A Pre-Midterm Analysis: Where Do Dems Stand?


“I am not a member of any organized political party,” said American humorist Will Rogers, “I am a Democrat.” With a contentious midterm upon us and the disappointment of the 2016 election in the Democratic camp, the role and future of the Democratic party has come into serious question. A 2015 study by Matt Grossman and David Hopkins captured Rogers’ jab while underlining what I view as a serious flaw in the Democratic party. The two major American parties are not symmetrical opposites, the authors claim, but entities organized around different elements. The Republican party is ideologically driven, with an emphasis on doctrinal loyalty and the basic principle of limited government. The Democrats are a coalition of interests who seek beneficial government policy over any ideological tenet. The authors back up their findings with survey data that demonstrates an issue-ideology split in voters. Americans described themselves as largely conservative on general questions but solidly liberal on the individual issues, a factor that contributes to the independent development of our parties. But this has hurt Democrats. Republicans have a near monopoly on labeling—being ‘Republican’ means something, far more than being a Democrat, because the Republican party has a solid ideological program. The Democratic primaries are a fair indicator on the lack of labeling success for the Democrats. Bernie Sanders, a self-described Democratic Socialist, polled strongly across the Midwest in states like Michigan and Indiana. Sanders managed to appeal to a largely conservative Democratic crowd, one unfamiliar with the ‘Democratic Socialist’ label, while Clinton lagged behind. Why? Because Sanders framed his policies around a cogent ideological platform—he had to do so. His policies were novel, especially in the Midwest, meaning Sanders had to justify his policies, root them in deeper American traditions. It was because his position was foreign that ideology was invoked, and I think that factor was decisive. Informally, Americans don’t like socialism. It’s unfamiliar. The U.S. doesn’t have a traditional labor party in the sense of the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschland, or the Labor Party in the U.K. Nor are Americans particularly familiar with socialist programs like single-payer healthcare or free college tuition. In other words, Sanders wasn’t successful because being a ‘Democrat’ translated to his policies, as the Democratic party lacks that uniform ideological base as egalitarianism or welfare statism. It was Sanders ability to reframe unfamiliar issues with core American principles easily identifiable to Americans who were unfamiliar with Sanders’ own label as a Democratic Socialist. Take one of Sanders core issues, wealth inequality. By presenting radical wealth inequality as a basic problem of unfairness—that Americans were working longer for lower wages—Sanders took a socialist policy and made it part of conventional American ideals of fairness and individual initiative. Higher taxes were presented as taking a ‘fair share,’ while other issues like free college tuition were wrapped in the trappings of equal opportunity and a capitalistic can-do attitude. Above any particular issue, however, was Sanders vision of a new America, one defined by equality in opportunity, in race and gender, in the fair redistribution of wealth. Sanders was better at linking policies with a cogent ideology. Hillary Clinton’s campaign was by-and-large a traditional one. The incapacity of her campaign to break out of these traditional policy associations with the Democratic party hampered wider appeal and left the party hamstrung between its left and right wings. The legacy of this divide has been somewhat allayed by the election victory of Donald Trump, as a new and easily identifiable label has arisen—anti-Trump. But the limitations of the policy basis for the Democratic party is still with them. The study presented by Grossman and Hopkins demonstrate the serious ideological weakness of a party predicated on a loose alliance of particular interests, and while Clinton enjoyed the 2016 popular vote, Democrats would certainly benefit from a clear ideological roadmap that goes beyond ‘anti-Trump.’ A reaffirmation of the Democratic party around an ideological core of egalitarianism neatly fits with a wider demographic change. As America moves towards a post-manufacturing economy, and the demographic makeup moves towards a minority white population, the traditional policies of the Democratic party have been strained and justly challenged. Harvard’s Institution of Politics released a poll last month that showed more young people support free college tuition, a higher minimum wage, and a single-payer healthcare scheme. Support for particular Democratic policies is, to generalize, higher than ever. The challenge for the Democratic candidate in 2020 will be framing this policy support in a way that appeals beyond the traditionally limited meaning of the term ‘Democrat.’ If Bernie Sanders could sell socialism to the Midwest by coupling popular policies with an ideological vision, Democrats can win in 2020 by presenting the electorate with a hope for a more perfect union.

You May Also Like

+ There are no comments

Add yours