The Democrats' Catastrophe and the Need For a New Agenda

 

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, joined by his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, celebrates with his supporters at an election night party in Louisville,Tuesday, November 4, 2014. McConnell won a sixth term in Washington, with his eyes on the larger prize of GOP control of the Senate. The Kentucky Senate race, with McConnell, a 30-year incumbent, fighting off a spirited challenge from Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, has been among the most combative and closely watched contests that could determine the balance of power in Congress.

Democrats had ample reason to fear that this year’s midterm elections would not go well for them, but bad doesn’t begin to describe what happened to them—and the nation—yesterday. Catastrophic is more like it.

Democrats didn’t just lose the Senate; they lost statehouse after statehouse. They didn’t just lose the red states; they lost the purple and the blue. They lost the governorships of Maryland, Massachusetts and Illinois, and had the governor’s contest thrown into the legislature by the failure of their incumbent governor to win 50 percent of the vote in the socialist enclave of Vermont. They lost their last white member of the House from the deep South (Georgia’s John Barrow), but they also lost seats in the deep North—two in New York, one in New Hampshire, possibly one in Maine, and they are clinging to narrow leads in two of Connecticut’s five districts. Their statewide down-ticket candidates will probably all claim victory in deep-blue California, but by margins far narrower than those they’re accustomed to, and some presumably safe Golden State House seats are in danger as I write.  

A defeat this comprehensive should compel the Democrats to acknowledge that their problems go beyond the six-year jinx—the year in a two-term presidency that usually sees a rout of the president’s party in Congress—the smaller electorates of midterm elections, the Republican suppression of the minority and youth vote, and even the flood of money that has deformed our democracy. A defeat of this magnitude suggests that the Democrats are in the same fix as most of the center-left parties of Europe—parties that purport to be the economic advocates of the middle and working classes, but preside over abysmal economies with no clear sense of how to make them better.

In Europe, the austerity economics that the European Union enforces at the insistence of Germany has caused massive disaffection from the ranks of the governing parties of Southern Europe, whether center-left or center-right. In the U.S., the declining economic prospects of the Democrats’ core constituencies—minorities and the young—greatly reduced their turnout in yesterday’s elections. Democrats pointed to the economy’s recent growth, but apparently did so at their own peril: When 95 percent of the income growth since the recovery began goes to the wealthiest 1 percent, as U.C. Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez has documented, reports of a recovery strike most Americans as news from a faraway land.

Wherever Americans could directly diminish economic inequality and better the lot of the poor in yesterday’s elections, they did. South Dakota, Arkansas and Nebraska joined San Francisco and Oakland in voting to raise their minimum wage—the one and only indication in yesterday’s vote that the ghost of the New Deal coalition still stalks the land.  But when it came to Democratic senators who had voted to raise that wage in the Senate, and Democratic candidates who endorsed a higher wage in their campaigns, voters often remained cool. The Republican Congress’s refusal to raise the wage, like its refusal to fund an infrastructure program that would create jobs, or enact immigration reform, or reduce payments on student loans, redounded more to the detriment of the Democrats—who couldn’t turn out the voters who would have benefited from such policies—than it did the Republicans.

But the Democrats’ failure isn’t just the result of Republican negativity. It’s also intellectual and ideological. What, besides raising the minimum wage, do the Democrats propose to do about the shift in income from wages to profits, from labor to capital, from the 99 percent to the 1 percent? How do they deliver for an embattled middle class in a globalized, de-unionized, far-from-full-employment economy, where workers have lost the power they once wielded to ensure a more equitable distribution of income and wealth? What Democrat, besides Elizabeth Warren, campaigned this year to diminish the sway of the banks? Who proposed policies that would give workers the power to win more stable employment and higher incomes, not just at the level of the minimum wage but across the economic spectrum?

The party’s demographic edge and its advantage on cultural issues will still serve it well in presidential elections. But they’re demonstrably not enough in midterm contests, and may not suffice even in presidential years unless the Democrats can credibly campaign again as the party that can produce broadly shared prosperity. There is work, much work, to be done.  

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