The Post-Election Democratic Party: It’s Time to Make the “Big Tent” a Reality

In the aftermath of the disastrous presidential election, journalists, political analysts, and other “pundits” have begun to dissect the Democratic Party in an effort to determine how the party and its candidate lost so unexpectedly and decisively.

This is reminiscent of the review undertaken by the Republican Party after its 2012 defeat – the so-called “autopsy” report. The Democratic Party has not yet begun an analysis of its problems, pending the selection of a new chairperson of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and new party leadership. Nonetheless, the current discussions point to an approach similar to that of the Republicans four years ago – an indictment of the party for overlooking key voting blocs and recommendations for engaging with them.

In this case the group most consistently mentioned is “working class” white men – but it is actually “working class” white potential voters generally – in so-called “rust belt” states. This group contained a sufficient number of Democratic voters to give Barack Obama victories in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Michigan, Iowa, and Florida, all of which Hillary Clinton lost.

Activist Film-maker Michael Moore, a lifelong resident of Michigan, predicted that Trump would defeat Clinton. He saw up close how the Trump campaign was succeeding where the Democratic campaign failed in appealing to the disenchanted, high school-educated white workers in the Midwestern “rust belt.” These workers had seen their factory jobs disappear and their incomes decline and had received no satisfactory response from the “elites,” among whom they included white collar professionals, “Wall   Street,” and especially the political class in Washington, DC.

So now, as racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic sentiments are freely and publicly expressed and as an increasing number of incidents of violence toward non-white people are reported, progressives are asked to consider how to make their party more accommodating to working class whites who found in Trump the expression of their barely suppressed emotions. Thus, progressive Democrats face the challenge of rallying their core constituencies against the Republican machinery that controls the entire Federal government and many state governments as well, while seeking to accommodate a hostile Republican constituency in the hope of regaining the political ascendancy.

A problem facing progressive Democrats is that their core constituency has been  blacks, college-educated whites in urban areas, some Hispanics (but fewer than anticipated), and the membership of some labor unions and the leadership of others. These constituencies are not sufficient for victories at the state and national levels. And some groups within this ad hoc coalition may abandon the Democratic Party for more aggressively leftist third parties and for ethnically based parties.

Therefore, it seems that the Democrats, hopefully under progressive leadership, must find a way to reach out to “working class” white voters, to whom the attribution of white privilege is considered an insult added to the injury of national indifference to their experience. Sadly, this group cannot see that the people they despise – blacks, immigrants, college graduates struggling to get a foothold in the economy – share their plight and their despair.  So outreach to them may require the same appeal to their primitive brain that proved successful for Republican candidates.

The challenge that Democratic Party leaders face is that of bringing the progressive values of the New Deal into the context of the 21st century world economy. The first step in meeting this challenge is to realistically confront the world we face through an open negotiation among the constituencies who are said to make up the Democratic Party’s “Big Tent.”

However, the “Big Tent” is not only a cliché; it is a pernicious hoax on the Democratic faithful. Rather than an arena for consensus among Democratic constituencies, it is a textbook example of a corporatist institution: an assembly of elites who sit atop the organizations identified with the Democratic coalition and claim to speak for their constituents. In fact, they dole out  rhetoric and symbolism, keeping each group in its allocated space within the party while hoarding power for themselves and their inner circles.

If the next Democratic leadership cadre wants to expand the party’s base, they must engage the “rank and file” among the groups the party needs attract if it is to re-establish its role as the representative of working people. They must acknowledge that they have not delivered on their promises to the constituencies that have been left behind by the recovery. These groups include working class blacks and working class whites, displaced industrial workers and underemployed recent college graduates, residents of inner cities and of rural communities.

This will be an enormous undertaking for a party that must simultaneously play offence (rebuilding and campaigning) and defense (against the reactionary onslaught of the Republicans). It is likely that national policies enacted by the Republicans will be successful and force Democrats to fight their battles at the state level.

This could prove fortunate. The 2018 elections will focus on candidates in the states: governors, senators, congress members, and state and local legislators. It is in the states the Republicans made the gains that allowed them to gerrymander congressional districts, limit voter eligibility, and enact laws targeting sexual minorities. And it is in the states that the Democrats must make the case that the big tent is a reality and that no constituency’s voice is unheard.

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The Millenial Vote and the Politics of Distraction (Part I: Demographics and Dire Warnings)

The Republican National Convention formally nominated Donald Trump and Mike Pence in an orgy of hatred and fear mongering. This week the Democratic National Convention will confirm Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine as its presidential and vice-presidential candidates.

Rational people will rally behind the Democratic candidates and reject the Trump rhetoric of racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia. They will reject the litany of lies and the evocation of failed ideas and programs that constitute the Republican Platform. But people – even generally rational people – are not always rational. Often they let their emotions and desires govern their political and economic choices.

So, while Clinton and Kaine should achieve a solid victory over their opponents, we cannot simply assume that this victor is inevitable. We must consider the fact that, given our electoral system, enough of the American people could be seduced by the snake oil sales pitch of Donald Trump to give the Republicans the White House.

Radical film-maker Michael Moore has predicted a Trump victory. He believes that the frustrations of alienated white men in the “rust belt” states will lead them to respond to Trump’s message of restoring US manufacturing and rejecting injurious trade agreements. This, coupled with the sense of diminished status and power in an increasingly non-white America, will be enough to bring about a Republican victory.

He reiterated this view on the Bill Maher show last week. He was challenged by fellow panelist Joy Reid, who argued that Blacks, a crucial Democratic voting bloc, will turn out in great numbers for the presidential election, even though they tend to sit out so called “midterm” elections – actually enormously important congressional and state elections.

Reid’s comment highlighted the issue of turnout, the key factor in Democratic electoral victories. We are currently living with the consequences of the low turnout of important Democratic constituencies in 2010 and 2014. And while we can hope with some confidence for a large turnout among Black, Hispanic, Jewish, Asian, LGBT, and other Democratic groups, the one group about which we need to be seriously concerned are young voters.

The “Millennial Generation,” those aged 19-29, have been shown to vote in lower percentages in elections at all levels. The United States Elections Project tracked the voting trends of various demographic groups from 1984 to 2016. Millenials trail all other age groups in the percent voting in elections. They do consistently vote at higher levels in presidential elections than in congressional elections. And they significantly increased their participation in the elections of 2008. But their voting numbers declined in the elections of 2012.

The recent trend in declining participation by 19-29 year olds bodes badly for Democrats if it continues into this year’s presidential election. And the current trend, indicated by participation in 2016 primary elections, indicates that it will. A Harvard University Study, reported in US News and World Report, found that young voters are no longer a reliable constituency of the Democratic Party. Millenials demonstrate a distrust of the political system and the political parties. They have not attached themselves to one of the other parties, but have disengaged from the system as a whole. While the campaign of Bernie Sanders may have generated enthusiasm among young potential voters, it did not significantly increase their turnout in the primaries. Although millenials voted for Sanders over Clinton by wide margins in key state primaries, the percentages of young voters who turned out was far below the percentage of older voters, who overwhelmingly favored Clinton.

There are many reasons why young adults are not engaged in the political process. Many attended high school in an era when Civics was not a required part of the curriculum. Many are struggling to get through college while working to pay tuition, and graduates are burdened with substantial student loans. Many encounter difficulty in making social connections and forming significant relationships.

The stresses on young people are often tremendous. And coping with these stresses seldom takes the form of tackling their alienation at its source and fighting to change the political and economic system. Often the path taken is that of escapism, shutting down the stress by withdrawing from it, in effect, self-medicating. For some, it’s the continuation of the “Joe College” and “Jane Coed” culture of weekly overconsumption of alcohol. For some it’s engaging with technology. The ubiquity of digital diversion provides a ready escape from the anxiety of everyday life. Video games and binge watching television shows has become an accepted retreat from day-to-day reality.

In this context I have noted two major sources of escape that happen to loom large on the scene just as Americans should be turning our attention toward the most important election in a generation. These are The Game of Thrones and Pokémon Go. These two products have in common that they fairly successfully substitute virtual universes for the real world we live in.

I’ll discuss this more in Part II of this article.