by Joel Kotkin · August 6, 2017
With President Donald Trump’s Dr. Demento impersonation undermining his own party, the road should be open for Democrats to sweep the next election cycle. And, for the first time since their horrific defeat of 2016, not only nationally but also in the states, the Democrats are slowly waking up to the reality that they need to go beyond the ritual Trump-bashing.
No one will compare the recently released “A Better Deal: Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages” slogan to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, or even Newt Gingrich’s “Contract for America.” One Bernie Sanders supporter called it “anodyne, focus-grouped, consultant-generated pablum.” Yet, at least it attempted to identify the party with something other than Trump hatred, which is all most Americans think the Democrats are all about.
The three Democratic parties
Before this new approach can work, Democrats need to decide what kind of party they are, or what coalition can bring them back into power. None of the present factions is strong enough, by themselves, to win consistently on a national basis; some accommodation between often opposing tendencies must be found. Finally, there needs to be a credible message that derives not from carefully orchestrated focus groups and surveys — the Hillary Clinton approach — but rather one that resonates with the very middle- and working-class voters that the party needs to win back.
Since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the traditional Democratic Party has combined some degree of social moderation — albeit often too timid on issues related to gays and racial minorities — with a unifying message of economic growth, national security and upward mobility. Although business interests sometimes supported them, the old Democrats primarily directed their appeal to urban, and later suburban, middle- and working-class voters.
By the 1970s, many of these voters were headed rightward, as Democrats’ positions on social issues, defense and civil rights moved sharply to the left. Seeking to make up for some of the loss of some traditional FDR voters, Bill Clinton reoriented the party to include the rising class of information workers who were often socially liberal but fiscally conservative. But Clinton’s political genius and down-home image also helped Democrats retain some New Deal working-class support, even while forging stronger ties to tech companies, the rising professional class and Wall Street.
The third faction, the resurgent left, led by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, grew out of the clear failure of the second Democratic Party, led by its elite wing, to address the consequences of neoliberal economics, notably increased inequality, reduced social mobility and, to some extent, environmental degradation. To these activists, the Clintonian party is not much more than a light version of mainstream Republicanism.
Only a coalition can work
The fundamental challenge of the Democrats today is winning back the voters who, for a host of reasons, both understandable and deplorable, supported Donald Trump. This makes the old Democratic message — as reflected in the “Better Deal” — key to unlocking the Electoral College and winning back its status as a national, rather than a bicoastal, party. As the New Deal party has declined, the Democrats have lost touch with potentially supportive voters in much of the Midwest, as well as the Intermountain West, the Great Plains and the South. There many still doggedly favor Trump, who, for all his inane blustering, at least seems committed to bring new jobs to hard-hit communities, as evidenced in the recent massive Foxconn investment in Wisconsin.
The Clintonian party lacks the street cred to play the populist hand against Trumpian intrusion. When Hillary Clinton started her talk about “deplorables” and focused largely on cultural issues, she demonstrated dramatically how much she had diverged from the popular instincts of her far savvier husband. Let’s face it, like Secretary Clinton, New York Sen. Charles Schumer, the consigliere of Wall Street, is a bizarre choice to serve as a populist avatar. The “Better Way” attack on monopolies, aimed mostly at GOP-leaning pharmaceutical and industrial companies, is particularly suspect. Revealingly, these efforts do not seem to include prosecuting the increasingly dominant tech oligarchs, clearly the antitrust challenge of our time, with whom they are increasingly tied financially.
On economic issues, the third Democratic Party, the one closer to full-throated socialism, has far more credibility than the Clintonians. But the far-left Democrats, who often brook no diversity on issues, hold to positions — anti-defense, hostility toward police, piously green — that directly conflict with the attitudes and interests of the putative Trump voters. A worker at an Ohio factory may embrace a single-payer health care system, protectionist trade policies, raising taxes on the rich, and free college without wanting to raise energy prices, weaken the military, undermine policing, open the borders to all comers, tolerate more erosion of jobs that are moving overseas and impose transgender bathrooms on socially conservative communities.
Ultimately, like any political party in this polarized country, success lies in finding ways to bridge gaps among the warring factions. A “Better Deal” may be a decent first step, but, without reuniting its factions, it is hardly enough to engineer a new brand of politics, and another age of Democratic dominance.
Joel Kotkin is the R.C. Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism (www.opportunityurbanism.org).