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November 22, 2004

why the Democrats are slipping into minority status

It's possible that we're a fifty/fifty nation, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, and the last two elections have been so close that they only prove we're tied. But I don't believe it. A powerful current is moving us rightward. It has helped Republicans to gain control of both houses of Congress, to appoint most federal judges, and to control seven more governors' mansions than the Democrats do. (State legislatures are still about evenly split, with 19 completely under the control of each party, and the rest divided.) In the national exit poll, 34% of voters called themselves conservatives compared to 21% who identified as liberals. The ideology score is nothing new, but the balance of power is startlingly different from 20 years ago. It is possible that the rightward trend will stop of its own accord at the current point, but I wouldn't count on it.

Progressive parties demand more of voters than conservative ones. To start with, they demand more taxes. Under favorable circumstances, progressives can reserve their tax increases for a wealthy minority, but people won't vote to tax anyone unless they believe that the revenue is likely to be well spent. Progressive parties also need low-income people to turn out, something that is relatively hard for them to do because the "costs" of voting (becoming informed and taking time off to go to the polls) are relatively onerous for poor citizens. Besides, poor people have little reason to trust politicians enough to vote for them. Finally, the modern Democratic party is (rightly) committed to a set of unpopular moral values, so it must convince people to overlook those commitments in return for other benefits.

Historically, American progressive parties (usually Democratic, but occasionally Republican) have won elections when they have identified the really important issues that concern majorities of voters, and have directly addressed those issues. People will vote to raise taxes--their own or other citizens'--if they think the money is needed for critical purposes. For example, the nation faced a deep depression in 1932. One of its causes appared to be malfeasance in the financial markets. And even before the depression began, people risked becoming indigent if they lost their jobs. Roosevelt responded with employment programs to stimulate the economy, market reforms, and Social Security. We can argue about whether he solved the problems that the country faced in 1932, but there was no question that he pursued policies that directly addressed the country's needs.

In the 1960s, there was less consensus about the need to wage a "war on poverty," given that most families had become relatively affluent. But there was wide agreement that the country had to move past racial segregation. Liberal Democrats and liberal Republicans who tackled discrimination won elections.

Today, the traditional problems have not disappeared. De facto racial segregation is worse than it was 25 years ago; losing your job can still be very bad news. But for most Americans, there doesn't seem to be a compelling reason to invent new solutions to these old concerns, which are manageable. People support the traditional progressive programs, but they need not vote Democratic to preserve them; Republicans also swear oaths in defense of Social Security and Medicare. In any case, Americans are now more concerned about a new set of problems, including the lack of decent jobs for those with high school diplomas; persistent violent crime that we barely control by jailing millions of our fellow citizens; reliance on foreign oil; and the coarseness of popular culture, especially as it affects kids. While the long-term fiscal condition of the federal government probably doesn't worry people as much as these other issues, the deficit does matter because it makes it hard to propose expensive policies.

No doubt, some people are also worried about issues that Democrats cannot and should not define as "problems," such as immigration and increased diversity, gay weddings in San Francisco, or the legal right to abortion. But Democrats would have a fighting chance if they addressed a different set of important concerns. Otherwise, people will vote conservative.

I basically gave up on this year's Democrats when they failed to address any serious problems at their convention. They seemed to think that Americans would vote for a Democrat because Bush had made mistakes and Kerry was personally macho. I think a Kerry administration would have been at best a holding-action; at worst, a last stand. A considerable part of me is relieved that Democrats (and McCain-ite Republicans) now have four years to come up with a plausible program.

November 22, 2004 7:32 AM | category: revitalizing the left | Comments


Peter, this piece contains some important points. It is especially important, in my view, for the "50%-50% nation" meme to be deconstructed. Progressives may quibble over whether there is or is not a "mandate," but the trend right is striking, deep, and clear. You make that point with economy and clarity.

Thank you.

November 22, 2004 10:48 AM | Comments (3) | posted by Brad Rourke

I agree with Brad; an excellent, succinct post. The progressive cause is slowly being lost--due, at least in part, to the failure of the Democrats (the only major party which currently has the intellectual and rhetorical capability of articulating progressive concerns; I fear that the largeness of the McCainite Republican vision has been greatly reduced by the willingness of its standard bearers to back Bush) to apply their principles to populist concerns, like the harsh downsides experienced by many in our increasingly meritocratic economy, or the powerlessness many folks feel in the face of popular culture. This point can't be made often enough; those who wish to comfort themselves with the idea that we still are just a "50-50" nation are whistling past the graveyard--or more likely, have already moved their own personal expectations for collective action in such a conservative direction that they don't notice how far the trends you note have already taken us.

November 23, 2004 9:50 AM | Comments (3) | posted by Russell Arben Fox

Yes, a really good piece of thinking and writing. I'd like to revisit it later with some ideas, but in the meantime I wonder whether you saw the piece in yesterday's NYTimes about the popularity of coarseness in TV being greater in the "red" states than in the "blue"? Here it is.

November 23, 2004 10:01 AM | Comments (3) | posted by PW

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