Why the Democrats Can’t Be the Party of the Left

There are several interesting things in this astute David Atkins column at Political Animal.

Let me put them out there for you. First, there’s the recognition that food and family assistance programs are resented by virtually everyone who doesn’t use them, but the degree of anger and the preferred solutions differ depending on whether you’re near the edge or not. In other words, relatively comfortable white suburban folks might have an unrealistically idealized view of how easy life is when you’re getting by on food stamps and welfare. They tend to think it’s a scam and that people should forego every creature comfort before they accept one dime of assistance. But working folks in the city whose neighbors are getting government help are also pissed off. The difference is that they’re well aware that they might need the help themselves if their job goes away or some other misfortune visits them, so their resentment simmers but it doesn’t lead them to call for cuts. What both groups share is a belief that the government looks out for the rich and the poor but doesn’t do squat for hard working folks in the middle.

Another part of this piece that I enjoyed is how Atkins looks at distortions created by our two-party system. We don’t examine this aspect of our politics enough, in my opinion.

It’s an artifact of America’s peculiar winner-take-all political system that we only have two functional parties. Economically, this means that the conservative party works to align the middle class with the wealthy against the poor, while the liberal party works to align the poor and the middle class against the rich. But the middle class ideally wants to promote its own interests above all, and all too often it seems to them like no one is doing that.

Fortunately, there is no reason that Democrats need to reduce empathy or benefits to the poor in order to accomplish this. Policies like universal healthcare, student loan reform, housing reform and others serve to benefit everyone in the 99%, and can be accomplish[ed] without making any cuts to the most unfortunate and oppressed in society.

One might object that the liberal party needs to raise money, too, and are increasingly uninterested in alienating the wealthy donors and (suburban) voters they need to be a successful organization. I’m of two minds about this. Yes, there’s more money in politics than ever and it changes how the parties behave. The obviously bad part of this is it that blurs people’s choices. There isn’t a party out there that has the workers’ interests as their primary directive. In a multiparty system, we’d have unapologetic union representation at the table at all times, for example.

On the other hand, a true governing party, particularly in a two-party winner-take-all system, needs to present a balanced platform that at least attempts to get the mix right for everyone. That means that a Democratic Party that wants to have a lock on the White House can’t be reflexively anti-Wall Street or pro-worker all the time across the board. It needs to serve more as broker or arbitrator. And this is more true as the other party becomes less of a good faith partner for negotiations. In the recent past, even Republicans as conservative and corrupted by money as Rick Santorum courted union votes and could be relied upon to consider their interests at least some of the time. Today, however, Republicans aren’t reliable allies to unions and they’re not reliable partners with the Chamber of Commerce, either. They won’t pave our roads or pay our bills, so the other party has to step into the breach and govern.

The positive part of this is that it gives the Democrats broad legitimacy as the only responsible and dependable party, and that’s something a majority-coalition party should have and actually needs to be successful. You could tell that the party had achieved this with Obama by the mix of donations he received and also by the fact that the Eisenhower Republicans basically abandoned their party and signed up with his program back in 2008.

Of course, this seems to have removed something critical from the Republican Party’s central nervous system, causing them to careen immediately into Know-Nothing Tea Party lunacy. But this only reinforced the cleavage between the two parties: one, a governing party, the other a party of permanent opposition.

What’s screwing up the works is that the opposition party has achieved an electoral lock on the House of Representatives, which means that the governing party isn’t permitted to govern even as it attempts to do so by taking in the interests of the wealthy, the small business community, and Wall Street.

This is one reason why I dislike the neo-liberal epithet that Atkins uses to describe this process. I think the term is poorly understood and means too many different things to different people. But, more than that, it doesn’t take into account that a party that seeks to run this big country of ours with basically less than no assistance from their political opponents has to be a Big Tent party. If the other side were reliably representing the views of the big brokerage houses and the agricultural and other big businesses, and if it were bringing the Chamber of Commerce’s positions to the table, then the Democrats could simply negotiate with the working people’s interests in mind. But, what’s actually happening is that the Republicans aren’t a broker for anyone, so the Democrats have to do all the work themselves. Now we’re the party that passes the budget and appropriates the money in John Boehner’s House and Mitch McConnell’s Senate. We’re the party that paves the roads and pays the bills on time. We’re the party that saves the Export-Import Bank, etc.

Money certainly contributes to this problem and corrupts our system, but the simple insanity of the other side and their refusal and inability to govern makes it necessary for our side to be the grownups.

In other words, for reasons of both money and votes, the Democrats can’t just be the workers’ party. But workers’ interests aren’t the only interests that have legitimacy. The Democrats aren’t being insufficiently populist simply because they’re chasing big money. They’re actually trying to fill a breach created when the Republicans abandoned their posts.

One of the prices of this is that the branding of the two parties becomes badly blurred. Leftists see the Democrats as neoliberal sell-outs, while they also become responsible for everything the government does, good and bad. And since the government can only limp along in this crippled state, it’s not too popular to be responsible for their work product.

This is why the Republicans can run the Congress so badly that people hate the federal government with a seething passion, and then win reelection in a landslide on the momentum of the anti-government feeling that they created through their obstruction and ineptitude.

Here’s how Atkins describes this result:

What they don’t like is the comfortable neoliberal “center” in which everyone is supposed to get along with a smiling corporatist agenda, letting the rich use the market to run rampant over the middle class while smoothing out the sharpest edges at the very bottom. That makes almost everyone angry.

This is about how the work product is perceived, and he’s right that the Democrats haven’t figured out how to explain the merits of what they’re doing, particularly when compared to what would happen if they gave up on representing everyone and reverted to being a party of just the left.

As a political matter, what Atkins is saying is that the middle class “wants free stuff, too” and that a successful party will figure this out and adjust their message accordingly. It’s good advice, but it isn’t so simple to implement for the simple reason that the Democrats are too busy trying to keep the lights on to do much else.

They should get credit for keeping the federal government afloat when the opposition is desperately trying to drown it in a bathtub, but they won’t get that credit because they have to be all things to all people and that prevents them from branding themselves as any one thing.

Still, where the rubber meets the road is in addressing the economic and cultural anxiety of the white middle class. If the Democrats can’t do a better job of that, and of selling that, they won’t win back the House and our government will remain crippled for the foreseeable future.

So, Atkins is basically correct.

It’s just easier said than done, that’s all.

[Cross-posted at Booman Tribune]

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.