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Newer Democrats

Here's an excerpt from an article of mine that was just posted on The Gadflyer, an excellent new webzine, on whose Board of Advisors I'm proud to sit. (And you can read the whole article here.)

Once upon a time, Old Democrats – which is to say New Deal Democrats – roamed the earth. They were rooted in an economy dominated by mass production industries and politically based among the workers, overwhelmingly white, in those industries. Their Democratic Party was the party of the white working class and the Party's dominance among these voters was the key to its political success. But that relationship could not and did not survive the decline of mass production industries and the rise of postindustrial capitalism.

First, there was the transformation of the white working class itself. In 1948, about two-thirds of the workforce was white men, and the bulk of these white men worked at blue-collar manufacturing and construction jobs or at blue collar service jobs like janitor or warehouseman. But the last half century has changed all that. The white working class has become much more diverse – today, there are almost as many women workers as men – even as unionization has declined. And only a relatively small proportion (17 percent) of the white working class works in manufacturing (even among men, the proportion is still less than one-quarter).

Second, as this great transformation was changing the character of the white working class, reducing the size and influence of the Democrats' traditional blue-collar constituencies, the evolution of postindustrial capitalism was creating new constituencies and movements with new demands. These new constituencies and movements – civil rights, feminist, environmentalist, student, gay rights – wanted more out of the welfare state than steady economic growth, copious infrastructure spending and the opportunity to raise a family in the traditional manner.

Of these movements, the one with most far-reaching political effects was the civil rights movement and its demands for equality and economic progress for black America. Democrats, both because of ideology and their political relationship to the black community, had no choice but to respond to those demands. The result was a great victory for social justice, but one that created huge political difficulties for the Democrats among their white working class supporters. Kevin Phillips captured these developments well in his book, The Emerging Republican Majority:

"The principal force which broke up the Democratic (New Deal) coalition is the Negro socioeconomic revolution and liberal Democratic ideological inability to cope with it. Democratic "Great Society" programs aligned that party with many Negro demands, but the party was unable to defuse the racial tension sundering the nation. The South, the West, and the Catholic sidewalks of New York were the focus points of conservative opposition to the welfare liberalism of the federal government; however, the general opposition…came in large part from prospering Democrats who objected to Washington dissipating their tax dollars on programs which did them no good. The Democratic Party fell victim to the ideological impetus of a liberalism which had carried it beyond programs taxing the few for the benefit of the many…to programs taxing the many on behalf of the few."

But if race was the chief vehicle by which the New Deal coalition was torn apart, it was by no means the only one. White working class voters also reacted poorly to the extremes with which the rest of the new social movements became identified. Feminism became identified with bra-burners, lesbians and hostility to the nuclear family; the antiwar movement with appeasement of the Third World radicals and the Soviet Union; the environmental movement with a Luddite opposition to economic growth and the move toward more personal freedom with a complete abdication of personal responsibility.

The result was a catastrophic desertion of white working class voters from the Democratic Party. The average white working class vote for the Democrats in 1960-64 was 55 percent; in the Nixon elections of 1968-72 and in the Reagan elections of 1980-84 it was 35 percent, a staggering 20 point drop in support from their key constituency.

But as the white working class was changing and moving away from the Democrats, other pro-Democratic constituencies were emerging:


The secret to Bill Clinton's electoral success in the 1990's was activating these new constituencies, even as he drew back some of the Democrats' lost support among the white working class. Al Gore's problem in 2000 was that he didn't do as well among the Democrats' emerging constituencies and he lost back most of Clinton's gains among the white working class. The key to 2004 clearly lies in improving Democratic performance in both areas.

That's where Newer Democrats come in. New Democrats like to maintain, of course, that all of Clinton's successes were attributable to following the moderate policies they have advocated since 1985 to correct the party's "liberal fundamentalism" which, as William Galston and Elaine Kamarck argued in The Politics of Evasion:

"the public has come to associate with tax and spending policies that contradict the interests of average families; with welfare policies that foster dependence rather than self-reliance; with softness toward the perpetrators of crime and indifference toward its victims; with ambivalence toward the assertion of American values and interests abroad; and with an adversarial stance toward mainstream moral and cultural values."

Conversely, Gore's failure in 2000 was attributable to the reverse: not following the DLC's great advice, especially his inexplicable emphasis on populist themes after the 2000 Democratic convention. The populist-liberal wing of the party – the descendants of the Old Democrats – strenuously dispute the New Democrats' self-aggrandizing analysis, pointing to the many populist elements of Clinton's successful campaigns, as well as Gore's surge in the polls in 2000 after he adopted his populist stance.

Newer Democrats view this argument between New and Old Democrats as old hat and fundamentally unproductive. Their pragmatic concern is to toughen up the party to beat George Bush and take back Congress; any tool from the Democratic toolbox that works, be it New, Old or in between should be employed toward that end.


...or a corporate tax cut.

One of the major tasks here should be to find and emphasize the common ground between what Ruy calls the "Populist" or left wing of the party and the New Democrats. In many ways this should be easy, because it is the radical right, who are running thY5{, who have abandoned the idea of personal responsibility. It is the radical right that wants to enjoy the enormous benefits they get from our economic system while not paying their fair share for it. It is the radical right that wants to redistribute wealth, from the middle class to the rich. It is the radical right that wants to make sure that people who do not earn their money, but rather inherit it, can hang on to it. It is the radical right that refuses to hold people who misuse positions of political and economic power responsible for their actions.

I could go on and on, but look at how this resonates with all wings of our party. At first blush, this might seems like a "populist" or left wing rant. But one of the people who articulated this the best was Bill Clinton. He talked about being the President for the little guy who worked hard, obeyed all the rules and deserved to have a piece of the pie. Al Gore tried to echo the same theme with "the people versus the powerful," but his message never came through.

Now, we can't let the radical right characterize this argument as a far left, radical adgenda. WE ARE the party of personal responsiblity, accountability and fairness. The Republicans have adopted a philosophy of privilege and crony capitalism. OUR ADGENDA is the mainstream adgenda, and one that can and should appeal to New and Populist Democrats and Independents.

What the Dems forget: everyone - including Democrats - WANTS to be a rich fatcat. The message must be FAIRNESS = EQUAL OPPORTUNITY/LEVEL PLAYING FIELD to PURSUE HAPPINESS.

Don't punish the rich - that's "what I want to be when I grow up." Give me the OPPORTUNITY. Taxation that favors entrepreneurs/small business and the middle class, without being punitive to those who are on the cusp of real success. I make great $$$, but not enough for the tax cuts to help me. (By the way, a simpler tax code ain't a bad message, with 4/15 rolling around. Thirteen hours is the avg amt of time to fill out the forms - Excedrin not included.)

It's not about punishing the rich, it's about removing tax loopholes and exemptions that allow the wealthy to pay less than their fair share of taxes.

Also, I think the major debate between the New and Old Democrats is WHOSE tools from the toolbox work. I suspect it's more the old Democrats. One of the major issues I have with the general analysis and the book is the failure to account for the demographic change of the AGING population.

Re: Kilstar

Stop whining about the poor oppressed rich! That's the first thing Republicans do is take care of those who don't need help by the government. We don't need people on our side singing the same song.

There is a huge cultural difference between so called "old Dem's" and your newer brands -- and this is among older Dem's the value of collective action is much more highly valued. The inheritance of surviving the depression, organizing the CIO, and then dealing with the vast changes of the World War II era all lent great value to vast cooperative efforts. Younger Dem's -- particularly really young ones simply don't have this experience, and as a result deal with virtually everything individualisticly. Dem's are just as likely as Republicans to calculate the worth of a policy or program based on personal circumstences and not on some sense of the range of circumstances to which it might be addressed. It strikes me that "populism" -- if it means anything in the present and potential future -- has to be about finding a way to restate the importance of the place and stuff we share in common. Republicans can always be depended on to argue something like Health Care in Harry and Louise fashion -- how does this proposal impact me (me me me). A Dem view should begin with a statement of the problem and then a proposal examined in terms of how it scopes out the core of the problem. New Dem's need to figure how to do that in a culture that is so loaded to the side of individualism.

I don't think Kilstar was complaining about the rich so much as he got his entire analysis wrong. Not everyone wants to be rich. In fact independents, the swing vote in this country, the disenfranchised votes who aren't part of the political process just want to live their lives because they feel that government does nothing for anyone. Eventhough they have liberal leaning. If Kerry comes into office and balances the budget and creates the kind of economic prosperity that Clinton had. Supply side and Republican economic theory is all but done for the next 30-40 years.

Thanks for that analysis. I found it very good and very interesting. My only question is whether, in this analysis, a particular idea is "good policy" is part of the equation.

I agree with Goldberg. I would like to hear what the principles, policies and programs would be that would hold this coalition together - other than a desire to get rid of Bush.

Regarding Sara's observation re Harry and Louise:

Those very effective ads were--like most effective ads--more noteworthy for what they showed than for what the people were saying. The scene was that of an attractive, youngish white couple in fairly affluent surroundings. The subtext was: YOU have health insurance, so why should you care about the people who don't?
The message worked because the 40 million or so people who lack health insurance represents about 15% of the population. That means that 85% is covered in some way shape or form. So how you persuade 85% to pay higher premiums on behalf of the remaining 15%?
The answer--and this is "Old Democrat" thinking rearing its ugly head--is universality. Despite all the conservative attacks over the years, public support for Social Security and Medicare remains strong. Why? Because they are universal in scope. They are not targeted towards any particular segment of the population, whether regional, racial, or socio-economic.
My argument is that re-embracing universality--an approach so old that it looks new--is not only good social policy. It's also good politics.

Excellent summary, but it ends with a thud. As if there's been a turn to "pragmatism" that signals sort of end of history among "newer" democrats who consider serious questions simply "old hat."

Sure, we're seeing unprecedented unity, but that begs the key questions like:

Will Kerry avoid populist rhetoric and themes or or will he go for it?

There's no math equation that proves this is a useful tool. But populist rhetoric has a history too. Lincoln used it, FDR used it, Reagan used his own version of it. It's a time-tested, proven tool.

Kerry and the Democrats simply can't afford to stay away from it. Sure, Americans all want to get rich some day — but we don't like unfair tax breaks aimed at the rich either, particularlly when everyone else is being asked to sacrifice so much. Bush and Cheney got a bigger cut on their tax returns this year than many Americans make in an entire year. Growing social divisions are bad for democracy. It's an issue.