the population reaped obscene levels of wealth.

The Republicans have succeeded politically, because they've followed a formula first instituted by Ronald Reagan: appeal to resentments felt by rural Americans, religious conservatives, and the white working class—all of whom legitimately felt left behind in the America of the long 1960s era.

While voicing sentiments these folks found emotionally satisfying, Reagan's actions did something quite different, thus launching the neoliberal project: tax breaks to the wealthy, privatize everything public, and kill off as many domestic programs and regulations as possible.

What most people don't know is that, during the Reagan years, Democratic Party leaders decided to scrap their long-standing—and, incidentally, highly successful—New Deal orientation to government. Centrists Democrats like Sam Nunn, Chuck Robb, Bill Clinton, and Walter Mondale helped to launch the Democratic Leadership Council to move the party into the corporate center where it has resided ever since.

For election after election, the Democrats failed to present either an effective counter to the Republican myth-makers or a program that would effectively address the needs of workers who felt left out. Their only successful presidential candidates, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, rode to the White House because they ran campaigns that aroused the hopes of millions of Americans—far more image and style than substance as it turned out.

And now, we are battered by a highly contagious pandemic that has already killed 84,000 Americans and an economy with staggering unemployment that compares in many ways to that of the Great Depression.

So, how are the Democrats responding? First, many Democrats, and a few Republicans, are heeding scientific advice to protect public health during the pandemic. As a majority of Americans recognize, the United States leads the world in pandemic cases thanks to an unbelievably inept performance by the Trump administration.

Second, Congressional Democrats have managed to insert helpful funding here and there into Republican-initiated bail-outs for corporate America.

The Republicans are currently resisting more federal Covid relief, encouraging the re-opening of the economy, a position that has obvious appeal to the millions of American workers and small-business owners who are currently suffering mightily.

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Again, a time-tested Republican strategy to win an electoral majority—blame your opponents for not caring about working Americans and small business owners.

In an electoral contest between the still-invisible prospect of a Covid resurgence and the staggering economic woes felt by millions, the latter cause will ultimately prevail in neoliberal America, bringing the Republicans electoral victory, and the rest of us a disastrous future.

In addition to being politically inept, the Democratic leadership is so closely tied to corporate and Wall Street interests that they are incapable of forging the kind of New Deal-like program that is desperately needed right now—one that could promise electoral success.

Even their $3 Trillion "HEROES " aid package is riddled with neoliberal standards like tax breaks for the wealthy and subsidies for Big Oil and private insurance companies. Declaring that "we are sleep-walking towards a gut-wrenching, painful failure," Democratic Senate staffer, Charlie Anderson, observed that "more than 80,000 Americans are dead. Unemployment is at Great Depression levels. Yet, Congress appears prepared to massively undershoot what 's needed. "

It took both New Deal programs and World War II to pull the U.S. out of the Depression. Now we need both massive New Deal-like support for human needs and economic revitalization and a total mobilization to curtail the pandemic. We did it before, we can do it again.

The times call for nothing less than a massive, multi-trillion dollar government program that includes sufficient financial support for all who are unemployed, adequate support for small business owners who face disaster, rapid mobilization for the mass production of Covid protective equipment and effective testing and tracking of the virus, ample funding support for state and local governments that are reeling budgetarily, safeguards of mail-in elections, and, obviously, access to Medicare coverage for everyone.

To achieve electoral success, the Democrats must unite behind such a bold program. They must reject their 40-year collaboration with neoliberalism and build on their long-forgotten New Deal heritage to embrace Franklin Roosevelt 's Second Bill of Rights of 1944.

But even that is not enough for our current moment. We are at a turning point where we must also track a radically new course into an environmentally sustainable future.

Rest assured, however, the Democrats will do almost none of these things in the absence of massive, forceful public demand. That, at least, is up to us.

Ted Morgan

Ted (Edward P.) Morgan (epm2@lehigh.edu) is professor of political science at Lehigh University and author of What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy (University Press of Kansas).

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