There is a reason why the opening line of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities—“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”—has been quoted so often that it has become almost cliché. But take a look at how it continues: “[I]t was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.…”
Such was the way that Dickens described the cities of Paris and London during the French Revolution. In his book America Ascendant: A Revolutionary Nation’s Path to Addressing Its Deepest Problems, the Democratic pollster and political strategist Stanley B. Greenberg posits that the United States is facing a moment much like the one Dickens described.
America Ascendant: A Revolutionary
Nation’s Path to Addressing Its Deepest
Problems and Leading the 21st Century
by Stanley B. Greenberg
Thomas Dunne Books, 416 pp.
Greenberg does an excellent job highlighting why this is “the best of times.” He identifies revolutions that are about both America’s economic ascendancy and our cultural exceptionalism. With the advent of renewable energy sources and natural gas, we are in the midst of an energy revolution. Our immigration revolution is key to America’s economic vitality, competitiveness, and growth. As home to the great research universities, we are leading the world in high-tech, aerospace, and creative industries. The growth of metropolitan areas in this country has made them the engines of economic prosperity and social transformation. In the vanguard of our metropolitan areas are the Millennials, the generation that is driving transformative change. Finally, Greenberg notes that “America is racially blended, immigrant, multinational, multilingual, and religiously pluralistic, and that is becoming more and more central to our national identity.”
But revolutions are all about change. And it is in that change that “the worst of times” materializes—both because of its demands for adaptation and the backlash that is sparked.
And so, Greenberg notes that globalization has led to a loss of American manufacturing jobs, which has marginalized working-class men. Marriage is on the decline, and more women are raising children on their own. With growth in metropolitan areas, the divide between urban and rural has widened. With increasing diversity has come the fear among white conservatives that “racial minorities will use their hold over government to discriminate against whites.” He posits that these changes challenge our values and have therefore ignited a counterrevolution—thus providing an explanation for our current political polarization. Rather than adapt, the Republican Party has drilled down on appeals that animate an ever-shrinking portion of the electorate.
“The Republican Party is in a death spiral that will mean the end of the Grand Old Party as we know it,” writes Greenberg. “The party will feverishly put off the end by entrenching itself in the most rural, religious, and race-conscious parts of the country by exploiting the constitutional bias in favor of small rural states, but the Republican Party will face shattering losses at some point.” That means that it will be up to the Democrats to produce a reform agenda that can help unleash the potential of an ascendant America.
Greenberg provides polling and focus group data to show strong support from Americans (not just Democrats or Republicans) for the following items: Americans want to protect Medicare and Social Security. They want paid sick days, and access to affordable child care for working mothers and families. They want equal pay for women. They want an affordable college education. And, finally, they want long-term infrastructure investment to rebuild America and create middle-class jobs, while raising taxes on the very rich so they pay their fair share.
But Greenberg also points out that in order for Americans to support that agenda, they must believe that government investments are worth it. And so those six items must be preceded by commitments to do something about big money in politics as well as waste and abuse in government programs.
Greenberg’s hypothesis is that the above agenda will allow the Democrats to repeat Bill Clinton’s electoral success. “Bill Clinton’s formula for winning the national vote and the Electoral College lay in reclaiming the votes of enough of the declining white industrial male workers,” writes Greenberg, “and combining that with the votes from the Democrats’ growing liberal cultural coalition—a product of the civil rights and women’s movements, the influx of immigrants, and the protests against the Vietnam and Iraq wars.” Barack Obama expanded the Democratic coalition by inspiring people of color and young voters—the very ones who are driving the new revolution in America. But considering the 2010 and 2014 midterm losses, Greenberg suggests that
[t]he new political formula for a real national electoral majority does not depend on winning the “Reagan Democrats” or a “forgotten middle class.” But we now know that identifying with the emergent trends and joining the battle for American values will still leave the Democrats short of the momentum they need to bring change. Democrats have to show that they get it and finally join the battle over the central contradictions of our times and advance a reform agenda. Then, they will have a majority that defends its gains year in and year out.
That is Greenberg’s answer to the question that is currently dogging Democratic strategists: the fact that the Democratic coalition as it stands right now is capable of succeeding in presidential elections, but looses badly in midterms due to lower voter turnout. He suggests that the answer is to grow the overall coalition by embracing a reform agenda that appeals to white working-class voters. As he says,
The white working-class voter has the chance to play in the Democrats’ game because the working class itself is being profoundly changed by America’s economic and cultural transformations, and they are among the voters waiting for the political class to step up and address the emerging problems.
When it comes to the specific reform agenda items Greenberg proposes, it is hard to see how they differ from what the Democrats have been embracing for the last several years—especially President Obama. It is an agenda that obviously appeals as strongly to the current Democratic coalition as it does to white working-class voters. Therefore, continuing to propose such an agenda—added to the need to address issues like immigration reform, criminal justice reform, and climate change—will be important for all Democrats going forward.
What is unique to white working-class voters, as Greenberg points out, is their distrust that the government can act on that agenda in a way that benefits them. When it comes to the solutions he proposes to address that mistrust, dealing with the problem of big money in politics is something that is also embraced by the voters who are currently part of the Democratic coalition. I would suggest that, due to the seemingly intractable nature of this problem, most all voters (not just white working-class voters) have become skeptical of politicians who promise to do something about it. Therefore, the more specific and practical Democrats can be about potential solutions, the better.
It is Greenberg’s suggestion about the need to reform government programs that is the most controversial. But he is likely correct that this is the issue that lies at the heart of the distrust white working-class voters have in the government. It is disappointing that he doesn’t provide any specifics, but simply refers to “out-of-date programs that don’t work.”
If we are going to test Greenberg’s hypothesis about the possibility of growing the Democratic coalition by attracting more white working-class voters, it is imperative that we answer some questions that this recommendation raises.
First of all, it would be important to know whether white working-class voters think that no government programs work, or whether their concerns are limited to certain areas. We know from Greenberg’s focus groups that voters want politicians to protect Social Security and Medicare. Those two programs—which together make up over 35 percent of the federal budget—would therefore appear to be excluded from the category of “programs that don’t work.” The next biggest category of federal programs is defense, which comes in at 18 percent of the budget. When people talk about waste and abuse in government programs, however, they are often referring to the 11 percent that is spent on safety net programs. Of that amount, less than half (approximately 5 percent) is spent on benefits to the nonworking poor.
Going back to the post-civil rights 1970s, Republicans have attempted to fuel a divide between white working-class voters and African Americans by suggesting that government benefits were going primarily to the “undeserving poor,” i.e., those who had no work ethic. That message continues to this day when Republicans refer to Obama as the “food stamp president” and suggest that the Democrats are giving away free stuff to garner African American votes. To the extent that this is what fuels the mistrust that white working-class voters have for government, Democrats are unlikely to find a way to appeal to them.
To be clear, Greenberg acknowledges the racial component of this mistrust and is not suggesting that Democrats attempt to woo working-class voters in the Republican strongholds of the South and Mountain West. As he writes, “It is important to remember … that three-fourths of American voters live outside this GOP conservative heartland. In the rest of the country, the battle for the swing white working class and downscale voters is very much alive.” In other articles Greenberg has written on this topic, he has zeroed in on white working-class women in the East and Midwest.
But given that, it is important for Democrats to recognize that validating the concerns voters have when government programs don’t work for them is important, but insufficient. Democrats must provide voters with a message that they not only understand the problem but also have solutions. Otherwise we reinforce the Republican mantra that government is the problem, undermining our ability to implement the reform agenda Greenberg outlines.
Many of the worst government breakdowns occur in programs paid for with tax dollars but administered by contractors. You see this in overpriced and underperforming weapons and IT projects. These boondoggles are often the result of politicians foolishly thinking they are going to save the public money by relying on the “private sector,” a notion encouraged by lavish campaign contributions by contractors. But they also arise because the government frequently lacks enough smart, talented, experienced people on its payroll to manage the contracts. As someone who ran a nonprofit social services firm, I can attest to the fact that the quality of people we worked with in government made all the difference. A Kennedyesque call to public service combined with a renewed drive for campaign finance reform could give Democrats a potent agenda for reforming both politics and government.
It is also important to note the media’s role in fueling the idea that government doesn’t work. If you remember the obsessive fear-mongering that was such a highlight during the Ebola outbreak and combine it with the lack of stories about how it was stopped, you begin to get the picture. Even when government reform efforts are undertaken, Americans rarely hear about it.
What I find lacking in Greenberg’s analysis is that he completely ignores the impact of Republican obstruction on the state of politics and the economy today. As we all know by now, on the day President Obama was inaugurated in 2009, Republican leaders met to craft a strategy for how to respond to the fact that not only had they lost the White House, but Democrats were also in control of Congress. Their decision that day was to unite in obstructing anything Democrats tried to do—even if they were issues Republicans had previously supported.
An example of how things might be different today if they had not settled on that strategy is that we might have an infrastructure bank in place (one of the priorities on Greenberg’s agenda), as Obama proposed. We might have even gotten parts of the American Jobs Act that Obama proposed in 2011 passed and signed into law. Who knows what might have become of his proposals for universal pre-K, free community college, and immigration reform.
But perhaps the havoc that obstruction has caused in our politics is even more damaging than what it did to our economy. Former Republican congressional staffer Mike Lofgren gave us some insight about how that worked when he wrote, “A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.” Much of the reason why voters feel like the government doesn’t work is because Republicans have spent the last seven years trying to ensure that our politics don’t work. The result has been gridlock and dysfunction.
When it comes to the question of how to build a Democratic majority that can prevail, especially in midterm elections, one of the questions we can’t ignore is whether or not we should be satisfied with a democracy in which only slightly more than a third of eligible voters show up at the polls for midterms. Back in the 1960s, that number was beginning to get close to 50 percent (still not great, but light years better than today). A lot has changed since then. But much of it has simply led us to be a more cynical electorate—from Vietnam and Watergate to the Iraq War and the Great Recession. The anger and fear-mongering that Republicans fueled in order to justify their strategy of total obstruction and gridlock has driven that cynicism even deeper.
In the end, Democrats might improve their electoral results by broadening their coalition with a segment of white working-class voters. But the question of how the country builds back trust in government as a democratic expression of “we the people” is much bigger and more complex than that. Beyond the money in politics and the effectiveness of government programs, it means developing an engaged electorate via a news media that is more focused on informing than entertaining.