Party Foul

What do we do about the Democrats?

Clark Goolsby, A Table of Things Organized Neatly. 2013, acrylic, ink, and collage on canvas. 48 × 54". Courtesy of the artist. 

What about the Democrats? Can they stop this? We call them more than our own families, imploring them to save our health care, to save our civil libertiesnot to screw this up again. But we don’t have much faith. Trump, an idiot and a buffoon, should have been an easy man to beat. Watching the Democrats lose was like watching a smug tennis player lose a thousand set points on double faults. Since November, the Democratic Party has spent its energy searching for someone to blame. Comey, the Russians, Cambridge Analyticaanyone, it seems, but itself.

Ah, the Democrats. We know their problems like our own faces. They’re the closest thing we have to a party. Yes, they represent a panoply of powerful business interests who write the bills. Yes, they are almost as captive to lobbyists as the Republicans. Yes, they’ve managed to pass legislation that previous Republican administrations could only dream of: welfare “reform,” the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, the repeal of Glass-Steagall. Yes, a majority of Democratic senators voted to invade Iraq, later indulging in bathetic recantations as they transferred their animus to Russia. Yes, they are the partyor they’re not not the partyof testing and charter schools, health-insurance conglomerates and pharmaceutical lobbyists, university privatization and sham meritocracy, deindustrialization and the interests of the professional elite. Yes, they seem incapable of propping up a sturdy sentence without allowing an idiot wind of circumlocutions to blow it down. Yes, they seem to have a teeth-grinding fondness for the rhetorical figure of chiasmus (“We can build on the strength of our diversity, and the diversity of our strengths”). Yes, yesyes. But...

Is now, more than ever, our moment to yank the Democrats back from decades of rightward drift? It’s an old, even farcical question for the left. Keith Ellison’s lead for DNC chair gave us momentary hope: when Elizabeth Warren, Chuck Schumer, and much of organized labor endorsed him, it seemed as though the Democrats were finally coming around. But then Obama deputized labor secretary Tom Perez to stop the Ellison wavea signal to cool our hopes. Republican hegemony leaves us with little choice but to work with the Democrats, at least for the moment, and even bring them closer to us. The question is how.


Two views of the Democratic Party suggest two paths.

The first sees it as the prodigal party of the people: the onetime champion of the New Deal that went astray in the 1970s, when a young generation of post-Watergate liberals began to move the party to the right on economic policyundoing antitrust protections and encouraging big businesseven as it moved left on social issues like feminism and civil rights. This rightward drift culminated in the figure of Bill Clinton and, later, his wife, who came under fire during her campaign for giving well-compensated speeches to Goldman Sachs. In 2016, many Democrats who had voted for Obama voted against Hillary, in part to put an end to the Clinton era. So they went for Trump, the candidate who spoke to their downward mobility and insecurity (and perhaps in the case of many, their misogyny and racial resentment).

In this view, the Democrats’ grave error was to neglect the working class, the party’s natural base. The people wanted populism, and so they turned to the populism on offer. With the party on the rocks, now is the left’s moment to take it back. Centrists do not know how to build a left populism to counter the right’s phobic, racist populism, let alone mobilize voters around it. But the left does. To win in 2018 and beyond, the Democrats must remake themselves as the party of good jobs, universal health care, paid leave, affordable child care, affordable housing, and free public education for all. In this account, the left understands the Democratic Party better than Democrats do; it can save the party from itself. The way to do so is to win elections with left-wing Democrats, eventually pushing the party back to its home on the liberal left.

The second view is less misty-eyed. Rather than a good party gone bad, the Democrats were never a party of the people, even during the heyday of the New Deal. This is because party ideology isn’t determined by the shifting views and needs of voters, but by “investors”: lobbies, corporations, businesses, interest groups, and unions who spend time, money, and energy to shape the direction of the party in hopes of seeing a return. This view allows that a party could shift to the right, and also indicates why there might be a hard limit on shifting a partyparticularly the modern Democratic Partyto the left.

The “investment theory of party competition,” advanced by political scientist Thomas Ferguson, holds that investors exert influence through monetary contributions but also through organizations. “Investment,” here, is a metaphor: it encompasses activism and money, recognizing that the two are often connected. The Christian Right “invests” in the Republican Party through dogged political work at many levels of civil society. Labor unions have invested in Democrats in the same way. But they also spend lots of money, and money means power. In a capitalist society, the most powerful investor blocs invariably consist of large corporations and industries. “Efforts to control the state, by voters or anyone else, cost heavily in time and money,” Ferguson writes in his book Right Turn (1986), coauthored with the political scientist Joel Rogers. For all the talk of super PACs and “money in politics,” this truism is rarely acknowledged in postelection analyses, where outcomes are mostly figured in terms of voters’ shifting views.

Ferguson offers a pleasantly sober account of American party systems. His explanation of the New Deal in Golden Rule (1995) dispenses with rosy tales of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s immeasurable wisdom and the power of working people. The strength of the New Deal, he argues, came from the alliance between labor and the bloc of “capital-intensive industries, investment banks, and internationally oriented commercial banks” that had emerged in the early 20th century. Because these businesses were less labor-intensive than their predecessors, and their profit margins thus less affected by rises in wages, they could “afford” to have a coalition with organized labor as long as they could still advance their goals on trade. This isn’t to say that labor didn’t have a role to playbut wealthy investors played an equal if not bigger role, helping convert FDR and the Democrats to internationalism and free trade. What made the New Deal coalition viable for a time was the uneasy harmony of this bloc.

Ferguson also explains how this bloc dissolved. Conventional arguments tend to point to the failure of organized labor to incorporate “new social movements” into its ranks, or to argue that those social movements were responsible for pushing the party toward “identity politics,” leaving economic justice by the wayside. Centrist Democrats’ preferred explanation for the realignment of the party holds that Americans simply became more conservative during the Carter years, as the working classes fractured over issues like busing and welfare. But this doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. According to polling data, from the time and since, most Americans haven’t moved right at all: for the most part, they supported (and still support) the types of programs advanced by the New Deal.

Investors, however, did not. By the early 1970s, military spending on the Vietnam War had strained the budget, leading to inflation, while growing competition from other strong economies, like Germany and Japan, was putting pressure on American manufacturing. The American economic picture was already profoundly uncertain before the decade’s oil crises struck. The 1973–75 recessionat the time, the worst since the Depressionprompted business leaders to temper wage increases (which meant attacking organized labor) and oppose any tax increases to pay for existing social programs (which would mean reduced spending power for already cash-strapped consumers). The Republican Party was historically the party of balanced budgets, and it was divided on issues of trade. With the rise of Ronald Reagan, however, the party gradually moved toward the magical solution of low taxes and drastically expanded military spending, combined with greater internationalism on tradethis latter move helping to siphon off the free trade bloc that had backed the New Deal. The 1980 Reagan campaign, Ferguson and Rogers write, thus “opened the way for virtually all of American business to mass behind its candidate.”

The Democrats panicked, and left their constituents behind. Over the next decade, they would decide again and again that the only response to the business friendliness of Reaganism was more business friendliness. The new party chair, Charles Manatt, created the Democratic Business Council, whose members included executives of Arco, Chevron, and Boeing. They were invited to participate in taskforces to help create party policies, and to attend, in the language of the DBC, “quarterly meetings of a substantive nature held in Washington” where members could “share their respective business, professional, and political interests with the political leadership of America.” By the mid-’80s, Democrats had already begun to pull parts of business away from the Reagan bloc. Central to Walter Mondale’s successful campaign for the Democratic nomination in 1984 were executives and board members from Xerox, DuPont, Bechtel, and Lehman Brothers. The influence of this bloc converted Mondale to a program of deficit reductionan uninspiring proposal that could not compete with “Morning in America”and he lost catastrophically. But the argument that deficits are bad for business became dogma within the rising neoliberal wing of the party. Democrats had, for the first time, become the party of balanced budgets.

The Democrats would eventually find a secure bloc based in information technology. Michael Dukakis, governor of Massachusetts, symbolized this transformation: he envisioned tech as the central element of the future economy. During the busing crisis of the 1970s, Boston had seemed like the center of the liberal crack-up, but the city and its suburbs had found a source of vitality in the tech industry. A coalition of profess-ionals in and around tech began to “invest” in the party. Dukakis’s bid for the presidency failed powerfully in 1988; Ferguson notes that in many areas of the country, turnout fell to lows unknown since the 1820s, when property requirements still restricted suffrage. But Bill “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” Clinton secured victory in 1992.

Clintonism reflected almost perfectly the importance of new investors in the Democratic Party. After passing NAFTA, he presided over the collapse of the Democratic Congress in 1994, which left Republicans in control of the House for the first time since the 1930s. After passing welfare reform, he won reelection in one of the lowest-turnout races in American history. He then proceeded to balance the budget, partly on the savings secured through the destruction of welfare. His success, such as it was, rested on the notion that the Democrats had a better handle on the future of businessand especially the booming tech industrythan the Republicans, and could therefore be better stewards of the economy.

By 2008, the process of business takeover was complete. A new President rose spectacularly on a message of change while the power elite promised more of the same. To take one example: in an email published by WikiLeaks, Michael Froman, a senior executive from Citigroup, appears to dictate Obama’s first-term cabinet appointments. Froman was then appointed to the post of US trade representative, from which he advocated for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade accord negotiated in secret with big business and written in large part by pharmaceutical companies. According to Ferguson’s analysis of the 2012 congressional elections, there was a direct, linear correlation between money spent and elections won. Money also dominated both presidential campaigns: 59 percent of contributions to Obama’s campaign came from the “1 percent” while 79 percent to Romney’s did. Where Romney received the lion’s share of funding from the shadow-banking sector, Obama’s support was concentrated in electronics, computing, and internet companies.

Investment blocs shape party ideologies; they don’t necessarily produce wins. A win helps cement the broader ideology of an era, as Reagan’s victories helped convince Democrats that they needed to get closer to business. But the strong influence of wealthy investors can also depress turnout, since voters often recognize when a candidate is more in the pocket of donors than of ordinary supporters.

The surprise results of 2016both Bernie Sanders’s unexpectedly strong showing and Trump’s final victoryrepresented, for Ferguson and others, a belated crisis of this system. From 2012 to 2014, Ferguson points out (in an essay coauthored with Walter Dean Burnham), there was a huge drop in voter turnout: 24 percentage points, the second-largest plunge in US history. Americans are “sick to death of both parties,” Ferguson and Burnham wrote, and the result “likely heralds a new stage in the disintegration of the American political order.” What appeared to be happening was the rejectionthrough broad abstentionismof the investment-driven American system. Sanders and Trump made inroads by defying the system: the former through relying chiefly on small donations and eschewing super PACs, the latter by loudly professing to use his own store of money.


Trump’s claims to independence based on his private stash of billions were, of course, fatuous. And Sanders, far from running a campaign on a shoestring, raised quite a bit of money, which he spent on TV ads like any other candidate. But because of that money’s provenance, he appeared as a figure of integrity, and correspondingly attracted an army of volunteers“ordinary” investors. Strategically, then, the investor theory suggests that organizing people (and money) on a more egalitarian basis can change what kinds of candidates make it through the system.

But it’s not clear that it can change Democratic Party ideology. As long as the party caters to its tech-led investment bloc, it will not throw its weight behind candidates who challenge those investors’ interests. One could take Ellison’s near victory as a cautionary tale: Tom Perez is no monster, but he does have, as Matt Stoller wrote on the Intercept, “an established record of not taking on the banks, both at the Department of Justice and the Department of Labor.” His belated entry into the race, and ultimate victory, could have been a flash flare to investors not to worry: their interests would still be the Democrats’ interests. In the same election that brought Perez to the chairmanship, the DNC members reaffirmed their commitment to party ideology by permanently voting down an initiative that would have ended corporate lobbying of candidates.

So what do we do? Run candidates, yes, and establish a pattern for getting more left populist leaders on the ballot. But we also need to organize outside the party. In an elucidating recent interview with John Judis at Talking Points Memo, the scholar and veteran of social movements Marshall Ganz suggested that the DNC is not and should not be the main avenue for the left. “For one thing, the rise of the conservative movement didn’t happen through the RNC,” Ganz said:

Conservatives successfully created a more or less coherent network of organizations linked to local, state and national politics, which is a traditional form of effective political organization in the US.... You look in vain for something like that on the progressive side. There is such a proliferation of groups, all kinds of groups, some of which take up space without filling it.

The Democrats are hostile to the left, but the left, for its part, is too weak to influence the Democrats. Historic moments of electoral and movement breakthroughsuch as Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalitionhaven’t always presaged leftward turns in the party, partly because they failed to create an institutional culture of the left outside the party.

At home, the name “Democrat” itself carries less weight every day. Sanders himself failed to increase voter participation in the primary: at 14.4 percent, the turnout for one of the most exciting contests in generations proved lower even than that for the primary in 1984. There may be little hope in building enthusiasm for the Democrats directly, but it might be possible to channel enthusiasm through an outside bloc that can raise money and mobilize people external to any party.

And there are people: millions of people who are disengaged, electorally nonparticipating, unattached to either party. Most of them are among the most vulnerable populations in society. This is the working class the media and political organizations should be concerned about, a group that may be more interested in movement building around issues like police and schools and workplaces than questions of party. The Democratic Party evinces little interest in representing or mobilizing them, but they remain a vital constituency for a left still finding its feet.

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