The Republicans will remain in control even if John Kerry winsby Robert Reich / May 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
Even if John Kerry wins in November, the right will remain in control of America. Democrats have almost no chance of winning back the house or Senate. Most state governorships and legislatures are also in the hands of Republicans, which gives them power to draw the lines of future congressional districts and thereby keep hold of congress. Right-wing conservatives now claim most of America’s airwaves – they are in full command of “talk radio” and “yell television.” They run most Washington think tanks. They inhabit some of the most influential positions on Wall Street and in American corporate boardrooms. Radical conservatives are, in short, America’s new governing elite.
A little over a decade ago, it looked as if Bill Clinton’s New Democrats – the forerunners to Tony Blair’s third wayers – were in control. Although Clinton was elected on a minority of votes cast (Ross Perot took votes away from the first George Bush), once in office he appeared to enhance his standing as a “new kind of Democrat” by eschewing stands associated with the traditional left. He signed Nafta, embraced fiscal austerity and deficit reduction, and called for an end to the dole. It seemed as if a new Democratic era had begun. Democrats controlled both houses of congress. The country seemed solidly behind us.
But within two years, Clinton’s ambitious healthcare plan went down to defeat. In the autumn of 1994, Republicans took over congress. Clinton was re-elected in 1996, but his second term was mired in scandal, and the country appeared to veer to the right. In 2000, with the US enjoying unparalleled prosperity, George W Bush won the presidency. What happened?
We failed because we failed to build a political movement behind us. America’s newly ascendant radical conservatives do have such a movement, which explains their success. They have developed dedicated sources of money and legions of ground troops who not only get out the vote, but also spend the time between elections persuading others to join their ranks. They have devised frames of reference that are used repeatedly in policy debates (among them are: it’s your money, tax and spend, political correctness, class warfare). They have a system for recruiting and electing officials nationwide who share the same worldview and who vote accordingly. And they have a coherent ideology uniting evangelical Christians, blue-collar whites in the south and west, and big business.
Democrats have built no analogous movement. Instead, every four years party loyalists throw themselves behind a presidential candidate who they believe will deliver them from the rising conservative tide. After the election, they go back to whatever they were doing before. Other Democrats involve themselves in single-issue politics but these battles have failed to build a movement. Issues rise and fall, depending on the interests at stake.
As a result, Democrats have been undisciplined, intimidated or just silent. They have few dedicated sources of money, and almost no troops. The religious left is disconnected from the political struggle. One hears few liberal Democratic phrases that are repeated with any regularity. In addition, there is no consistent Democratic ideology. Most congressional Democrats raise their own money, do their own polls and vote every which way. Democrats have little or no clear identity except by reference to what conservatives say about them.
Democratic centrists, like the Democratic leadership council, attribute the party’s difficulties to a failure to respond to an electorate grown more conservative, affluent and suburban. This is nonsense. The biggest losses for Democrats since 1980 have not been among suburban voters but among America’s giant middle and working classes – especially white workers without four-year college degrees, once part of the old Democratic base. These are the same people who have lost the most economic ground over the last quarter-century.
Democrats could have responded with bold plans on jobs, schools, healthcare and retirement security. They could have delivered a strong message about the responsibility of corporations to help their employees in all these respects, and of wealthy elites not to corrupt politics with money. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Democratic party could have used the threat of terrorism to inspire the same sort of sacrifice and social solidarity as Democrats did in the second world war – including higher taxes on the wealthy to pay for what needs doing. In short, they could have turned themselves into a populist movement to take back democracy from increasingly concentrated wealth and power.
But Democrats did none of this. So conservatives stepped into the void, claiming the populist mantle and blaming liberal elites for everything.
The rush by many Democrats in recent years to the so-called centre has been a substitute for candid talk about what the nation needs to do and for fuelling a movement based on liberal values. In truth, America has no consistent political centre. Polls mostly reflect reflexive responses to what people have just heard about an issue. Meanwhile, the so-called centre has continued to shift to the right because conservative Republicans stay put while Democrats keep meeting them halfway.
Democrats who eschew movement politics point to Bill Clinton’s success in repositioning the party in the centre during the 1990s. Clinton is a gifted politician who accomplished something no Democrat since Roosevelt had done: he got re-elected. But his effect on the party was to blur what Democrats stand for. He neither started nor sustained a political movement.
In 1994, when battling for his healthcare proposal, Clinton had no movement behind him. Even though polls showed support among a majority of Americans, it wasn’t enough to overcome the conservative effort on the other side. By contrast, George W Bush got his tax cuts through congress, even though Americans were ambivalent about them. President Bush had a political movement behind him.
In the months leading up to the 1996 election, Clinton famously triangulated – finding positions equidistant between Democrats and Republicans – and ran for re-election on tiny issues like V-chips in television sets and school uniforms. But it was a pyrrhic victory. Had Clinton told Americans the truth – that when the economic boom went bust they would still have to face the challenges of a country concentrating more wealth and power in fewer hands – he could have built a long-term mandate for change. By the late 1990s the nation finally had the wherewithal to expand prosperity by investing in people, especially their education and health. But because Clinton was re-elected without a mandate, the nation was confused about what needed to be accomplished and easily distracted by conservative fulminations against a president who lied about sex.
As we head into the 2004 election, Democrats should pay close attention to what Republicans have learned about winning elections over the long run – lessons that may be useful for New Labour as well. First, it is crucial to build a political movement that will endure after elections. Second, any movement derives its durability from the clarity of its convictions.
A fierce battle for the White House may be exactly what the Democrats need to mobilise a movement behind them. It may also be what America needs to restore a two-party system and a clear understanding of the choices we face as a nation.