Will a New Democratic Government Return to 1932 Or Be Prepared for the 21st Century?

Writing in The Atlantic, Ross Douthat sees parallels to another period in which the Democrats were routed in a presidential election only to take control of Congress in the midterm elections, followed by total Democratic control of the government in the next presidential election. This was when FDR won overwhelmingly in 1932, and we may see a repeat in 2008. While I do not anticipate as tremendous a Democratic victory in 2008 as in 1932, there is an excellent chance that George W. Bush will be remembered as doing even more harm to the nation than Herbert Hoover. Douthat believes that the Democrats are more prepared to govern than in recent yeras as they are more united:

So the opening has passed to the Democrats, who suddenly and unexpectedly have the makings of a durable majority of their own within their grasp. What’s more, they have the outlines of a message that might allow them to seize that majority. The issues that split the Democratic Party throughout the Clinton years—between the center and the left, the deficit hawks and the Great Society liberals, The New Republic and The Nation, Robert Rubin and Robert Reich—still stir passionate debate, but in recent years the factions have been converging. This convergence has been particularly evident in foreign policy, where the debate over the Iraq War has been decisively settled in favor of the opponents of preventive war. But it may prove more enduring on the domestic front, where the gap between the left and the center-left has closed dramatically since the days when the two sides feuded bitterly over everything from free trade to health care to welfare reform.

On the one hand, you have The New Republic, the flagship magazine of centrist liberals, expressing regret for its role in derailing the Clinton health-care plan in the 1990s; on the other, you have the left-wing economist James Galbraith counseling readers of The Nation that “it’s time to get over” the free-trade battles of the ’90s and accept that both NAFTA and manufactured imports from China are here to stay. Protectionism and corporation bashing still find an audience, but even John Edwards, the progressives’ darling in the ’08 race, is running on an antipoverty platform that seeks to build on, rather than overturn, the welfare settlement of the mid-’90s, and is pushing a relatively market-friendly plan for universal health care. At the same time, many of the architects of Bill Clinton’s deficit-cutting centrism—including Larry Summers and even Robert Rubin—are paying greater attention to left-wing concerns over outsourcing and growing income inequality.

The result is an emerging consensus that uses the centrist achievements of the ’90s as a jumping-off point for a new-model populism. Conservatives have spent years mocking liberals for lacking big new ideas, and in a sense their charge still rings true. But the new-model populists have a big old idea, universal health care, that’s increasingly popular, and a host of smaller ideas—from wage insurance to assist the victims of outsourcing to universal 401(k) programs to help working-class families build assets for their children—all paid for, presumably, by tax hikes on the rich.

This populist mind set is unlikely to work for long in a post-industrial society where a growing number aspire to be wealthy and at least have a fighting chance at a fair degree of affluence. The failure of many Democrats to understand this is a major reason whey the Republicans ruled until their incompetence and corruption was too much for even those who have historically benefited from Republican government.

Counting on some potentially favorable trends might ultimately backfire for the Democrats:

These are the short-term trends that helped tip ’06 to the Democrats; in the long term, a new-model populism’s prospects look brighter still. The Republicans are to a large extent the party of married couples with children, while the Democrats are the party of unmarried voters, who tend to be more sensitive to economic risk, and thus more supportive of welfare spending, than members of intact nuclear families. But the nuclear family has been in steady decline for years, pushed along by falling marriage rates and rising out-of-wedlock births, trends that are likely to create an ever-larger base for a left-populist majority.

Relying on those who suffer economically to make a majority worked fine during the depression, but is also a major reason why the Republicans have controlled the White House for a majority of the post World War II era. By supporting the war and adopting the social policies of the religious right, the Republicans have made themselves unattractive to a growing number of people of all socioeconomic backgrounds As a consequence, a growing number of “Starbucks Republicans” and independents are voting Democratic, along with those living in affluent suburbs.

Opposition to Republican policies, both on social issues and the war, makes it easy for affluent independents and former Republicans to vote Democratic in the short run. Whether the Democrats can keep such votes depends upon the policies they promote once in power. Edwards-style populism, as well as economic arguments which pit those at economic risk against the successful, will have these new Democratic voters willing to overlook what might be dismissed as a few nutty ideas and return to voting Republican.

Republicans have often made the mistake of thinking they can profit indefinitely by only concentrating on defending the rights of the wealthy. Ultimately businesses are more profitable when there is a prosperous middle class which can afford to spend money. Many Democrats make the same mistake in reverse, seeing going after the wealth of the affluent as an easy solution as opposed to improving the economy for all.

The problems with the world views of both the Democratic and Republican Parties is one reason for the Perot movement of the recent past and the interest in an independent candidate in 2008. In an educated affluent post-industrial nation neither the social conservativism and disastrous foreign policy beliefs of the Republicans or the populism of portions of the Democratic Party provide a satisfactory alternative to many voters. The question is whether the Democrats realize it is not 1932 and develop a governing philosophy for the 21st century or see recent electoral advantages as an excuse for advocating reactionary populism.

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2 Comments

  1. 1
    Nick says:

    YOu can be both Ron. At a time when the gap between rich and the poor is greater than anytime since the 1920s the Dems would be nuts to avoid being populist/progressive whatever you want to call it. You supported John Kerry in 2004 A man who called for

    An increase in the minimum wage and EITC and index them to inflation

    More spending on education and making it easier to transfer other professionals into the teaching profession while holding out incentives for good teachers to teach in lower-income schools

    A national health insurance plan that relied on the government and the market

    Increased taxes on those making over $200,000 a year.

    More spending on alternative energy sources and higher conservation standards.

    Increasing Pell Grants and reforming of the student loan program so studnetes don’t graduate $$ in debt.

    Instant card-check for unions, making it easier to join unions.

    And that’s just a partial list. Yes Kerry promised to “reduce” the deficit, who doesn’t want that. That doesn’t make Kerry a conservative. Oh-so-liberal Walter Mondale promised to cut the deficit in the 1980s. One can be a progressive and still receive the votes of those who are not poor. Sure Republican corruption and incompetence helps. But even without that, there have always been a group of “Enlightened Affluent” who vote democratic.

    You pointed out that some affluent suburbs are voting more Democratic. Agreed, but these suburbs are mostly in blue states that are socially AND economically liberal. Notice that not one of the states in which Kerry won the over 50K vote is anti-union right to work state. The states where over 50K voters (45% of households in 2004) are all states where a majority of the population is pro-choice. They voted for Kerry because they agreed with his social issue and environmental views yes. But they were also willing to go with an economic progressive because they understood (as I’m sure you do) that a country in which wealth, income, and power are more and more concentrated at the top is no way to have a democracy. The 2006 midterms was a further spreading (and possibly ratification) of this realization among upper-middle and upper-income voters (to go along with their disgust over GOP corrption adn Iraq incompentence). And it’s not as though Democrats didn’t campaign as economic progressives in 2006, so an anti-war AND pro-progressive party won.

    In sum: Sure you don’t want to tar all rich people. Yes we can have an honest debate about what is the appropriate level of wealth taxation, of government role in the economy. But it’s not as though Democrats are advocating (or ever did advocate) some form of socialism (FDR was many things, socialist was not one of them). It’s all a matter of degree. Meanwhile, do the GOP want to roll back the progressive acheivements of Carter, LBJ, JFK, Truman, Wilson, and FDR and bring us back to the 19th century economically? Computer says yes! That’s not a place where even a good many upper-income voters would want to be or expect to prosper.

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    Nick,

    “YOu can be both”

    Of course–that’s what I’m arguing. There’s a difference between the ideas of John Kerry in 2004 and Obama and Richardson in this election as compared to the exclusionary populism of Edwards.

    “And that’s just a partial list. Yes Kerry promised to “reduce” the deficit, who doesn’t want that. That doesn’t make Kerry a conservative.”

    Kerry referred to himself as a fiscal conservative–which obviously is not the same as a cosnervative in the current Republican sense. Carter has also described himself as being socially liberal and economically conservative.

    “In sum: Sure you don’t want to tar all rich people.”

    I suspect that we are largely arguing the same thing, except you are coming from a different perspective. In contrast, Edwards and some portions of the left are resorting to tarring all rich people, as well as all successful people even if not rich. When they lump all business owners together (which includes a lot of small businessmen) they are writing off a lot of people–including employees of small businesses who see the success of the business as being in their interest.

    Economic conservative Democrats such as Carter and Kerry offer a middle ground which concerns itself with the economic good of the entire country, as opposed to populists on the left and most current Republicans whose policies are only beneficial for their own groups.

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