Stanley B. Greenberg's Fall 1991 article, “From Crisis to Working Majority,” was widely considered a key manifesto for the 1992 Clinton campaign. Bob Woodward reported that Bill Clinton said he had read it three times.
On the eve of Bill Clinton's announced candidacy for president, I reviewed a wave of provocative books about the “deepening crisis of the Democratic Party.” With Michael Dukakis' hapless campaign as backdrop, the books described a party of taxes and big government, entrapped by special interests, perhaps condemned to a permanent minority status.
But wide swaths of middle America, including the Reagan Democrats, were looking for a way back. “A bottom-up Democratic coalition,” I wrote, “can win back its majority if it rediscovers the values and interests of middle-class America; if it fashions a broad-based class politics and critique of the Reagan-Bush era; and if it learns from important recent progressive works a renewed commitment to politics and national purpose.” Progressives, I argued, needed to transcend welfare politics to become “inclusive and self-consciously pluralistic,” and use politics to achieve broad gains on health care, education, tax fairness, and American leadership. The starting point and bottom line was “the rediscovery of the forgotten middle class.”
Four presidential elections later, the Democrats are the party of ﬁscal responsibility and economic competence, no longer seriously encumbered by fear of crime, taxes, and welfare. They are also the champions of tolerance and rights who have celebrated America's diversity as its special strength. The party has learned how to compete in the suburbs, and in each recent election, it's almost won.
Which is to say, the Democrats have lost. In fact, they've lost the middle class, most of Main Street, and rural America, leaving their coalition far short of a national majority. In 2004, John Kerry lost white voters without a college degree by a 23-point margin (61 percent to 38 percent), exceeding Al Gore's 17-point loss. He lost the white rural counties by 31 points, after Gore had lost them by 29 and Clinton by 9.
In the end, the Democrats forgot the middle class. Except for a few years in the late '90s, middle-class incomes have remained stagnant through the Clinton and Bush Junior presidencies, and the country as a whole has grown more unequal. Democrats have been unable to address job losses in manufacturing and rising health-care costs.
And just as Republicans exploited racial fears against Dukakis, they have exploited cultural worries and used guns, gays, and abortion to drive families of faith away from Democrats. The problem isn't new. “Democrats cannot win over the average family,” I wrote in 1991, “unless there are some limits on the party's moral agnosticism. In particular, a new class politics requires Democrats to defend the principle of reward for work and the social and moral worth of a strong family.”
The Democrats will get back their majority only when they put the interests and values of the middle class at the core of what they do.
Stanley B. Greenberg is a pollster and the author, most recently, of The Two Americas: Our Current Political Deadlock and How to Break It.