Democratic Possibilities

Illustration by Taylor Jones--click to go to his websiteThis political era, properly understood, offers great opportunity for progressive Democrats. The conservatives ascendant in both parties are more intent on budget cutting and attacking government than on addressing the real needs of families, who face extraordinary challenges in a new, unsettling time. A new, family-centered politics can define and revitalize the Democratic Party, just as earlier defining struggles associated the party with security for working people and the expansion of individual rights—but only if Democrats maximize the moment.

The 1996 election seemed to confirm the national frustration with politics. To be sure, Gingrich's conservative "revolution" met its Thermidor, as voters repudiated right-wing attacks on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, federal education programs, and national environmental safeguards. But a lower fraction of citizens voted than in any election since 1924. Since 1996, neither the second Clinton administration nor the re-elected Republican Congress has offered any strong diagnosis of national problems or any bold prescriptions. An uneasy and evasive "bipartisanship" holds sway, with hard choices temporarily at bay in an expanding economy.

Meanwhile, Americans face extraordinary challenges at home and at work. Since 1973, each national economic expansion has increased inequality and insecurity for most working people. Although some Americans are flourishing, most working people—especially the three-quarters who lack four-year-college degrees—are working longer hours for sluggish incomes. People worry about their futures—when tuition bills loom, earners age, layoffs come, or sickness strikes. As fewer employers offer social benefits for employees, Americans also hear opinion leaders telling them that their hard-won, publicly funded social protections, Social Security and Medicare, may soon be dismantled, too.

Just when people are left more on their own and outside pressures are growing, two-parent families are more scarce and more fragile. The struggle to bridge home and work is harder—and often lonelier. Single parents, mostly mothers, must care for kids without a daily partner while often holding down inadequately paid, unstable jobs.

Two-parent families usually do better economically, yet often juggle parenting against two or three jobs. Working parents feel pressed to find new reserves of time and energy to guide offspring through the shoals of a culture dominated by messages of libertine commercialism, often in inadequate schools and unsafe neighborhoods. Americans today, as James Garbarino has aptly put it, face the challenge of "raising children in a socially toxic environment."

Americans would welcome a politics centered on security for families and opportunity and social responsibility for individuals. They resent politicians who cozy up to the glamorous and privileged, disregarding the uncertainties everyday families face. People would embrace political leaders offering substantial ways to improve life for ordinary Americans in the workplace, the home, and the community.

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For Democrats, the political terrain has already shifted more than is generally perceived. Ronald Reagan attracted many working middle-class voters to the Republicans by promoting pro-growth, low-tax economics and proclaiming respect for religion and family values. Democrats, meanwhile, built support in minority and urban communities and among better-educated voters, but lost many working families whose parents had been mainstays of the New Deal coalition.

Central to the political equation in the 1980s was a new electoral phenomenon—working-class voters supporting the party of business. In 1980 and 1984, Reagan carried a majority of high school graduates as well as those with some post-high school education, and so did George Bush in 1988. Democratic presidential candidates got slaughtered among the post-high school graduates in every one of these elections, losing by 15 points in their best year (1988) and 23 in their worst (1984).

The Reagan era also created broader electoral legacies. Reagan, for example, reached into working-class communities by paying homage to family and religious values. Those gestures were rewarded with the votes of married people, who became very reliable Republican voters. In 1984, Reagan won married women's votes by 18 points (59 to 41 percent). In the 1980s, single women were voting increasingly Democratic, but the gender gap could never prove decisive for Democrats as long as married women—especially married mothers, non college-educated wives, and southern white women—were so ensconced in the Reagan-Republican coalition. While college-educated women were voting for Carter in 1980, Dukakis in 1988, and Clinton in 1992, noncollege-educated women were an important mainstay in the national Republican coalition. They voted heavily for Reagan both times (by 10 points in 1980 and 17 points in 1984) and supported Bush in 1988 (by 5 points).

But Bill Clinton's presidential campaigns of 1992 and 1996 won back working- and middle-class voters (those earning up to $50,000 a year), confounding the Republicans' formula. The recent Republican nominees, George Bush and Bob Dole, averaged only 39 percent of the vote among middle-income voters—20 points below the level achieved by Ronald Reagan.

The Reagan hold on the American family ended in 1996, when many married women and women with children turned toward a more accessible Democratic Party. Bill Clinton has skillfully articulated popular themes: broad economic growth, more access to health care, and the transformation of welfare programs into work and responsible parenthood. He has championed crime prevention, reforming schools and expanding educational opportunity, trimming taxes on the working middle class, and strengthening parents and the civic capacities of communities.

The voters witnessed concrete change only in the general economic upturn and job growth, but they took note of the new Democratic priorities. Together, Clinton and other Democrats have at least provisionally laid to rest the specter of a party obsessed with elitist cultural liberalism or aid to the very poor alone. They have helped the Democratic Party speak for and to mainstream America.

In 1996, married women voted for Clinton by four points, while married mothers supported him by six points. Even among southern white women, Dole beat Clinton by only three points. The most dramatic change came among noncollege-educated women, once so critical to the Republican majorities; Clinton won by 18 points, a near landslide.

Among voters under 30, Clinton won by a quite astonishing 19 points, 53 to 34 percent, more than twice his margin for the electorate as a whole and comparable to the margin that Reagan achieved over Mondale a decade earlier.

In short, the politics of the 1990s signaled the closing of Reagan-era formulas for constructing the electorate and signaled new political formulas for Democrats to build support among working families, women, and young people—all of whom may be prepared to listen to a new kind of progressive narrative. Working Americans of all stripes are struggling to realize the promise of America: 60 percent of whites, 58 percent of blacks, and 55 percent of Latinos say that, compared to ten years ago, they are now farther away from attaining the American dream.

With formidable resources of moral certitude, big money, and grassroots organization among evangelical Christians, gun owners, and small-business people, conservative Republicans will remain a potent force. But the "conservative revolution" has been unable to deal with the real-world economic and family squeeze most Americans now face.

Newt Gingrich and his allies would dismantle much of the federal role and throw responsibility back to localities and the individual. For the right, aloneness is a kind of virtue, since it unfetters market forces and invites liberated individuals to sink or swim. But by late 1995, the conservative revolutionaries discovered that most Americans don't hate much of big government. Most people support broad public measures that enhance opportunity and security for ordinary working families.



When the New Democrat movement was launched in the 1980s, it argued, with considerable justification, that the party was ignoring the day-to-day lives of many working Americans—notably their worries about crime and deteriorating schools and neighborhoods and their commitment to values of work and parental responsibility. But virtually all Democrats now stress strong measures to contain crime (which, after all, hurts poor families more than any others). Most Democrats call for work rather than welfare, and most want to improve educational quality and opportunity.

Instead of declaring victory and pursuing new steps to carry out these themes, today's Democratic Leadership Council espouses a bipartisan centrism, much of which, ironically, contradicts popular values and fails to address broadly shared concerns. After the 1996 election, the DLC began to push "entitlement reforms" of Social Security and Medicare that resonate more with Wall Street values than with those of average Americans.

The DLC abandonment of a unified Social Security system with guaranteed benefits—one of the finest achievements of the modern Democratic Party—seems rooted in a larger ideological commitment to replace government programs with market incentives and individual choices. Social Security certainly needs demographic adjustment that maintains its universal and solidarity-building nature. But the DLC's marketizing course would exacerbate social divisions, make people less secure, require more regulatory complexity, and grant a vast new tax-financed subsidy to private investment managers. A similarly rigid DLC pro-market formula permeates other policy proposals, from health care to education and training.

New Democrats highlight family integrity and parental responsibility—but tend to emphasize only the extreme circumstances of (for example) teenage mothers, or very poor families on welfare, or delinquent children. They have little to offer the vast majority of ordinary families. As close allies of an incumbent President, the DLC celebrates the upside of current trends, relevant mostly for those already inclined to vote Republican. The DLC lionizes entrepreneurs in "new knowledge industries," ignoring the dislocations and anxieties facing a majority of late-twentieth-century Americans.



The Democratic Party's left includes newly assertive economic populists: the AFL-CIO under John Sweeney, the Economic Policy Institute, and the Campaign for America's Future (CAF), a new advocacy group launched in 1996 as a counterweight to the DLC. Labor-oriented populists offer a biting analysis of the new economic conditions and uncertainties faced by most working people. "Inequality has risen to heights not seen since before the Great Depression. CEO salaries have soared, while wages have fallen. . . . America, which once grew together, is now growing apart," according to the CAF. The rhetoric emphasizes the hardest-pressed workers, and the story line is mainly economic. Concretely, populists urge Democrats to promote unionization and workplace reforms, curb corporate power, and regulate international trade to protect wages and benefits for American workers.

Economic populists and the revitalized union movement have done much to push Democrats toward an encompassing analysis and message, and their analysis is a lot closer to the mark than the rosy picture of the U.S. economy painted by some on the party's center-right. But a one-sided economistic approach risks focusing on only some segments of the workforce. Unionized workers account for just 11 percent of the private-sector workforce. More and more people are employed in small businesses or nonprofits, or as freelances.

A labor-populist theme must be part of a renewed popular politics. But to make them the main story leaves out other important issues and constituencies. Working families care deeply about achieving a better quality of life—not just in their jobs; they define security more broadly than wages alone. An excessively workplace-centered populism risks discarding the considerable credibility that Democrats have won on such issues as fighting crime, supporting parental responsibility, promoting better schools and safer neighborhoods, and aiding working parents. A new popularized politics must incorporate all the values and concerns that matter to women and men in families seeking decent lives in a period of unnerving change.

The shared problems and challenges facing working Americans and their families should be the heart and soul of the progressive story. The United States is at a crossroads: Along one way lies spreading insecurity, burgeoning inequality, broken families, and civic decline; along another way lies a renewed social contract, racial healing, and a revitalized democracy. As in past eras, this enterprise entails not just giving benefits to individuals. Equally at stake are social honor and our sense of mutual obligation between the community and the individuals who serve it, and the mutual contract between generations. The future growth of the economy, the vibrancy of our civic life and culture, and the well-being of tomorrow's retirees all depend on how well families can manage to do both economically and culturally as they raise the children who will become tomorrow's citizens and workers.

Ironically, a progressive vision of family support is "conservative" in the best sense. Whatever proponents of unfettered markets and unbridled individualism may claim, Americans throughout our national history have flourished with the aid of shared social supports, not in their absence. Those who want to dismantle existing family supports, such as Medicare and Social Security, and those who struggle to preclude new supports for working parents, such as "health care that is always there," are the true wild-eyed radicals of our time. In contrast, popular progressives who champion an inclusive vision of social supports for families are the ones reclaiming the best traditions of American democracy.



The Great Society Democratic coalition was built from the top among the best educated and those most committed to expanding individual rights, and from the bottom among those with the lowest incomes and disadvantaged minority voters who faced widespread discrimination. The new popular progressive majority will be built broadly among working middle-class families, shaped by the new task of helping people of ordinary luck to achieve a better life in a world of unimagined changes and of growing economic and family pressures.

We envision an expanded version of the old coalition: Popular progressives can earn strong majorities among families earning under $50,000 per year and with those struggling to succeed without benefit of a four-year-college degree—huge groups that together make up perhaps two-thirds of our voting population. African Americans continue to support a strong governmental role; yet moderate and conservative white Democrats—mostly the noncollege educated, the elderly, and women—are protective of government retirement and universal health programs. Blue-collar men resent corporations that compete globally at the expense of their own workers, yet these voters also strongly favor expanded support for the family, from education to retirement. With anti-immigrant sentiment rising, Latino voters are part of the coalition. Roman Catholics would rally to a Democratic Party respectful of family and committed to defending government's unique role in supporting it. And the young are both natural idealists and the beneficiaries of programs friendly to families.

In the short term, we may witness none of this—unless progressives seize the moment. The Republicans can still exploit the perquisites of congressional incumbency and the vast financial resources of the business community. The diminished, bipartisan agenda of the White House and endless stories about scandal may leave the Democrats diminished as well. But recognition of the sheer scale of the changes in the economy and in the lives of families cannot long be suppressed, and it demands a matching politics.

People will respond to a revitalized Democratic Party that is both culturally sensible and politically bold—sensible enough to speak to the values and concerns of daily life, and bold enough to renew the powers of democratic government for common betterment. The new majority is ready not only to hear, but also to help tell, the popular progressive story.

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