the democratic party is possible
Don’t believe the hype. The Democrats did not win by moving to the center. Some socially conservative candidates won, particularly in states where strong majorities are anti-choice and against civil rights for gay and lesbian families. However, there were at least as many progressives elected, including eight new members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, now the House’s largest non-party group. Nancy Pelosi is a member. Many of them will inherit powerful committee chairships.
That’s not to say that the victory demonstrated any kind of fundamental realignment. In fact, “all” that happened was that Republican gains within the Democratic base were eroded. Key constituencies within the old Democratic majority coalition came back to the fold. This can be seen geographically, as the electoral map begins to look more and more like a map of Civil War America, only with the parties switched. We made almost no gains in the South, while Ohio, Missouri, Maryland and New Hampshire snapped back into the Union. The Republicans, for their part, held the South and are in danger of becoming a regional party. Blacks stuck with the Democrats to the tune of 90%, despite high-profile campaigns by black Republicans in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland. Latinos shifted to the Democrats by a margin of nearly 30%. Support rose among women, working people, the poor and people at both ends of the educational spectrum. In short, this election showed that a majoritarian Democratic party is possible. The key will be keeping this coalition together, and expanding it, even when the Republicans aren’t falling on their own bibles/swords.
One important factor in this election was the slight but noticeable move toward economic populism by our Party. Gains in Ohio demonstrate the importance of this move. Witness Sherrod Brown, the state’s new Senator. On November 6th, Ohio was Republican, from the State Assembly to the Governor’s mansion to the contested Senate seat. The pro-choice, pro-gay and fervently pro-worker Brown led a clean sweep of the state, as all levels of government went to Democrats. The hook was Brown’s strong stands on economic issues: a re-evaluation of “free trade”, a rise in the minimum wage, a crackdown on corporate malfeasance. He did so without trading away the Party’s commitment to so-called “social issues”.
If social conservatism is the glue that holds the Republican majority together, economic justice can serve the same role for Democrats. Even the much ballyhooed “moderates” who won senate seats in Montana and Virginia ran ads against free trade and attacked their opponents for scuttling a minimum wage increase. Jim Webb, the Reagan Republican turned Democrat who won in Virginia campaigned hard on jobs and income inequality. Ballot initiatives raising state minimums passed everywhere they appeared on the ballot- a move widely seen as beneficial to Democratic turnout. In a nice symbolic turn of events, the Kansas state house turned totally Democratic. We even picked up a Congressional seat there. The idea that what is the matter with Kansas is that Democrats haven’t given working class folks a reason to vote for them seems like a pretty unassailable hypothesis.
Not to the right wing of the Democratic Party. They have joined the mainstream media and Republican sour-grapes pundits in arguing that super Tuesday was the result of the party’s move to the vaunted “center.” Rahm Emmanuel, the clarion voice of the New Democrats, has been buoyed by his successful gambit to recruit Gulf War veterans to run as Democrats. That was clever politics, but it only worked because both Republicans and Democrats gave people a reason to vote our way.
Organizationally, Emmanuel has called for DNC chair Howard Dean’s head. As chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Emmanuel has been highly critical of Dean’s strategy of (re)-building party organizations in every State. The DCCC is beholden primarily to members of Congress and the party’s fundraising base, and is locked into the logic of the short-game. Their preference for one election at a time, slash and burn strategies has led to twelve years of Party defeats and a general erosion of progressive values and discourse. The deep victories by Democrats in state government (we now control more state legislatures and governorships than the bad guys for the first time since 94) demonstrates that long-term base building reaps benefits. The Dean path will help solidify the base, the way that Republicans have done for 30 years. We shouldn’t go back to the days of Clintonian shallow victories. The Democratic Left should continue to rally around Dean.
No doubt, Congressional Democratic leaders could very well overplay their hand. I’m glad that symbolic, oppositional red-meat like impeachment has been jettisoned from the table. We have to achieve a modest program of actual reform to lay the groundwork for winning back more of the Democratic coalition. We will have to tread carefully, even on issues surrounding Iraq, regardless of the clear mandate for withdrawal.
If it is hard to call it a decisive victory, we can safely conclude that it was a decisive defeat. The Karl Rove strategy of combining jingoistic paranoia with cultural reaction went down in flames. What, precisely, it will be replaced with remains to be seen. Nevertheless, whether by accident or by design, the Democratic Party has won a major election, one that will have huge positive effects for working families and for the cause of international peace and security.
The minimum wage will be raised. Anti-labor fine print will be removed from bills. Real health care reform will get a hearing, and even “single-payer” will see the light of day. Judicial nominations will be blocked. Investigations will be mounted, and from the dais rather than the basement. For this we should be happy.
Next week: Progressives and the Party