We Need a Democratic Electoral Majority

 by Jeff Cox

For nearly fifty years after the landslide victory of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, the Democratic Party was the natural majority party in America. Two party competition remained vigorous, and Republicans could win temporary victories and assemble interim majorities. At almost every level of government, however, the New Deal electoral coalition provided working majorities for Democrats except in those parts of the country with the strongest traditions of Republican voting.

With hindsight, the New Deal electoral coalition can only be called bizarre. It encompassed white southern segregationists and immigrant Jews on the lower east side, Catholic blue collar workers in northern cities and Protestant family farmers in the border states, technocratic liberal intellectuals with enormous faith in science and prohibitionist followers of the anti-evolutionary rhetoric of William Jennings Bryan. No wonder it fell apart, many commentators say. It could never last, especially after Black voters rallied to the party in the wake of the 1964 civil rights act.

If the New Deal electoral coalition was so bizarre, why was it stable for so long? The answer lies in a reality of American social life that is marginalized in mainstream political discourse, the reality of social class. The great institutional achievements of the New Deal--Social Security Act, the National Labor Relations Act, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation--each brought highly visible benefits to the wage-earning majority of Americans. The federal government was seen to act on behalf of the average citizen as rural electric cooperatives lit up the American countryside, and highly visible public works program brought jobs to hundreds of thousands of unemployed Americans and useful public buildings to the general public. Even Ronald Reagan was nostalgic about the WPA!

For fifty years the Democratic Party periodically renewed its political capital by rallying new versions of the New Deal coalition based on an appeal to the common interests of wage earners, homeowners, and family farmers. The New Deal tradition represented a kind of underground socialism in America, at a time when openly socialist parties in post-war Europe were putting even more extensive New Deals in place. Truman’s Fair Deal, Kennedy’s New Frontier, and Johnson’s Great Society were based unabashedly on an appeal to the majority of Americans who work for wages. The Democratic Party was not in flight from its base. Instead, it crafted programs that appealed to its electoral base, and then reached out to the non-ideological “center” of American politics to put together majorities in particular elections.

How different the Democratic Party is today. In the eighties and nineties, under the leadership of Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton, Gephardt, and Gore, a new style Democratic Party appeared with a leadership divorced from its electoral base. In his first public statement after his defeat by Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter condemned the Democratic Party as a millstone around his neck. Democratic leaders began to re-orient themselves to the new, enormous reality of American politics: corporate funding of elections in both parties.

Along with the money went ideas, many of them drawn from the global resurgence of neo-liberal corporatism, and almost all of them hostile to the idea that governments should intervene in markets to protect the interests of wage earners. It came to be accepted as conventional wisdom that Democratic Party has a big problem with its own electoral base, and must “move to the center” in order to win. Heavily dependent on corporate donors to fund their campaigns, Democrats have followed that strategy right down to the local level.

What has been the result? Republicans are the majority party now at every level of government, controlling the White House, congress, governorships, state legislatures, and the courts. How do they do it? By behaving very much like the Democrats formerly behaved. First they rally their base, and then reach out to people who don’t think in terms of left and right in order to win elections. The conventional wisdom--distance yourself from your base--appears to apply only to Democrats, not to Republicans. Republicans are not the least bit ashamed to represent corporations, super-rich investors, the Christian right, and our imperial military machine. They don’t distance themselves from their base; they incorporate it into an electoral majority.

Every one of the major Democratic candidates is capable of beating George Bush, who is sinking in the polls with good reason. Our country is moving in the wrong direction in fundamental ways, and there is a potential electoral majority that recognizes the need for change. In order to change direction, we badly need a Democrat in the White House, but we need more than a Democrat in the White House. We need a revived Democratic electoral majority.

An interim Democratic presidency that leaves the Republican electoral majority intact will no more change the direction of the country than did the interim Democratic presidencies of Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson during a previous period of Republican rule. Take note of what Bill Clinton’s victories did for the Democratic Party. The soap operas of the Clinton administration simply distracted attention from the downward spiral of Democratic electoral fortunes. A new Democratic majority can only be forged by new Democratic political leadership committed to the restoration of a Democratic electoral majority.

All of the leading Democratic candidates for president appear to believe the conventional wisdom. All of them are proud of their ability to offend one or more of the key constituencies in a potential Democratic electoral majority. They believe distance from their base makes them more electable. Only one candidate in the entire Democratic field recognizes the need to revive a durable Democratic electoral coalition, and that is Dennis Kucinich. He is attempting to bring together the unions and the anti-war movement, environmentalists and corporate liberals, feminists and working class Catholics, African-Americans and civil libertarians, because he is not ashamed of standing up for Democratic Party constituencies. Kucinich understands the need to rally an electoral base, and then reach out to non-ideological voters, including the elusive white southern vote.

How can he reach out to the center? With support for programs that no other Democratic candidate will touch despite having solid majority support from the American electorate. Ever since Truman, majorities of Americans have supported universal
national health insurance. If given a chance, they will vote for a candidate who campaigns for it. Furthermore, there is no issue more important to the wage earning majority of Americans than good jobs at good wages. Kucinich will cancel NAFTA
and the WTO agreements, re-negotiate them in ways that protect jobs, and create popular New Deal style public works programs to fill in the gaps. He is the only Democrat who can campaign in every part of the country on a program of good
jobs at good wages, because he is the only Democrat willing to offend corporate donors and neo-liberal intellectuals in order to stand up for the interests of wage-earners.

Can he do it? Democratic polling now reflects nothing more than name recognition. Why else would anyone support Lieberman? Kucinich has little name recognition, but we can supply it in Iowa if we stop staring into the crystal ball in search of wisdom about electability, and look at the big historical picture. If enough progressive Democrats in Iowa turn out for Kucinich in the caucuses, name recognition and money will follow. Iowans could make history by setting in motion a New New Deal.