Why the Democratic Party Is in Bigger Trouble Than It Realizes

Regarding the perpetual complaint that young voters don’t turn out for midterm elections, which gives Congress to Republicans — yeah, I used to complain about that too. But try to imagine what the Democratic Party must look like to younger voters.

I’m old enough to remember when Harry Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt were still alive and still influential in party politics. I was in middle school during the Kennedy Administration. For all his flaws regarding Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson initiated genuinely progressive domestic programs. I was in high school when Bobby Kennedy ran for President and was assassinated. I cast my first vote for POTUS for George McGovern. So that’s the Democratic Party I remember — flawed and messy, but still a vehicle for doing the right thing, at least part of the time.

But that party died a quiet death some time back. I’m not sure that other people my age realize this. The Democratic Party now is closer to where the Republicans were during the Nixon Administration than they are to being the party of Truman, Kennedy or even LBJ.

But at least the Nixon Republicans sort of stood for something. You knew where they were coming from. The current party Democratic Party stands for nothing.

I’m not sure when it happened, exactly, but sometime between the McGovern blowout in 1972 and the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, the party of FDR, Truman and Kennedy died. Clinton ushered in a fundamental change in the Democratic Party that made it about winning elections on the Right’s terms. It became the party of lowered expectations, learned helplessness and “at least we’re not as bad as they are.” But what does it actually stand for any more, as a party?

I recently got into a sad discussion about how the party abandoned the legacy of FDR. I mentioned FDR’s great 1941 State of the Union address — the “Four Freedoms” speech. This encapsulates what the party should still stand for, I said. A Clinton supporter dismissed this as ancient history. You want to have it both ways, she said. You keep saying it’s not 1972 any more, and now you want to go back to 1941. The Democrats have moved on.

So I quoted this portion of the speech:

Certainly this is no time for any of us to stop thinking about the social and economic problems which are the root cause of the social revolution which is today a supreme factor in the world.

For there is nothing mysterious about the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy. The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:

Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.

Jobs for those who can work.

Security for those who need it.

The ending of special privilege for the few.

The preservation of civil liberties for all.

The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.

These are the simple, basic things that must never be lost sight of in the turmoil and unbelievable complexity of our modern world. The inner and abiding strength of our economic and political systems is dependent upon the degree to which they fulfill these expectations.

Personally, I think anyone who wants to call himself a REAL DEMOCRAT ought to memorize that passage and recite it daily.

FDR continued:

Many subjects connected with our social economy call for immediate improvement.

As examples:

We should bring more citizens under the coverage of old-age pensions and unemployment insurance.

We should widen the opportunities for adequate medical care.

We should plan a better system by which persons deserving or needing gainful employment may obtain it.

And we’re still working on that stuff. Maybe we’ll always be working on that stuff. As technological and economic conditions change, we’ll have to keep adjusting. But it’s hard to even talk about some of these things now, never mind work on them. We’ve done something about health care, although we need to do more. But looking ahead I don’t see any plans from most Dems except to try to stop what we have accomplished from being further eroded.

Roosevelt went on to say that people would be required to pay more taxes to make these things happen. He was re-elected later that year anyway. And no, Pearl Harbor hadn’t been bombed yet.

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression–everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way–everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want–which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants–everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear–which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor–anywhere in the world.

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.

Compare/contrast to right-wing calls for carpet bombing the Middle East to get rid of ISIS. For that matter, compare/contrast to Hillary Clinton’s “vision” of dealing with ISIS. It’s all about military and anti-terrorist options. There’s no vision there.

Now, some would say that Pearl Harbor and the subsequent war proved FDR hopelessly idealistic. I don’t think so. These ideals lived on in programs like the Marshall Plan, which helped secure a lasting peace in western Europe and which is the sort of thing that would never get past a right-wing Congress today, and which the current Democratic Party would never even dare propose. And FDR was a great war president and hardly a pacifist weenie, btw.

We have to acknowledge that FDR didn’t always live up to his own ideals — the Japanese-American internment, for example — but that doesn’t mean the ideals themselves were wrong.

As I’ve written elsewhere, there’s a good argument to be made that in 1992, Clintonian “triangulation,” moving Right to finesse the Reaganites on their own turf, was the only way a Democrat could have won the White House. But it’s time to drop that strategy now, because it’s holding us all back. The current Dem establishment, never mind Hillary Clinton herself, is stuck in the past and ignoring the realities of the current political climate, which is that the Republican Party is falling apart and the young folks are hungry for a more assertively progressive left-wing party that actually stands for something other than technocratic responses to whatever problems arise. Which is all Hillary Clinton knows.

And when some of us start talking about a real progressive vision, the Clintonistas dismiss us as naive “purists” who don’t understand what’s practical. I guess by their definition FDR wasn’t practical (see: New Deal; victory in World War II).

But y’know what? We’ve complained for years about how younger voters don’t turn out for midterm elections and let the Republicans take over Congress. I’ve complained about that, too. But try to look at the Democrats through their eyes. They don’t remember Truman or Eleanor Roosevelt or even George McGovern or Hubert Humphrey.  They remember the Clintons. They see Democrats in Congress that sell out liberal values a large part of the time, and who can’t effectively push back against right-wing craziness. Even President Obama — who has done a lot more good than he’s given credit for — has disappointed them often by trying to make “Grand Bargains” with the Right that would have compromised essential “safety net” programs. And his foreign policy hasn’t been all that great, which is largely Clinton’s doing, IMO.

From that perspective — what’s there to vote for? Why bother?

Again, I always do trudge out and vote, if only because the Dems are not as bad as those other people. But the Dems have been coasting on we aren’t as bad as they are way too much and way too long. It’s like they’re using the Republicans to hold us hostage — vote for us or they’ll shoot your dog. And then most of them go about being way too compromised by money and lobbyists and not really responding to the people.

No, they aren’t as bad as the Republicans. But maybe the young folks are right for not settling. And if the Democratic Party doesn’t change, I wonder if it can survive.

23 thoughts on “Why the Democratic Party Is in Bigger Trouble Than It Realizes

  1. The GOP is destroying itself but they are not too worried, after all there is a perfectly good Democratic party available for takeover. It’s already salted with conserva-creeps like Wasserman Schultz, Chuck Schumer and a host of blue dogs. HRC was once a conservative became a democrat and now appears to be a borderline neo-con — excepting child care, women’s health and reproductive rights. She is also the best candidate of the 5 to win the presidential but if she fouls out I would gladly vote for Bernie. The three remaining GOP candidates are in a lifeboat without food and they are happily slicing and dicing each other.

    I do hope the young voters will form a progressive coalition of sufficient size whose platforms will be absorbed by the democratic party thus providing a natural repellant to the right wing nuts in search of a home.

  2. “If God wanted us to vote she would give us candidates”

    I’ve thought Bernie can best make revolution by teaching young people the nuts and bolts of campaigns. Also finding candidates for 2018 and especially the crucial 2020 state legislature elections – redistricting needs to have few Republican biases.

  3. The dream live on!

    It’s just we who snooze, dreamless.

    I’m 58, a liberal my whole life.
    And you’re right maha. Somewhere between 1972 and 1992, we settled for less is more.

    When I was a teen, back when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, back in the early 70’s, I was considered as being a bit left of left-center.
    By the early 90’s, I was considered as being very, very far-left.

    By the early 00’s, it seemed like I was so far to the left, that people looked at me like I was tongue-kissing Marx, Lenin, Mao, and Castro.
    Sure, I’ve grown older.
    And sure, I’ve matured (a bit – no comments from the other nuts in this peanut gallery!).
    But my political philosophy hasn’t changed much from when I was a 10 year-old fan of MLK Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.
    Their assassination affected me, and not in a good way – except make me further concrete-ize my outlook on life.
    We’re all in this together.
    We’re only here for a short while.
    Why don’t we share, and stop killing one another?
    Why can’t we?

    I know I sound naive.
    But we should all have a sense of naivety.
    Naivety, is idealistic.

    In the movie “Wall Street,” Michael Douglas’s character memorably summed up the change in America, from FDR, to Nixon, to Reagan:
    “Greed, is good.”

    No, it isn’t.
    And no real follower of Buddha, Moses, Christ, Mohammed, or any other religious figure, should ever say that, let alone think it.
    FUCK the idiot Preachers and followers of ‘The Prosperity Gospel!’
    Read you fucking Bible, you greedy douche-canoes! The Jesus you uber-religious assholes supposedly love and revere, gave “Sermon on the Mount,” not a ‘Sermon on teh A-Mount!!!!!!!!!!’

    Along the way to destroying ourselves, we’re destroying our planet. The only habitable one we know. And sooner than we think, we’ll either all hang together, of the planet will shake us off, like a dog shakes off water after coming out of a lake.
    Hopefully I’ll be dead before that happens.
    But I care about the younger people. I have nieces and nephews.
    It sure would be nice if the rich assholes who basically control this world via politics, cared about their children, grandchildren, etc…
    But it sure doesn’t look that way.

    ENOUGH word-turds for the day!
    “Clean-up in the cund-gulag aisle!”

  4. Thomas Frank (What’s the Matter with Kansas) provides some insight in his new book, Listen Liberal, Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People

    Good interview over at Bill Moyer’s site:

    While the battle rages for the soul of the Republican Party, Frank sees Democrats in the throes of their own identity crisis. The one-time party of the working class has been co-opted by a hyper-educated elite, he argues in his just-published Listen Liberal. The book can be read as an argument that the anger propelling Donald Trump’s campaign is the product of short-sighted policy decisions made by Democratic technocrats….

    …What I’m getting at is that liberalism itself has changed and that the Democrats aren’t who we think they are. That’s the answer to basically every question you want to raise about them for the last 30 or so years. They aren’t who you think they are. Their unofficial motto is that they’re the party of the people. That goes back to Jefferson and Jackson. And it’s just not so. This is a class party. I think the Republicans are as well. The Democrats are a class party; it’s just that the class in question is not the one we think it is. It’s not working people, you know, middle class. It’s the professional class. It’s people with advanced degrees. They use that phrase themselves, all the time: the professional class….

    ..It’s a much larger group of people now than it was 50 or 60 years ago thanks to the post-industrial economy. You know math Ph.Ds that would write calculations on Wall Street for derivative securities or like biochemists who work in pharmaceutical companies. There’s hundreds of these occupations now, thousands of them. It’s a much larger part of the population now than it used to be. But it still tends to be very prosperous people…

    …What I decided after researching this problem and reading a lot of the sociological literature on professionalism is that there’s basically two hierarchies in America. One is the hierarchy of money and big business and that’s really where the Republicans are at: the one percent, the Koch brothers, that sort of thing. The hierarchy of status is a different one. The professionals are the apex of that hierarchy. And these two hierarchies live side by side. They share a lot of the same assumptions about the world and a lot of the same attitudes, but they also differ in important ways. So I’m not one of these people who says the Democrats and the Republicans are the same. I don’t think they are. But there are sometimes similarities between these two groups.

    Among other things, professionals tend to be very liberal on essentially any issue other than workplaces issues. So on every matter of cultural issues, culture war issues, all the things that have been so prominent in the past, they can be very liberal. On economic questions, however, they tend not to be. (dishes clattering) They tend to be much more conservative. And their attitudes towards working-class people in general and organized labor specifically is very contemptuous….

    …People used to find opportunity in all sorts of places. But beginning in the 1960s, Americans decided that the right way to pursue opportunities was through the university. It’s more modern than you think. I was reading a book about social class from right after World War II. And the author was describing this transition, this divide between people who came up through their work, who learned on the job and were promoted, versus people who went to universities. And this was in the ’40s. But by the time Bill Clinton was coming up in the ’60s, university was essential. And you had that whole literature about the youth and the now generation and all that stuff in the ’60s — the counterculture. It was always taken for granted that you were talking about college kids, or kids that were going to college. And Bill Clinton really represents that. And you look at Barack Obama and it’s the same thing: plucked from obscurity by first Columbia and then Harvard Law and Harvard Law review. And he is famously a believer in the educational meritocracy. You just look at his cabinet choices, which are all from a very concentrated very narrow sector of the American elite. It’s always Ivy League institutions….

    That last paragraph says it for me. It’s the very success of the New Deal, that allowed working class people to send their kids to college to become professionals of some sort, en masse, that transformed the Democratic Party from what it was post World War 2, to what it is today. That is, if these kids didn’t abandon it entirely and become Republicans.

  5. There’s two sides to this coin. While the democratic leadership has no moral compass, the young voters haven’t lost their way. Young voters are the MOST likely to have a progressive value system, and if it’s intact by the time they become a voting majority, they will have the POWER to demand the party change their evil ways. The fact is – they ALMOST had enough power in this election. If they stay engaged and don’t lose sight of their values, they will grow in power as my generation dies off.

    The risk is the cult of personalization. It’s not about Bernie Sanders anymore than it was about Bobby Kennedy. It’s about the values you believe in and the values your leaders will bring to office. Leaders change but the values don’t have to. It’s well summed up an a salutation from the 60’s, trite but true – “Keep the faith!”

    The corruption of the democratic party leadership is a bummer, but the virtue of young voters is a cause for hope and confidence. I won’t live long enough to see it come to full fruition but I will encourage it as long as I can.

  6. What this article does not explore is why Clinton had to move to the right to capture the White House. Conservatives argue that the liberal wing of the Democratic party held power too long and lost sight of the sorts of issues that allowed Reagan to take power with such a vengeance that he changed the political landscape for a generation. There may be something to that. Reagan, it has always seemed to me, made it okay to be selfish again. And boy did voters across the spectrum seemed to want that at the time. Worth considering if we hope for this young generation to map out a viable position on the left that will endure.

    • “What this article does not explore is why Clinton had to move to the right to capture the White House.” I’ve written so much about that in the past I assumed most people here know it. The reasons are very complex. I did along series several years ago, in 2006, and it all really started after World War II. I didn’t have time this morning to write a comprehensive manual on everything that’s happened in politics for the past eighty years, for pity’s sake. But it’s more than obvious to me that the particular arc of history that gave us Nixon, Reagan and Dubya has finally sputtered out. It’s time for the Left to seize the national narrative the way the Right did so many years ago. But just when we need a leader with vision who can point the way in a new direction, we get Hillary Clinton. It’s a damn shame.

      (Update: Here’s the beginning of the old series, if you’re interested. If you scroll down to the bottom of the page you can find links to other posts in the series.)

  7. Doug…I was very disappointed that you received jail time…these folks just don’t get it…
    but that said, I hope you are right about the young’uns…I think folks like you help with “Keeping the Faith”…you acted on your beliefs…in a non-destructive and quite uncommon way…I tell folks that you are standing up to be counted, as we all should do…and our young folks need to see that…then there is hope that the Party can be shaped towards their future…

  8. ” HRC was once a conservative became a democrat and now appears to be a borderline neo-con — excepting child care, women’s health and reproductive rights. She is also the best candidate of the 5 to win the presidency”

    These are not small matters. The Republicans would repeal the 19th Amendment (and certainly the 14th) given any opportunity.

    Moreover, I doubt she’s MORE screwed up than O on trade and commerce issues (an Obama weakness– look at TPP and non-single payer healthcare).

    She will be weaker than O on foreign policy, sadly. I doubt she’ll close the door to Cuba, or backtrack on the popular Iran nuclear treaty, but she’ll likely be more tempted to escalate from drones and advisors, to troops in Syria– which would be a perilous and extremely unpopular course of action.

  9. Maha, I have exactly the same voter history as yours, including first vote cast. More to the point, I have exactly the same regrets about this year: here we sit with the R’s seemingly champing at the bit to give us a runaway win, and what do the D’s cough up but HRC? What a squandered opportunity. And in ’18, assuming HRC manages a win, whatever gains we get in Congress this year (if any) will, I wager, be erased – because in the intervening 2 years, the D’s will have done zip to motivate people in the off-year. It’s not only the young folks, but the poor folks and the working-class folks as well, who’ll go fishing. And how much can we blame them? You can just get by for so long by pointing at the Dow-Jones. That doesn’t translate into beans on the table or bucks in the pocket for most of us.

    Kudos to the poster who cited Thomas Frank’s “Listen, Liberal”. I found it an excellent, not to mention ruefully entertaining, analysis of the Ds’ current plight.

  10. I think the answer to all of this is: organize, organize, organize. Primary the blue dogs and Clintonites until they are scared to be anything but liberal. That’s what the GOP has done and why they’ve moved their party and a significant part of the public wildly to the right.

    Until the Democrats fear their voters more than the idiots in the press, we shall have timid, compromised, worthless Wall Street puppets for our leaders.

    This is why I’ve given up on “Democratic” blogs like Balloon-juice. All they care about is being tribal and shrieking the approved insults at the other side. They’ve got no vision for the future beyond hating Republicans nearly as much as they hate anyone who points out how weak tea (pun intended) they are as liberals.

  11. Sen. Sanders won’t be the nominee.
    BUT the Democrats are changing before our eyes.

    This time around it’s coming from the bottom up.
    If you want to see change you can believe in, give a couple dollars to Tammy Baldwin, or Al Franken, or Tim Canova, or Jim Mowrer, or Darren Soto, or Sherrod Brown, or Zephyr Teachout, or Mark Takai, or Carol Shea-Porter, or Katy McGinty, or Jim Gray, or Jason Kander, or Rick Nolan, or Angie Craig. You, personally can make much more difference by working for House candidates than by obsessing about the Presidency.

    Yes, the Presidency is of utmost importance (not least because of SCOTUS nominations), but it’s a national battlefield in which individual efforts and contributions mostly have only small effects.

    But given a liberal and Democratic Congress, even Nixon found it politically expedient to sign the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. Given a Republican and reactionary Congress, Bill Clinton signed DOMA and DOTA and NAFTA and the end of welfare as we knew it.

    Change Congress and the Presidency will follow.

  12. There are not enough likes in the world for this post. Here’s the dirty little secret of today’s Democratic Party: Once you get past the Clintons, who really DO want power, the Democratic Party cares not one whit about power — or about policy. When you look at Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and Chuck Schumer, and their ilk, it’s clear that they are only about keeping the gravy train going and perpetuate their own sad little careers. Like you, I hold my nose and vote every damn time because these days the other side is so batshit crazy that to do anything to allow them to win is unthinkable. But is this really the best we can do? Is this the best we SHOULD do? Shouldn’t we be demanding more?

  13. [Comment edited for being stupid — Anna Marie, dear, first, get reading glasses. You obviously cannot see the letters on your screen clearly. Depending on your browser, there may be a way to make the letters appear bigger so that you can see what they are. Second, if it still isn’t clear to you why you are an idiot, do give me your real email address and I will spell it out for you more explicitly. — Maha]

  14. What obscures this view from the minds of many normally clear thinking democrats is tribalism, e.g. the support of Clinton to “win” now no matter what, and nothing else matters. For many who have little to lose, this is nothing more than a sporting contest, and seeing HRC in the white house is a big one for however some may define their team with her at the head of it.

  15. Maha–

    First, thanks so much for the FDR refresher. I would also remind you that he famously said (or perhaps this is apocryphal) that people had to “make him” do whatever it was they wanted in the way of progressive policies. In other words, organize themselves. Not just go to rallies and shout for the quadrennial progressive savior.

    OK, on to the business of young voters not voting for Democrats. I’ve been someone who has loudly bitched about that not only in comments here but to actual human beings, including to the 25 year old in my household, who spends hours every week watching reruns of Sanders’ speeches and posting to Facebook claims of Hillary Clinton’s perfidy, but couldn’t be bothered to vote before this year.

    Stop leaning on your distaste for Bill and Hillary Clinton and on “Democrats in Congress that sell out liberal values a large part of the time, and who can’t effectively push back against right-wing craziness.” Have a look at what is going on at the state level. Across the United States, we’ve got state legislatures controlled by Republicans attacking reproductive rights and publicly financed higher education, to name only two issues that one would think are of keen interest to young voters, and yet those young voters are not turning out in numbers to defeat those GOP governors and legislators. Why? I’m not sure, but telling me it’s all about The Evil Clintons and sellout Democrats in Congress is not an explanation.

    • Joel — I don’t have time to explain things this evening. But the Dems have been hapless at recruiting and promoting candidates at state levels for a long time. This is an issue going back years. Everybody complains about it, but they never seem to do any better. And again, this is about the leadership and management of the party itself. It isn’t just the Clintons and it isn’t just wussie congressmen. The Dems couldn’t find their own feet if you gave them a flashlight and directions. Here are some examples. https://newrepublic.com/article/131919/retaking-house-democratic-pipe-dream

  16. even Nixon found it politically expedient to sign the Clean Air and Clean Water acts

    Those of us who are old enough to remember clearly the Watergate affair and US war crimes in SE Asia have Nixon pegged as a venal bastard with no redeeming qualities. And we look at the modern-day GOP and forget that it wasn’t the same circa 1970. Lest we forget, the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed because of Republican support. I just checked the numbers: Right around 80% of GOP representatives and Senators voted in favor, but fewer than 70% of Democrats in Congress did.

  17. Bravo to all. Special kudos to Joel Dan. To some of us say it simply. Work vs. Capital…Elitism vs. Egalitarianism. Go with Gandhi Doug.


  18. Maha–I’ve heard that statement about poor organizing by Democrats at the state level. It doesn’t appear to apply here in Oregon. Of course, it could be that I’m complacent.

  19. Pingback: The Great Democratic Party Schism | The Mahablog

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