Figuring out what ails a political party is more difficult than saying what is wrong with a candidate. Individual candidates succeed or fail on things specific to them, and can be brought low by idiosyncrasies that have nothing to do with politics. Parties succeed or fail because of what they represent, both the constituencies whose interests they defend and the political philosophies that guide their political acts. When I described the Democratic Party as aimless, it is due to the lack of clarity on these two points. When examining the actions and rhetoric of the Deaniac faction, I’m left really, truly wondering if they do not want to be a party at all.
So much of what I have written in this blog, reaching back to the earliest posts has been, at base, trying to identify what the Democrats stand for. In the beginning, it seemed so obvious that Democrats were “not them,” not the party of preventive war, torture, crony capitalism, dissolution of civil rights, and dismantling of the regulatory state. The longer I lived in the blogosphere (I haven’t owned a TV in 20 years.), the less certain I become of that belief. The fracture of the party this year into Obamacans and Clinton Democrats, a split that numerically favors the latter while the former retains control of key intersections of power, has spurred most of my writing for the last year, trying to comprehend how we got to this point.
Running like a dark band through Democratic politics is the shadow of Reagan. The Reagan resurgence after the crimes of Nixon, when we on the Left thought we had finally beaten back the McCarthyist tactics of Ole’ Tricky Dick, did something deeply damaging to Democrats. I remember my parents’ reactions to Reagan’s victory. Grim, tight lipped, a sense that we needed to hunker down. We had lived in Reagan’s California and we knew what he was like. Reagan’s occupation of the White House demoralized them. It seemed nothing less than the repudiation of all the promise, all the sacrifice, of the previous two decades. He ran and won on the explicit pledge to undo all the labors of the Left back through FDR. What we as a nation had come to think of as right – social justice, civil rights, economic opportunity, egalitarianism – had been declared the enemy of all things American. No more equivocation that Democrats were “like” Communists, the Enemy; we were reviled as an equally reprehensible foe of real America. And the Democratic Party leadership, full of its incessant self-critique and distaste for power, allowed as to how that was probably true to a certain degree. To this day, a significant portion of the power brokers in the party cannot free themselves of the hypnotic lies of Reagan.
Reagan’s initial win might not have been so ground-changing were it not for the self-defeating response of the Democrats. I’m also convinced that the assassination attempt on Reagan gained his policies sympathy that should only have been extended to the person. Stepping back for a longer view, the weakness that Reagan exploited, using the groundwork laid by the Movement Conservatives and the Nixonian neocons, was the dismantling of our own apartheid state. The Civil Rights Act was the only ethical choice for the nation and had to be done by the Democrats as repudiation of what was irretrievable wrong in our party. Nothing less would have sufficed. It had to be done and both the nation and the party are better for it, but it set in motion the multi-decade fracture and reformation of the party.
What marked the Democrats so badly, made unbearably clear with Reagan’s victory, was the abandonment of the party by long-term constituencies, first and foremost the foundational group, the heirs of the planter and plantation class of the Old South. The old Democratic coalition, never an easy accommodation in the best of times, didn’t just come apart. Large portions defected, whether over belief or due to political expedience, to the opposition, fueling the resentment based politics of the Movement Conservatives. At first, the defections could be explained as simply white Southern racists trying to hold on to their privileges, and this was mostly right. And then came Reagan and the phenomenon of the Reagan Democrat.
With Reagan, plain politics about Southern whites receded and culture arguments came to the fore. Bunkers joined Bubbas in their abandonment of the Democratic Party, and the intelligentsia of the Left began to talk about values and a culture rooted in ignorance, bigotry and working class parochialism. Never mind that, as Bartels and Krugman have written, the defections from the Democratic Party were greater the higher the socio-economic status of the voter, the Democratic leadership became convinced that it was those no-account blue collar people who were killing their Stevensonian dreams. (We, of course, will set aside the uncomfortable fact that Stevenson himself was not exactly big on promoting Civil Rights.) Since Reagan, the Democratic leadership has wavered back and forth between those who want to bring the politics back to bread and butter issues, which means addressing working class needs and interests, and those who want to create a coalition that does not rely on white working class votes. We saw those two perspectives battle it out in the primaries this year. The latter group, not just party officials, but also the intelligentsia that formulates the political philosophy and the echo chamber that shouts its approval, is running a campaign on little more than class resentment against former Democratic constituencies. (White) Race is elided with (working) class to create the ultimate clash of culture – to make racist demons out of people asking to have their material interests defended.
It is no less than the mobilization of resentment of the socio-economic winners against the losers. How dare you not keep us in power, when we have done so little for you and promise to do even less? That the group quickest to hurl accusations of racism and party disloyalty against the working class is also the one most likely to have benefitted from white privilege and to have bolted the party in the past doesn’t make a dent in their cultural critique. The erudite denizens of Whole Foods Nation are angry at the ungrateful wretches who won’t bow to the superiority of the creative class, and they have no interest in even trying to appeal to the Clinton Democrats. Gauging from the rhetoric of this season, from Donna Brazile down to the trolls in my comments, the Democratic Party is determined to rid itself of those constituencies they see as traitors to the cause. They are willing to walk away from social justice as “losing” electoral propositions, things like women’s rights, gay rights, privacy rights, and the like. Instead, we see a great faith in “choice”, especially market-driven choices, and promotion of faith. They do not want to spend political capital on anything that might risk energizing the mythic base of Reagan. The Obamacan assault on what they imagine to be their political opponents because of confusion between cultural identity and political constituency, came out in their attacks on Hillary not so much as the figure that would bring out that base in opposition, but exactly because she would appeal to that base on both cultural and economic grounds. She and her supporters had to be turned into racists to avoid discussing the economics interests Obama did not deign to address.
Thus the electoral strategy of the current party leadership appears to be keep the yahoos down on the farm and secure the hegemony of Whole Foods Nation. This is even more a cultural split than a class division. There is no context to the Obama message until the convention forced one on him, quickly abandoned in favor of assaulting Gov. Palin for her culture crimes. On the class and culture front, I look at the appeals to education (not like those hicks) and to muddled religiosity (half New Age, half non-denominational mega-church) (Which, if you’ve ever seen “Ramtha” in action, you’ll realize are not that far apart...) and above all the appeals to bipartisanship as attempts to peel away the old Rockefeller Republicans from their party.
To cut to the chase, the push in 2004 for a “Unity Party” has been realized with Howard Dean delivering the Democratic Party into the hands of the High Broderists who value unity for unity’s sake more than any other political cause or virtue. They don’t even want to claim to be part of their party, hoping people will forget and just vote for those nice clean, articulate fellas. This is part of internalizing the Reagan assault on the legitimacy of the Democratic Party as such. Psychologically, to them, the Democratic Party is the remnants of the uneducated, racist, white South and rust-belt north, who vote for Bubbas like Clinton and reject above-partisanship technocrats and idealists like Bill Bradley, John Kerry, Michael Dukakis, Paul Tsongas and Howard Dean himself. The nerve of them people! And thus, this year, we have the Unity Democrats, non-partisan to the end.
The dark underbelly of this move is the presumption that the people who have been told their interests must wait will always be there for the Democrats because we have nowhere else to go. Specifically, this means African Americans, women voters and GLBT voters. Republican policies and objectives are deemed so awful to us that we will not defect or sit out, no matter how dismissive or unresponsive the Unity Democrats are to our interests. This is the unspoken presumption about Schaller’s Whistling Past Dixie argument, that the party can safely abandon “the South” and pursue new constituencies in the West (read Hispanics, white Independents and Moderate white Republicans) because the captive Democrats of those regions can always be counted on to defend the gerrymandered districts and are too few and far between to bother with in national elections. They count on population loss over time in Pennsylvania and Ohio to remove those states from importance in the electoral map. Finally, replace Blacks with Hispanics as the minority to cater to as they are growing in number at a faster rate and are better able to advance into the professional ranks via education and passing as “white”. That’s the final keystone in the arch supporting the bridge into the United future – ditch defense of the minority that caused the Democrats so much grief in the first place, be rid of their ungrateful presence and embarrassing, “pathological” culture, and celebrate those who can pass as one of us and will give us a pass on that messy race stuff. After all, what are they going to do, vote Republican?
The focus of the Unity Democrats is on the winners of the economic realignment, those who managed to win a place in the white collar upper-middle class. People like my family and my husband’s, who leveraged the affluence of the post-war era to vault from being immigrants and farmers to being professionals in various government bureaucracies, law, finance, and new, white collar industries like high tech and bio-tech. The other part is to minimize the damage the losers of that realignment can inflict, which mostly means refusing to commit to policies and plans that will defend their interests. Or even their lives. Obama’s campaign is not about social goods and resources, but about cultural markers of class inclusion, such as your level of education, where you shop, whether you live in urban or rural environments, etc. He has difficulty addressing the failures of an economic system contiguous with his own class and which is deeply invested in his candidacy, and I don’t just mean the campaign contributions. He is the exemplar of a mode of life that, while not as unreachable as that of Bush’s base, is still out of reach of those who do not have the education, acculturation and business contacts to climb up that economic ladder.
The ultimate shadow of Reagan is that you don’t win by defending losers, only by securing the interests of the winners. That is the dark heart beating in the chest of the Unity Democrats. They are done with the losers.