Over the past quarter century, the national Democratic Party merged with the Clinton pay-for-play money machine and lost touch with American populism. So, what must be done and what are the party’s prospects, asks Lawrence Davidson.
By Lawrence Davidson
You would think that learning from experience is a common thing to do. But, for the Democratic Party’s leadership, this seems not to be the case. After the landslide victory of Trump’s version of the Republican Party in the 2016 national election, it is fair to say that the Democratic Party is in big trouble.
As Sen. Bernie Sanders has observed, the party needs to reform. Among other things it needs to ensure that whoever is the head of the Democratic National Committee [DNC] is dedicated to growing the party in a pro-civil rights as well as populist way. The party also needs to break free of special-interest money and do away with biased “super delegates” that subvert the nominating process. Sanders suggests a reform commission to look into implementing the necessary changes.
There are millions of local Democratic voters who agree with Sanders. I am sure that their local party officials have heard from a lot from them. However, to date, none of this has transferred over to the party’s national scene. Indeed Democratic power brokers like Chuck Schumer in the Senate and Nancy Pelosi in the House, who should be discredited in the eyes of everyone who identifies themselves with the Democratic Party, are still in place calling the shots.
And, it is almost certain that whoever becomes head of the DNC will be vetted by these obsolete leaders and will follow their lead. It is a formula for repeated political failure, but it has the sense of something inevitable nonetheless.
Why have things worked out this way? Here are some of the contributing factors:
—Both the Democratic and Republican Parties have evolved into bureaucratized organizations at once dependent upon the financial resources of special interests and mainly responsive to those interests’ needs. This has led both parties to pay more attention to the siren calls of powerful lobbies than the needs of local constituencies.
This fits with the fact that the United States is not a democracy of individuals so much as a democracy of competing interest groups. These interest groups range from conservative to liberal, and many play both sides of the ideological field by giving donations to both parties and their major political leaders.
—The concentration on special interests has been facilitated by the fact that, historically, many American citizens care little about politics. They know little or nothing about how the political system works, much less the issues and pressures to which it responds. Many do not vote. Those who do vote are only marginally more knowledgeable than those who do not. This means the party system relies on relatively small populations of avid supporters
The entrenched nature of the party bureaucracies and the traditional indifference of a large part of the citizenry make the system very hard, but not impossible, to reform.
—It is the Republican Party’s structure, and not that of the Democrats, that has experienced the strongest populist assault over the past couple of years. This is so despite the fact the Republicans have paid more attention to capturing state governorships, legislatures and even town councils than have the Democrats.
The assault has come from the so-called Tea Party, which has its own local and regional organizations imbued with a strong sense of mission. That mission is to minimize altogether government involvement in society. The Tea Party had grown disappointed and estranged from the traditional Republican leadership and structure.
—The basis for Donald Trump’s success was partially laid by the Tea Party’s willingness to abandon their traditional support for the Republicans and place their faith in Trump. Ultimately, what now survives of the formal Republican Party are those elements willing to ally with Trump.
—In contrast, the Democratic Party survives intact, having marginalized Bernie Sanders’s liberal effort to restructure it. Ironically, its structural survival is its greatest weakness. As a consequence it will just plod along, stuck in its rut. All things being equal this might condemn the Democrats to minority status for a long time.
—The only thing that might alter this fate is the catastrophic failure of Trump and his Republican allies – failure to such an extent that the Democratic Party, at least temporarily, again appears as an acceptable alternative to a population scared for its future.
Actually, catastrophic failure on Trump’s part may occur. This is because Trump, his Republican allies in the House and Senate, and the Tea Party are all determined to destroy a good part of the federal government’s social and environmental programs, as well as radically deregulate the economy.
To this end the very first bill the Republicans rammed through Congress (it happened on Jan. 4) was “one designed to roll back a range of environmental and consumer regulations.” The bill was appropriately named the “Midnight Rules Relief Act of 2017.” This bit of misguided legislation is only the beginning.
Regulations have a foundational reason for being, foundational because they serve as a check on the greed and larceny that, all too often, seem to lie at the heart of political and economic leaders. That does not mean that regulations should not be fair and efficient – carrying with them a minimum of red tape. However, to do away with them all altogether is, historically, stupid.
The economic and social history of Nineteenth and Twentieth century America makes it abundantly clear that regulation is the sine qua non of modern societal stability. Don’t want discrimination based on race, religion, gender, and the like? Don’t want another economic depression? Don’t want adulterated food and drugs? Want safe transportation both on the ground and in the air? Want safe medical treatment? Want drinkable water and breathable air? Then you want, indeed you absolutely need, economic, environmental and social regulations.
Somehow President-elect Donald Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan and their many right-wing associates are unaware of the historically established need for such action. In that part of their brains where the relevant historical facts should reside, these individuals have substituted neoliberal ideology – the same sort of outlook that brought you the 1929 Great Depression and other assorted woes. If our present crop of right-wing leaders get their way, then, sooner or later, we will be able to relive all that misery.
Then, without reforming itself at all, the Democratic Party might once more win a national election — the hard way.
Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.