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

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

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


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.

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.

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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