Can Democrats Channel America's Discontent?

Can Democrats Channel America's Discontent?

The party has moved left in response to hard times. That should help it at the polls—but will it? 

January 20, 2016

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This article appears in the Winter 2016 issue of The American Prospect magazineSubscribe here.

Come July, when the Republicans and Democrats hold their back-to-back national conventions, those attending both (overwhelmingly, journalists) will experience their accustomed quadrennial culture shock—and then some. At first, the shock registers visually: For years, Republican delegates, party leaders, and funders have been overwhelmingly white, while their Democratic counterparts have constituted a steadily more diverse racial palette. This summer, however, the Republican convention will in all probability be not just overwhelmingly white but white nationalist as well, doubtless prompting the Democrats—who need no prompting—to proclaim that their own delegates are a microcosm of America’s future.

Are they? The Democrats do represent an emerging majority, but to empower it, they must motivate it to vote despite the pervasive cynicism about politics and the right’s efforts to suppress turnout. To deliver for it, the Democrats will have to overcome the financial influence of the one percent on both parties. The rainbow on display at the Democratic convention could be the next progressive governing coalition—or it could preview a deepening of troubling trends, in which increasing numbers coexist with dwindling influence.

Not only do the parties look more different than they ever have, they also think more different. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll recently compared Republicans’ and Democrats’ ideological self-descriptions from 1990 to those in 2015, and found the two parties racing apart as if propelled by some political cosmological constant. In 1990, just 12 percent of Republicans called themselves very conservative; today, 28 percent do. Sixteen percent of them said they were liberals in 1990; today, that’s down to 6 percent. Among Democrats, those calling themselves conservative declined from 21 percent to 10 percent during those 25 years, while those calling themselves very liberal doubled, from 13 percent to 26 percent.

The ascent of Donald Trump, who represents something new and ominous in American political life (roughly analogous to George Wallace taking over one of the two parties in 1968), has understandably dominated news coverage in recent months. The Democrats’ move leftward, however, is as fundamental a development as the Republicans’ descent into racism and ultra-rightism. Both are responses to the massive racial shifts in the nation’s demographics, the failure of American capitalism to sustain a vibrant middle class, and the blockage of conventional politics. A Pew Research Center survey released in December showed that the share of America’s adult population in the middle class declined from 61 percent in 1970 to 50 percent in 2015, while the share of Americans in the upper stratum rose from 4 percent to 9 percent. The shift in shares of aggregate income was more dramatic: That of middle-income households declined from 62 percent of all income in 1970 to 43 percent in 2014, while that of upper-income households rose from 29 percent to 49 percent.

It’s not the bottom that has been falling out of the American economy; it’s the middle. So, too, has the middle of the political spectrum. Widespread economic dysfunction and dislocation have prompted the Democrats to adopt more-progressive economic policies and prodded Republicans to intensify their racial scapegoating and to oppose all government programs they rightly or wrongly believe help minorities.

Despite the Republicans’ evident success at winning midterm elections—and with them, statehouses and Congress—some believe the Democrats’ hold on the growing sectors of the American electorate guarantees the party eventual long-term political predominance. Pollster Stan Greenberg has noted that in the 2016 election, 54 percent of voters will come from the Rising American Electorate—millennials, minorities, single women—and that this share will relentlessly rise in elections thereafter. Whether this ensures Democratic dominance, Greenberg correctly adds, depends on how the party responds to the economic challenges that Americans will continue to face, and on how well they can turn that demographic majority into an enduring political force. In a few places around the country, that process has begun, and the trajectories of both Hillary Clinton’s and Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns suggest that millions of Democrats would welcome such a transformation. The challenge of building a distinctly progressive party with clear majority support is obviously daunting, however, and depends in some measure on events over which Democrats will have no control.

That said, they have a shot.


PARTIES CHANGE THROUGH processes of addition and subtraction. Over the past half-century, the Democrats have waxed by capturing the lion’s share of the growing number of immigrants and racial minorities, and by winning over a majority of professionals, who used to be a Republican mainstay. Scientists, academics, and journalists have become heavily Democratic (due in some small measure to the GOP’s rejection of empiricism). As Democrats have defended the safety net and such family-friendly policies as paid sick and parental leave and child-care subsidies, they’ve won over a majority of women, unmarried women in particular. The GOP’s embrace of the tenets of fundamentalist religions has driven millions of increasingly secular young people into the Democrats’ column. 

But Democrats have waned as well. The biggest shift of the past half-century is that of the white South into the Republican column, initially in presidential voting but now at every level of government. That shift is part and parcel of the flight of the New Deal coalition’s linchpin, the white working class, from Democratic ranks. While a much shrunken share of the total electorate—it comprised 65 percent of the voters in the 1980 presidential election and just 36 percent in 2012—the white working class has been voting Republican by increasingly overwhelming margins, in 2014 favoring GOP House candidates over their Democratic rivals by 30 percentage points. As racial politics have been key to the re-alignment of the white South, so de-unionization has played a decisive role in the shifting voting patterns of white workers in the North. Since the 1970s, white blue-collar union members have voted Democratic at a rate roughly 20 percentage points higher than their non-union counterparts. But as the rate of private-sector unionization has shrunk from close to 40 percent in the mid-20th century to just 6.6 percent today, so has the party’s hold on that once solid Democratic constituency. The poor, who are most reliant on policies championed by Democrats and eviscerated by Republicans, have largely stopped voting at all.

At the other end of the economic spectrum, Wall Street has warmed, then partly cooled, to the Democrats in recent decades. In the 2012 presidential election cycle, Democrats pulled in just 32 percent of campaign contributions from the finance, insurance, and real-estate sector, their lowest share since 1990. This, of course, was still a ton of money—$168 million. Should the two presidential nominees facing off next November be Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, it’s possible that the Democrats’ share will rise again. Nonetheless, the long-term sectoral shifts among the Democrats’ mega-donors—losing the oil and gas barons who funded the Lyndon Johnson-Robert Kerr Democrats of the mid-20th century, and now much of Wall Street, while picking up the moguls of Hollywood and Silicon Valley—have also propelled the party leftward, not just on social and cultural issues, but more recently on economic issues as well. In the spring of 2015, the leading consortium of liberal Democratic donors, the Democracy Alliance, prioritized funding projects that tackled economic inequality, as well as those that built the kind of ongoing political organizations that could turn out votes in otherwise GOP-dominated midterm elections. Yet among the Democrats’ mega-donors, the Democracy Alliance progressives co-exist uneasily with billionaires well to their right on financial issues and anything but enamored of the party’s shift toward economic populism.

AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton reacts to supporters after speaking at a campaign rally at the Iowa State Historical Museum, Monday, January 4, 2016, in Des Moines, Iowa. 

Wall Streeters may not feel comfortable around Republicans who deny the existence of climate change and question many of the premises of modernity, but these are secondary concerns compared with the growing number of Democrats who want to rein in finance and question the premises of current American capitalism. A recent CBS/New York Times poll, for instance, found that 56 percent of Democratic primary voters held a positive view of socialism. Granted, that doesn’t mean anywhere near that number define themselves as socialists, or that they necessarily mean anything more by socialism than Bernie Sanders did in his November 19 Georgetown speech, when he identified it with the policies of Franklin Roosevelt (creating Social Security), Lyndon Johnson (creating Medicare), and Martin Luther King Jr. (demanding civil rights and more economic equality). Nonetheless, the figure still demonstrates a widespread desire among Democrats to significantly alter the nation’s economic institutions, laws, and practices. It’s also worth noting that this 56 percent exceeds, by 24 percentage points, the share of Democrats in the same poll who supported the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders. That means a substantial share of Hillary Clinton’s supporters also looked favorably on socialism, whatever that term may mean. Clinton’s delicate dance on the issue of deeper financial reform both reflects and reinforces the tension between the Democrats’ Wall Street elite and their base.

Whether through the arrival of new constituencies or the departure of old ones, those base Democratic voters are unquestionably moving left. This year, Gallup found the share calling themselves liberal had risen from 29 percent in 2000 to 44 percent today; Pew found a similar rise since 2000, from 27 percent to 41 percent. Millennials are among the party’s most left-leaning constituents—understandably, since they are disproportionately minority and have borne the brunt of the Great Recession. A December poll by the Harvard Institute of Politics among 18-to-29-year-olds found that Democrats in that age cohort favored Sanders’s candidacy over Clinton’s by 41 percent to 35 percent (and among Democratic women by 40 percent to 38 percent). Both candidates have targeted programs to the young, with Clinton pledging $350 billion to make college affordable again, and Sanders promising to make public colleges and universities tuition-free. The Sanders advantage among the young is likely due less to specific youth-targeted proposals than to a combination of his gruff-grandpa authenticity and his no-holds-barred assault on economic inequality and the financial interests that have structured and profited by it.

It’s not just that the left has grown; the center of the party has also moved left in recent years. Clinton’s opposition to both the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Keystone XL pipeline, and her proposals for increased regulations on banks and other financial institutions, is evidence of her own movement, and her understanding of her party’s movement as well. So are such documents as the Summers-Balls report from the Center for American Progress, which calls for a vast investment in infrastructure and for boosting unions by making collective bargaining more easily accessible. Likewise the steadily rising minimum wage advocated for by the party’s center: President Obama proposed setting it at $10.10 in November 2013, but as cities have raised their own levels to as high as $15, Obama has since endorsed a bill raising it to $12.


NEVER BEFORE HAVE CITIES played such an outsized role in influencing the national Democratic agenda. That’s not just because virtually every major American city is under Democratic control, or because cities are the place where the Rising American Electorate has clustered. It’s also because of the weakness of Democrats at the state level. Democrats have full control of state governments—that is, a governor and majorities in both legislative houses—in just seven states, six of them small (Hawaii, Oregon, Connecticut, Vermont, Rhode Island, and Delaware) and only one big (well, the biggest: California). And it’s because no Democrat in Congress is able to get significant legislation enacted: To the extent that the federal government can promote progressive policies, they’re the result of President Obama’s executive orders and departmental decrees.

In 2013, as I reported in my article “The Revolt of the Cities,” from the May/June 2014 issue of the Prospect, a group of progressive mayors was swept into power across the country, their victories largely powered by coalitions of longstanding liberal groups, immigrant organizations, the successor groups to ACORN in black communities, unions with substantial immigrant and African American memberships (disproportionately private- and service-sector locals), affordable-housing advocates, environmental organizations, and others. The newly elected mayors and council members have responded to such campaigns as the Service Employees International Union’s Fight for $15 by passing ordinances raising the local minimum wage, mandating paid sick days, extending immigrant rights (Bill de Blasio’s New York City has issued them identification cards, enabling them to open bank accounts), establishing universal pre-K programs, and requiring inclusionary zoning policies with the goal of creating more affordable housing.

AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, Pool, File

In this February 9, 2015 file photo, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio presents the city's fiscal year 2016 preliminary budget at City Hall in New York. 

Seattle, perhaps the most creative of the progressive cities, has grappled with the rise of on-demand workers laboring without employee status for companies like Uber by granting collective-bargaining rights to independent contractors in personal transport. (Since such workers are excluded from coverage under the National Labor Relations Act, Seattle reasons, there’s no reason why a city can’t extend them those rights as it does, say, to another category of the NLRA-excluded, public employees.) Increasingly progressive cities in conservative terrains—Birmingham, Alabama; Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky—have raised their local minimum wage. Nashville’s newly elected mayor, Megan Barry, supports gay marriage and a minimum-wage hike. Phoenix lobbies for immigration reform while Arizona has sought to deprive immigrants of basic rights.

Precisely because so little progressive legislation is emerging from statehouses, the cities are today the Democrats’ laboratories of democracy. Seattle’s new approach to on-demand workers, for instance, quickly became the focus of labor’s advocates everywhere, just as its enactment of a $15 minimum wage in 2014 set the standard for many Democrats nationally. Ironically, were the Democrats able to turn out more legislation at the state level, it would likely be less groundbreaking than the cities’ product. In California, where Jerry Brown is governor and Democrats have sizable majorities in both legislative houses, a bill that would raise the state’s minimum wage to $13 has stalled in the Assembly, where centrist Democrats from the San Joaquin Valley have bottled it up.

California is exceptional, however, in that it still has a bloc of centrist Democratic office-holders: In many parts of the nation, these have all but disappeared. There are no longer any Democrats representing majority-white congressional districts in the Deep South. In 2009, according to Atlantic Media’s Ronald Brownstein, Democrats represented 76 majority-white working-class districts in Congress; by 2015, they represented just 15. This decline is a function of drop-off voting among Democrats in midterm contests, of Republican gerrymandering in the decennial redistricting, of the midterm-election advantage to the non-presidential party, of the failure of the recovery to boost white working-class incomes, and of the shifting politics of that white working class. All these factors have combined to effectively liquidate a class of centrist Democrats and to further distance Democrats from what once had been their most loyal constituency.

Coupled with the move of many Wall Street bankers to the Republican column, the near-elimination of prominent Southern Democrats at any but the municipal level of government has meant that Third Way Democrats have largely vanished as well. There are no Bill Clintons or Sam Nunns on the Democratic political landscape today, only such lonely and obscure figures as Jack Markell, governor of corporate-haven Delaware, who has argued that “the economic system isn’t so much fundamentally rigged, as the populists contend, as it is fundamentally, unalterably, never-to-be-the-same-again changed” by globalization and technology. Markell ducks the question of who rigged globalization and the new technology (such as those Uber apps) so that the revenues they produce go to the few rather than the many.

But most Democrats don’t really talk that way anymore. The politics of triangulation, as New America’s Mark Schmitt has argued, don’t really fit a party whose members increasingly recognize the reality of class conflict and polarized partisanship. Sharing a podium with progressive champion Elizabeth Warren, Hillary Clinton has said of the wealthy: “The deck is stacked in their favor. My job is to reshuffle the cards.” Not Bernie Sanders thunder, to be sure, but not the kind of rhetoric with which the Democratic Leadership Council of old would be comfortable.

Democrats who formerly scurried to Wall Street’s defense—New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, for one—have prudently opted to shut up when the subject is now raised. Few centrists have flip-flopped more floppingly than New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Chastened by a surprisingly strong progressive primary challenge from Zephyr Teachout, a previously unknown Fordham University law professor, and compelled to make policy concessions to the left-leaning Working Families Party in return for its support, Cuomo has reversed his opposition to a $15 statewide minimum wage, and used his executive power to grant that raise to state employees and fast-food workers. (The extent of Cuomo’s conversion won’t be fully apparent until this year’s state senate elections: In previous years, he has refused to campaign for a Democratic takeover of the state senate, which, through the miracle of gerrymandering, Republicans control, thereby bottling up much progressive legislation.)

Unions are key to the Democrats’ leftward evolution. To be sure, with a bow to the demands of realpolitik, most have endorsed Clinton, not Sanders, and in many elections for lower office where centrists and progressives square off, unions have been known to back the centrists in return for deals that benefit their members. Nonetheless, virtually none of the progressive urban regimes that have come to power in recent years could have done so without substantial union support, and the Fight for $15 campaign has served as the necessary second act to Occupy Wall Street—adding a concrete set of demands to Occupy’s critique of our plutocratic economy.

There are clear limits, however, to what city-led liberalism can accomplish. States with Republican governments can and do obstruct cities from enacting progressive ordinances. States with Democratic governors may ultimately adopt policies first advanced by cities, as New York state did when, following the adoption of anti-fracking zoning ordinances by many cities, Cuomo announced a statewide fracking moratorium. Problem is, there are few Democratic-led states. Mayors, moreover, aren’t governors; they’re not deemed presidential material unless they’ve moved up to statewide office—one reason why the Democratic bench is so bare.


THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION may offer a microcosmic glimpse of America’s future, but is it a true reflection of the American present—of an electorate with sufficient heft to hold the White House and win back Congress and the states?

In presidential years, high turnout gives Democrats a structural advantage, provided their remaining support among working-class white voters doesn’t completely collapse. Should the GOP nominate Trump, Republicans will likely forfeit the votes of enough college-educated party members to guarantee a decisive defeat. Trump’s strength among aging working-class whites, however, may give Democrats anxious moments in Rust Belt states that have experienced little in-migration over the past 30 years, such as Ohio (which is 80 percent white) and Pennsylvania (which is 78 percent white, while the nation as a whole is just 62 percent white).

Besides the unions themselves, the only progressive organization trying to persuade the white working class to vote Democratic is Working America, the AFL-CIO-backed operation that over the past decade has canvassed with considerable success in white workers’ neighborhoods, on the doorsteps of non-union members in critical swing states. “This will be a real challenge this year,” says Karen Nussbaum, Working America’s director, “but we can’t have the white working class getting entrenched on the right, as it is in much of Europe.”

AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks about raising wages during the forum AFL-CIO National Summit, Wednesday, January 7, 2015, at Gallaudet University in Washington. 

The challenge before Working America is to move voters from a right-populist racist politics to a left-populist economic politics. To put it mildly, that’s a daunting task. Even at the height of its power and popularity, the United Auto Workers in the 1940s and 1950s could routinely persuade its members to vote Democratic for national and state offices, where economic issues dominated, but seldom for its endorsed liberal candidates for local offices, where issues of housing and police practices—that is, issues where race was the dominant factor—were its white members’ key concerns.

There are issues, however, on which left and right populists—indeed, on which left, right, and center—converge. Recent polling by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 77 percent of Americans (including 67 percent of Republicans) believe corporations are not paying a fair share of their proceeds to their employees, and that 79 percent of Americans (including 63 percent of Republicans) believe our economic system unfairly favors the wealthy. Proposals that involve establishing or enlarging government programs, of course, are anathema to Republicans and rouse the ire of many working-class whites who believe such programs are generally a payoff to minorities. (The one exception to this rule might be lowering the eligibility age for Medicare—a government program with substantial mass, if not elite, conservative support—to 50 or 55.)

Universal programs that don’t involve taxation or expanded government programs, however, have commanded substantial right-leaning support, as in 2014 when the electorates of Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota approved ballot measures hiking their state’s minimum wage. Proposals to change the pre-tax division of proceeds within corporations—say, by scaling corporate tax rates to the ratio of CEO-to-median-worker pay, or cutting the taxes of corporations that divide their corporate board seats between shareholder and worker representatives—might have some traction on both the left and the right.

Democrats not only need to arrest their decline among working-class whites, they also need to boost turnout of their base voters in midterm elections. One hundred years ago, the party’s big city machines maintained a constant presence in working-class neighborhoods. Today’s party needs a latter-day version of these standing armies—minus, of course, the corruption endemic to the classic machines. The only organization that has even begun to assemble such organizations is the Working Families Party—which, its name to the contrary notwithstanding, functions largely within the Democratic Party. Funded largely by unions, the WFP employs a staff and mobilizes a volunteer base that dwarfs those of any Democratic state party. In New York, the state where the WFP has been around the longest (and whose election fusion laws permit candidates to run on multiple party lines—most frequently, on both the Democrats’ and WFP’s), the party’s Pipeline program conducts regular candidate trainings for roughly 1,000 liberal aspiring officeholders, provides staff and resources to perhaps the 100 most electorally and politically attractive of those aspirants in campaigns for local offices, and positions the winners to seek higher office when those seats come open. Today, WFP-backed candidates constitute the majority on the New York City Council, where they function as a distinct caucus and promote the candidacies of other progressives.

Can the Democrats’ progressive base mount such endeavors in other blue cities and states, and the occasional purple one? Such an effort obviously requires a massive and patient commitment of resources, a capacity to combine and prioritize elements of diverse constituencies’ agendas, and a lot of dedicated, and disproportionately young, Democrats of the kind that the Sanders campaign has activated. Dan Cantor, the WFP’s national director and a veteran of Jesse Jackson’s two presidential bids, cautions that “mounting a presidential campaign is not the same as building a durable organization.” The more likely prospect is that Sanders’s backers, once the campaign is done, will become a generational cohort with a distinct if fuzzy ideology and a skill set that a number of them will carry into their future political endeavors, much as the veterans of the campaigns of Gene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy, and George McGovern once brought their perspectives and experiences to subsequent Democratic campaigns. That will be helpful, but not sufficient, to the party’s needs.

The Democrats need an organized left—if only because the prospects for building an organized center are nil, and because a progressive economic program that limits corporate and financial power with the countervailing power of workers, consumers, and citizens would unite the Democratic base, strengthen the party’s ability to recapture working-class voters now lost to it, and help rebuild the country’s shrunken middle class. Defeating the candidacy of a Donald Trump or a Ted Cruz may strike many Democrats as victory enough in 2016, but unless the party can amass the power to build a more equitable and prosperous nation, another Trump or Cruz will surface from some dank pool in elections yet to come.