[No More Liebermans]
Part Two: Constituencies.
It's axiomatic that any robust political movement must have at its core a clear vision. But as the failures of Democrats in the past several elections show, a clear vision isn’t enough. There must first be an audience. The reason the Democratic vision hasn’t resonated with voters is largely the result of the party’s failure to identify an audience receptive to it.
As an example, consider the fortunes of the following two groups: trade unions and Evangelical Christians. In 1976, evangelical Christians were a political non-entity. In 2004, labor is. The lesson of the GOP's rise could be reasonably reduced to understanding how the fortunes of these two key constituencies changed in that 30-year period.
In the mid-1970s, the progressive coalition that had first formed in the 1930s was still intact, if wounded and reeling. Key to Democratic success throughout the progressive era had been an appeal to middle- and lower-class workers through social programs like Medicare and Social Security and through labor protections. A quarter of US wage and salary workers belonged to a trade union, and in the 1976 election, nearly two-thirds of them voted for Carter.* That single bloc helped secure the White House for the Democrats—as it had for decades.
But following the election in 1976, union support for Democrats fell sharply, directly contributing to Reagan’s election in 1980. Perversely, even while blue collar workers were turning toward the GOP, Reaganomics reduced union membership dramatically, to just 16% by 1988. And by 2003, only 13% of American workers belonged to a union. In the 2000 election, union support for Gore had returned to older, pre-Reagan numbers (59%), but accounted for just a fraction of the entire Democratic voting base.
In 1976, Evangelical Christians voted for the Evangelical candidate—the Democrat, Jimmy Carter. This was consistent with a long history that connected Christians with liberal initiatives—and therefore the Democratic Party. In his bid for the presidency in 1896, William Jennings Bryan brought these threads together at the Democratic National Convention: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” The ideals of Christian charity were at the foundation of traditional liberalism, and Jimmy Carter had no difficulty invoking it during his presidential run.
But following the decision in Roe v. Wade, Christians lost some of their confidence in Democratic ethics. In the election of 1988, they were poised to leap permanently into the Republican camp, and that year George W. Bush was brought into his father’s campaign to secure their loyalty. They leapt, and they’ve been a central reason Republicans have been the ascendant party in Washington for the past 20 years.
The proportion of Evangelicals has remained consistent since the 1970s—about a third of the population—but their support has swung dramatically in favor of Republicans. In 2000, Bush won 68% of the Evangelical vote, and in 2004, a shocking 78%. (1)
In 1976, Carter won large victories in two key blocs, labor (a quarter of the population) and Evangelical Christians (a third). But in 2004, the labor block had shrunk and Kerry lost almost all of the Evangelical vote. Yet Democratic constituencies have remained roughly the same since Reagan was elected: labor, minorities, women, and social liberals.(2) Of these, the first three have not grown or have declined. The black vote has consistently gone to Democrats by large margins, but the Latino vote has eroded. Where only 29% of Latinos favored Republicans between 1976 and 2000, Bush won 43% in 2004. Women have supported Democrats by substantial majorities since 1980, but in 2004, they favored Kerry by only 3%. (3)
Social liberals—those who feel abortion should be “always legal” and who support gay marriage—gave a Kerry a 50-point margin, but they were in no way as inspired by Kerry as they were by Howard Dean. Many of those same voters strayed from Gore to Nader in 2000, and there’s no guarantee they’ll remain in the Democratic camp in future elections. So, even among the base, there’s work to do.
Without thinking of how to appeal to these groups, let’s pause to consider what other groups Democrats should be appealing to.
- Rural, non-union wage earners. Lost to the GOP following Roe, this mostly-white group voted overwhelmingly for the first JFK in 1960. In 2004, they gave the second JFK a resounding Bronx cheer. Fed on a bitter stew of “authenticity” and God politics, this group remains fiercely conservative, but is a rich—and critical—demographic for any Democratic coalition.
- Small business owners. In his first four years, Bush talked a good small-business game even while he dismantled some of the most important programs that support it: cutting funding to a program designed to help small-business exports, cutting funding to the Small Business Association more than any other federal program, cutting a program designed to foster new technologies among small business, and favoring corporations in federal contracting. Small business owners, further burdened by skyrocketing health care prices, are looking for help.
- New Testament Christians. Not all Christians are inspired by the GOP’s current agenda of enforced morality. The Christian ideals that Jimmy Carter extolled while supporting social programs to help the less fortunate still resonate with large numbers of devout Christians. Democrats can appeal to those who feel more inspired by the New Testament vision of charity and generosity than Old Testament authoritarian submission to social absolutes.
- Land users. A natural constituency who care about the environmental consequences to the land are farmers, ranchers, hunters, fishers, and loggers. These groups have been alienated from policy discussions as environmental groups use the courts to enforce federal laws. With outreach and a shift in emphasis from the courts, many in these groups are poised to switch allegiance.
(1) Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Religion and the Presidential Vote,” Dec 6, 2004.>In other studies, where the Evangelical vote was calculated differently, put the proportion even higher.
(2) Two other groups, youth and seniors, are often considered reliable Democratic blocs. Yet according to post-election polling by CNN, young voters favored Kerry by only a nine-point margin, 54-45%, despite a large Democratic push for the youth vote. In 2000, Gore beat Bush by only 2%. Seniors actually favored Bush by 5% in 2004, after giving Gore a 3% win in 2000.
(3)See “On the Record,” November 18, a post-election poll analysis by Ron Faucheux in Campaigns and Elections. Further data from Pew, Zogby, and CNN.