First off, my thanks to everyone who has sent me good wishes. They are much appreciated! The last few weeks of personal ups and downs, now mostly on an upwards trend, has meant that I have had to step back from the particular issues and arguments being flung about in the political wrangling. It has allowed me to look at some of the larger trends and take stock of the peculiar behavior of various actors in the election season, most important to me the behavior of the Democratic Party. I mean this in the broadest sense, encompassing both elected officials and party office holders as well as the voting constituencies that provide the funding, the activists, the volunteers and (most important) the voters, for whose sake the party supposedly acts and with whose consent the party gains the legitimacy to govern.
The widespread and growing discontent with the campaign for the nomination should tell us something about the problems the party is being forced to face. This is not simply a contest between two very popular candidates with aggressive supporters as most would have it, reducing the post-primary tensions to merely a case of “getting over it”. These are problems that have to do with divergent views of party purpose, significant shifts in demographics and geographic distribution of traditional and prospective Democratic voters, and a fundamental divergence of the role of government in the lives of ordinary citizens – who are increasingly female, young, non-white and vulnerable to the vicissitudes of economy and environment. We could say that the Democrats are going global.
The split of the Democratic electorate itself has been followed by growing resistance to the designated nominee. This is not something I have seen before on the Democratic side, though it certainly begins to look more and more like the 1976 contest between Reagan and Ford, with the establishment candidate barely avoiding a convention floor upset by a rival with a new and energized coalition that is dedicated to the party but unhappy with the party direction. The party leadership, like their Republican counter-parts in 1976, appears determined to yield no ground for the cause of true unity, which would require compromise with their internal rivals and the constituencies these actors represent. Instead, what we hear is some variation on “You have nowhere else to go, so tough.”
It is this arrogance and incapacity to acknowledge legitimate claims and criticisms that has raised the hackles among Democrats who are not necessarily ardent Clinton supporters – though repetition of the dismissal clearly hardens resolve – and which points the way to the underlying problem of the Party, laid bare by this electoral contest. Perhaps it took this particular match up, one that undermines comfortable assumptions about what Democrats believe and are willing to fight for, to expose the fault line I have been discussing for the last few months. It helps to explain the reaction of Hillary supporters to the anointing of Obama as the presumptive nominee, but even more it illuminates the voting patterns observable in the exit polls.
Not only does the Party leadership and large swaths of the Stevensonian elite firmly believe that the Truman rank-and-file have nowhere else to go in a political sense, they have also abandoned any substantive commitment to socio-economic movement for this class. They no longer care to provide there voters anywhere else to go economically or culturally. The Truman wing is seen as an electoral dead end, and no more effort should be expended on their behalf.
Controlling for race, the results of the primary campaign were split between the haves and the have-nots. Exceptions can be found, such as my own household. We’re in the 90th percentile of incomes and hold advanced degrees, are secular humanist, are clearly “creative class” knowledge workers, etc. We should have been Obama supporters; indeed the spousal unit started the campaign as one. However, the overall trends were consistent – the working class and poor were strong Clinton Democrats and the Stevensonians clung to Obama. Look at the makeup of the Clinton Democrats – working class, especially the working poor, the elderly, less than college graduates, women and non-whites voted for Hillary. The missing constituency in this coalition was African American voters, for whom racial identification was a greater determining factor than any other. As I have said repeatedly, while an unfortunate electoral turn of events for Hillary and the only reason Obama won his large states, I see nothing pernicious in this fact, nor does anyone have to invoke racism on either side to explain the phenomenon. It is not “reverse racism”. For all the huffing and puffing from various partisans and pundits about how the Clintons allegedly destroyed their relationship with the AA community, what I remember reading in the paper were statements from ordinary AA voters who said they hated having to choose, and reading Gallup’s analysis that showed AA voters were the most likely of Obama’s supporters to vote for Hillary should she take the nomination.
A large portion of the constituents on both side have said they won’t support the other candidate, but polling shows that the Clinton Democrats who will not cross over are larger in number and stronger in their opinions than Obama supporters. The party leadership is threatened by this disaffection, yet they are consistently unwilling to regard this part of the party as part of the coalition they need to retain. The public relations campaign, insofar as there is one, revolves around threats (Roe! Roe! Roe our boat!), shaming (You’re just racists if you won’t vote Obama), but mostly dismissal - “You have nowhere else to go.” The opposition is dismissed as emotional, racist, low information, culturally backward, and republican dupes instead of driven by very concrete material interests.
What was Hillary offering that rallied this constituency behind her and which has remained an amazingly strong identification? She offered material improvements to ordinary lives, and an explicit commitment to use the power of the state to achieve those ends. The two most prominent examples are her lifelong commitment t health care and her current response to the mortgage crisis. It is a difference of political style, but also of political philosophy. Hillary has demonstrated that she believes a politician is someone who has to earn people’s votes by understanding where they are coming from and being on their side. “You are not invisible to me.” It is also a way of diffusing social grievances by substituting festering resentment which can be channeled into resentment-fueled backlash (the hallmark of movement conservatism) with amelioration of socio-economic threat through practical policy to stabilize conditions for the working class. In contrast, Obama has run as a conversion experience (You are not Democrat or Republican, you are an Obamacan.), calling people to their better selves, which inherently presupposes that what they currently are doing is wrong, corrupt, and unworthy. It substitutes morality for interests, focuses on the inner-life of the voter rather than on the material needs of the population, and individualizes broad social concerns. If only you racist hicks would improve yourselves we would have a wonderful nation. It is a top-down approach that dictates behavior rather than provides solutions, which is why it ends up sounding very conservative.
There are times when a nation does need to be called to something higher and to set aside particularity in service of a cause. With Obama, however, these are sacrifices with no specificity. It is not a bad message to whack complacent well-off liberals over the head with, mind you, because my class (yes, it is a class and I’m thoroughly a product of it) gets a little too enamored of its own wonderfulness, but even for the privileged in this country, you have to ask – Sacrifice on behalf of what? What is being relinquished and for what reason?
The historic answer for the modern Democratic Party is for the economic interests of the working class. High-income earners give up money for the cause of economic equity. Workers agree to collective bargaining and forswear revolution. The government acts in deliberate ways to socialize the risks of mere living through measures like education, insurance, public health and safety, regulation of industry and so forth. If the average Joe is secure, the party has done its job.
Symptomatic of the deep problem of the party as a whole is the turn by the leadership towards privatization of social risk. Health insurance is not a mandate, and thus a right, but a choice to be exercised if desired. This ignores power, especially the power of the state to defend the citizen against the encroachment of moneyed interests. The well-off Stevensonians are no longer interested in defending the material needs of those who are not a part of Whole Foods Nation, and they hide their abandonment under the guise of rejecting racism. If the problem is the state of your soul and not the condition of your medical care, then you must heal yourself, and they can smugly pat themselves on the back for having defended the right moral stance.
Obama appears to think of himself as a world-historic actor called upon to guide the people through the moral crises of the nation. This is the common intellectual deformation of a Stevensonian, imagining that social problems are simply a matter of will and right thinking. It’s a love affair with the beauty of the forms and contempt for an imperfect world, and its usual mode is a hunt for intellectual inconsistency cast as political hypocrisy.
And, yet, there is a need for “that vision thing” as Bush the Elder so eloquently put it, because even material interests carry within them a valuation – this interest and not that one is deserving of social resources. The interests of exploitative companies, though clearly of benefit to the owners and stockholders, should not be valued above the physical safety of coal miners, for example. Nations do face extreme crises, usually under conditions of war. JFK, the most successful of all Stevensonians, bent the powers of the nation to the cause of winning the Cold War. The single minded pursuit of this cause was also an implicit critique of the New Deal, a slightly scornful judgment that FDR had settled for mere interest group liberalism, whereas the New Frontier looked to a higher calling – beating the Russkies. The space race, the Peace Corps, advances in science and technology, containment of Communism in far flung corners of the globe, the origins of the Internet (though it took Al Gore to deliver that promise to the ordinary schmuck like me), all of the initiatives of the Best and the Brightest were in the service of the cause of the Cold War. We were going into the future.
But what Kennedy, like Stevenson before him, resisted was the road less exalted, less clear and pure, less prone to domestic upset and the messiness of particular lives, the present that needed to be addressed if the George Jetson futurama was to have substance, and that was civil rights. Had he lived, he would have had no choice except to address it. And the dream of the New Frontier was done in by the attempt to contain Communism in Vietnam, though the military industrial complex burbled merrily along. Those two events – the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War – created the fault lines breaking up beneath the party today.
The party may be unified on paper, as demonstrated by the bleating of the Blogistan useful fools like Kevin Drum and Big Tent Democrat, that there is “no difference” between the Democratic candidates, but the difference can be seen in the philosophical commitments of the final two contenders. One looks at Obama and there is no political substance. Nothing. There is no issue, no cause, no certain pledge that says he and his faction intend to do anything for the working class or any interest that might involve true political contestation. This is what Krugman has pointed out from the start. Everything is on the table to be negotiated away for the sake of “unifying the nation.” When pushed, there will be no shove back. He has nowhere he wants to go.
Bill Clinton, for all his faults, had a cause when he entered the White House, which was utterly political – it was to undo the self-inflicted damage of the party since Johnson and make liberalism credible again to the millions of ordinary citizens who had given up on it. He meant to be, and be seen to be, on the side of people who “worked hard and played by the rules.” He organized his administrations around this cause, which could succeed only by improving the material conditions of people who felt themselves abandoned by the post-Watergate Democrats yet no longer trusted the bluster and bullying of the Republicans. Debate its worth or whether it did enough, but he was effective in this cause. The foundations of the current Democratic revival were laid in the mid-90s, and Obama is running as the ghost of Clinton past, right down to the message of hope and “can do” optimism.
The Reagan Democrats are now Clinton Democrats and have come back to the party, but the party leadership is more interested in nursing its wounded pride than in actually cementing its coalition. It would rather moralize than act. And, given the moral equivocation their selected leader has been showing in the last few weeks, it is uncertain they have a moral leg to stand on.
The message of economic justice still resonates with the majority of Democrats, as shown by Hillary’s intense support, but that message is not accepted as true. When we talk about it, we’re met by screams of “Racist! Racist!”and sneers that we have nowhere else to go. How can Obama’s content-free message make contact with the real world? There is nothing to attach his rhetoric to, no central organizing principle. He talks about the “smallness of our politics,” so what is it precisely that is to be enlarged? He has always backed away from the hard choice of throwing the power of the state behind the cause of social justice. At every point, Obama backs away from requiring these efforts, while Hillary embraced them. The Stevensonians have forced their preferred candidate on the party on their own terms, paying no mind to where they stand and what they want to accomplish. They may be centrists, but they no longer have a center to hold.
For Clinton Democrats, there is nowhere else to go with Obama because there was never anything there to begin with.