[No More Liebermans]Introduction: Where Do We Go From Here?
In the weeks leading up to the election, giddy lefties of my acquaintance began planning. Locations were selected, guests invited, hors d’oeuvres prepared. In our little blue state bubble of Portland, Oregon, certainty was the order of the day.
I was susceptible to it, but also wary, recalling how my anticipation was rewarded two years earlier. Not only were Congressional Democrats surprised by a strong off-term showing by Republicans, but in Oregon, the governor’s race was very tight. In that contest, a shady hard-right conservative with thin qualifications launched attack ads against a Democrat with a stellar resume—Marine, Oregon Attorney General, and Oregon Supreme Court justice. When I went to bed late on the evening of the election, the margin was too close to call. It was no night for levity. (The Democrat eventually won.) And so as plans were being laid, I mentioned gingerly that nothing fouls a celebration like getting beat. “Pah,” the planners said.
The polls remained bad for Bush, and even reluctant liberals nurtured hope. After-work parties became gala celebrations as confidence grew. “Everyone knows that undecideds break for the challenger in the end. An incumbent needs a lead heading into an election—a tie spells doom. Look at what happened to Carter.”
These and other arguments seemed so sound that I was finally won over. Bush really was a poor candidate. The war, the crony favoritism, the lies, the constant suggestion of scandal, the growing list of dead soldiers. The polls remained in a dead heat, and I couldn’t help but think that meant hesitant Bushies would stay at home and wavering voters would put their check in Kerry’s box.
On the day of the election, I was further buoyed by early exit polls. I was jubilant. To celebrate, I bought a bottle of Scotch with which to toast John Kerry’s victory and made for a gala.
Do you recall how long liberal America sat and contemplated the question “how?” About 36 hours—enormously long in the CNN world. It took that long for liberals to gather themselves from a stunned silence, by which time right wing howlers had already provided the answer: moral values. It became the authorized version, and we’ve been flogging ourselves for our paganism ever since.
That answer is correct and incorrect. In a real sense, morality is always the reason a candidate wins an election. To add shading to the question: how did the party of FDR and JFK lose the mantle of morality, and how on earth did it fall to a man as apparently corrupt and bereft as George W. Bush?
We have to go back 115 years.
At the end of the 19th Century, American liberalism was but a tiny candlelight in the darkness of the Gilded Age. It arose as a reaction to the industrial barons of late century, who had more or less enslaved cities of immigrants to toil in their dim brick factories. This was an age of rudimentary “equality,” when women and nonwhites and the Irish weren’t quite full people in the eyes of their countrymen and the law. Therefore, even exploratory notions about human suffrage—the idea that women should be allowed to vote or that six-year-olds shouldn’t be working an eighteen hour day—were greeted with violent suppression.
The ideas, so ingrained in American culture that they now seem like moral positions, were truly revolutionary at the time: maybe economic and social justice shouldn’t be reserved only for landowning white males.
What followed, in fits and starts, was modern liberalism, and its champion was the Democratic Party. On the economic front, the United States transformed itself from a country where the top one percent held 45% of the wealth to one where most families could live in their own homes, drive their own cars, and send their kids to college. The Democratic Party brought us Social Security and Medicare, labor protections, public education, bank reforms, public broadcasting, and regulations on food, health, business, and pollution. Without liberalism, we wouldn’t have had a civil rights movement or the scientific research that made the US the world’s leader in innovation or the space program that put humans on the moon or the kind of foreign investment that helped rebuild Europe after World War II. In short, most of what we celebrate in America is thanks to the liberal reforms of the Democratic Party.
For Republicans hoping to climb back into power in the 1960s, this was pretty strong stuff. Almost everyone in the country had benefited from Democratic reform, and until a generation ago, they knew it. After a few decades of these liberal reforms, the Democratic Party had made a virtual morality out of their own policy positions. During the “great compression” of the post-war years, the wealth of the country flowed downward. At its height, the middle 60% held 55% of the nation’s wealth and the share of the top 20% had declined to 40%.(1)
The wealthy were represented by the Grand Old Party, who, by the 1960s were living in political Siberia. Except for Ike, the last Republican president had been elected in the 1920s. The Republicans had only briefly controlled either house of Congress since the 20s, and they didn’t have hope of controlling either any time soon. And thanks to their disenfranchisement in the executive branch, they weren’t appointing judges. Democrats had the power, the bully pulpit, and popular support of the people. Their politics were equated with morality and America itself. Republicans, on the other hand, had no voice in the political discourse, no power, and meager support.
So what did they do? They changed the rules of the game.
Despite their overwhelming advantage, there were a few chinks in the Democratic armor. Democrats had made lots of change, and they had plans for lots more. Sure, they’d put a man on the moon, but they’d also put urban black kids in white suburban schools, and now there was talk of putting women on construction crews. Some people were uneasy.
Republicans understood that they couldn’t make a plea to working class Americans to give up the economic gains they’d made over a generation just so fat cats could get fatter. They couldn’t argue that regulations protecting workers, water, air, drugs, and public safety should be rolled back so corporations could make more money. So instead of asking working class Americans to vote against their economic interest, Republicans asked them to vote for “stability” and “tradition.”
Their cause was aided in short order by the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. Now Republicans had a certifiably-winning position: Democrats were baby killers. Looking around at long-haired kids bombing university buildings and burning flags, at college professors and Democratic pointy-heads arguing for “moral relativism,” Republicans started to get a handle on a new strategy. Democrats didn’t represent America. They were secular, elitist, materialistic, atheistic, indulgent, snobby, and irreligious. And godless.
For most of the 20th Century, liberals had effective control over the rules of political engagement. Morality was defined by compassion and equality, values they wove into every policy. Democrats spoke of the community, of the common good. As long as they ceded this political morality, Republicans would never hold power. To compete with Democrats, Republicans had to create an entirely different framing mechanism(2)
that made their politics the moral standard.
To do this, they shifted emphasis. America is founded on twin, competing principles: liberty and equality. For the better part of a century, equality had been winning. All of this equality had a restraining effect, however; it impinged on the ability of the rich to get filthy rich, and it prevented white men from keeping all the choice jobs. The wealthy took a look at what America had become, and felt their liberty imperiled. So they dispatched with the talk of equality and emphasized liberty.
Not of course, in those terms. Instead, the virtues they promoted were of “personal responsibility;” the immorality they eschewed, those that supported “welfare queens.” Down the line, Republicans refashioned their pro-rich agenda as a pro-individual agenda. They clothed social Darwinism in the rhetoric of American freedom. It was a brilliant strategy: policies that benefited poor and middle-class Americans were dismantled to support tax cuts that went to rich ones, all under the banner of political morality.
The Republican “morality” argument really took off when the GOP embraced newly-engaged Evangelical Christians outraged by abortion and the secularization of American culture. Much of the ferment bubbled up from the Deep South, where whites were still stinging over the changes brought about by the civil rights movement. Looking backward, they pined for a wholesome America of yore founded on Christian values. Leaders like founder Jerry Falwell argued that abortion, divorce, and gay rights were threatening the fabric of the country. Politics—and liberalism in particular—had abandoned the “moral majority” of America.
The face of the Republican Party shifted in the 1970s and ‘80s. Where it had formerly been a wire-rimmed banker from Boston, now it was a red-faced, righteous Southern preacher or a devout family, two kids and two parents (one mom, one dad), exiting a Buick on their way to Bible study. In either variation, the image was the new face of the national political morality.
In 1970, just as Republicans were beginning to regain political power, the median household paid 16% of their incomes in tax (income and FICA) and the top 1% paid 69%.(3)
In 2000, after a generation of personal responsibility, both median income families and the richest 1% both pay about 25% of their income in taxes. Payroll taxes have nearly doubled in that period, corporate taxes have been nearly halved.
And in that same period, even as poor, rural red-state Americans have become poorer, they’ve turned their anger on Hollywood and Michael Moore, and are now true-blue Republicans.
Thanks to big money and small town support, the Republican Party has now controlled the Presidency for 24 of the past 36 years (soon to be 28 of 40), and both houses of Congress for ten years (minus a few months following the Jeffords defection). They have a lock on the House, with gerrymandered districts that show no signs of changing soon. They have added to their lead in the Senate, and now approach that magic, filibuster-proof number of 60. And their dominance in the Executive Branch has resulted in seven of nine appointments to the Supreme Court (with more expected under Bush). Thanks to their control over private media, the extraordinary events of 9/11, and their effective use of the bully pulpit, Republican politics are now equated with morality and America itself.
On November 3, 2004, I awoke from my gala-gone-wrong to a nasty hangover (the Scotch came in handy after all) and considered, along with the rest of Blue America: how? I made a cup of coffee and turned on NPR (that’s what blue-staters do) and then heard Bush’s voice. I turned off NPR and flipped open the newspaper—to the Sports page. I sat and considered.
Never mind the fuzzy math that may have contributed to Bush’s win, the truth is that a huge number of Americans voted for a man who seemed clearly corrupt, dishonest, and dangerous. On November third, Democrats awoke with no voice in the political discourse, no power, and meager public support. The pressing question, for 2006 and beyond, then looms.
Where do we go from here?
We have two choices. We can either proceed with the current Democratic strategy—the idea that Democrats should meet hard-right conservatism with a feel-good, soft-moderatism—or we can get radical and change the rules of the game. Let us consider the two choices.
Following the 1980 and ‘84 elections, Democrats found themselves confronted with the specter of “Reagan Democrats”—blue collar workers who were fed up with what Republicans described as an overweening government. Failed candidates like George McGovern and Walter Mondale convinced the Democrats that they had become too liberal and were out of step with the common voter. The group within the Democratic Party leading this movement was the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), founded by such notables as Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Dick Gephardt, and Joe Lieberman.
In order to appeal to Reagan Democrats, the DLC (and others) accepted the new Reagan worldview. Reagan said government was too big and the DLC agreed; he argued that social programs were a drag on society and robbed people of their liberty and the DLC agreed; he said Democrats were too liberal, and the DLC agreed. In a switch, the party of equality was re-imagined by the DLC as the party that “demanded responsibility from everyone.” They appealed to corporations to help create “non-bureaucratic market-based solutions.” And they tried to reach out to newly-offended rural America with “mainstream values.”(4)
The DLC had one great success: Bill Clinton, a past chairman of the group. Throughout the 1990s, the DLC touted Clinton as evidence that the “New Democrat” model they fostered was a winner. Even after Al Gore and Joe Lieberman failed to get elected in 2000, the DLC approach was still the de facto strategy of the Democratic Party. After all, the moderates pointed out, Gore actually won a majority of votes. But excepting Bill Clinton, who else was winning with the DLC? Two years following Clinton’s election, Democrats lost the Congress, and they’ve been out of power since.(5)
It is far easier to argue that Clinton’s charisma got him elected, not the politics of the DLC. He is clearly the exception, not the norm.
The second choice is to abandon the DLC’s bogus prescription and remake the Democratic Party from the ground up. Remaking a party means considering radical new (and sometimes old) ideas. It means stepping away from the echo-chamber inhabited by old lions trying to protect their shrinking hunting grounds.
In early 2004, as his campaign was drifting into irrelevance (despite endorsements from George Will and the National Review), former DLC chair Joe Lieberman declared that his campaign had Joe-mentum. He was trying to put some gloss on his fifth-place New Hampshire primary finish (“we are in a three-way split decision for third place”). That’s where we are folks—stick with the same old Democrats, and we’ll have the same old Joe-mentum.
Or we can change the rules.
_____________(1) Figures come from Kevin Phillips’ indispensable Wealth and Democracy (2002, Broadway).
(2) More on framing can be found in George Lakoff’s wonderful Don’t think of an Elephant! (2004, Chelsea Green).
(3) All the statistics in this paragraph come from Wealth and Democracy.
(4) Quoted material was taken directly from the DLC’s webpage. See “About the Democratic Leadership Council” for details.
(5) With the exception of a year and a half in the Senate following the defection of GOP Senator Jim Jeffords. The Democrats held power in the Senate from June 2001 through the end of 2002, when they were again defeated in the midterm elections.