23 October 2015

The Presidential Party

Aren't Democrats supposed to believe that the future is theirs? Matthew Yglesias doesn't. In fact, he worries about an opposite destiny. On the Vox website he warns of the party's fundamental weakness at the local level, as well as a baffling complacency that leaves Democrats seemingly indifferent to the fact that they have no realistic chance of reclaiming the House of Representatives for the foreseeable future. He blames the problem on increased ideological rigidity among progressive Democrats, an absence of any impulse to compromise with constituencies who could help them win congressional seats. He seems basically to be saying that progressives need to compromise on social/cultural issues like gun control and gay rights. The way Yglesias explains it, there's a pro-business, anti-tax, anti-regulation constituency in every state that's guaranteed to vote Republican. Relying on this base, Republicans are actually more flexible than Democrats, Yglesias claims, when it comes to nominating candidates who are relatively moderate on social issues. In the northeast, for instance, the GOP will choose candidates "who either lack hard-edged socially conservative views or else successfully downplay them as irrelevant in the context of blue-state governance." Since every state has that pro-business, anti-tax, anti-regulation constituency Democrats can't hope to reach, they have to be more accommodating on cultural issues if they hope to win over people -- let's call them populists -- who resent the rich and identify with the working class but don't identify with "progressive" values. Democrats have trouble following this strategy, Yglesias suggests, because they depend increasingly on "non-labor national progressive donor networks [that] are inherently populated by relatively affluent people who tend to be emotionally driven by progressive commitments on social or environmental issues." Worse, many progressives seem to have a constitutionally illiterate belief that only the Presidency matters. They'll learn differently, Yglesias warns, when they eventually lose the Presidency, but they ought to start rebuilding before then.

This isn't the only note of alarm I've heard among Democrats lately. Some are troubled by the fact that the front-runner for their presidential nomination is nearly seventy, while her strongest rival is older still, while most of the Republican contenders are considerably younger than current front-runner Donald Trump, suggesting that the GOP is getting fresh blood from Congress (Cruz, Rubio, etc.) and elsewhere that Democrats are not. It would be more surprising in our time, however, if one of the major parties wasn't predicting its own imminent doom. Republican control of the House probably looked as unassailable in 2000 or 2004 as it does now, and as Yglesias himself notes, all it took was an unpopular Republican President to tip the balance the other way. The problem is, Yglesias doesn't want to wait until the Democrats "bottom out" because he fears the consequences of undivided Republican government for both progressives and economic populists.

Nor will Yglesias's alarm sound new to many Democrats. The debate over whether they must choose between economic populism and a more expansive progressive agenda is old news that many don't want to hear anymore because it always sounds like you have to pander to the angry white male and for his sake ignore the demands of other demographic groups. To hear it all again must be all the more irksome after many Democrats assured themselves after 2012 that demographics were on their side, but what goes unspoken in Yglesias's article, yet is probably implicit, is that the permanent pro-business, anti-tax, anti-regulation constituency in every state, if not in every district, is going to include more people whom Democrats expect to take their side automatically as a matter of identity. After all, if economic populists aren't automatically progressive, why should progressives who define themselves in sociocultural terms automatically be economic populists? Meanwhile, Yglesias implies more clearly that there will always be a cohort of poor voters who still "cling" to their conservative culture -- the people accused of false consciousness since before the turn of the century, who explain "what's the matter with Kansas" because culture seems to count for more than economics with them. We can expect many more familiar arguments and laments if it looks like Clinton (being realistic) will get clobbered next year, and they'll continue until the wheel of fortune to which both major parties are bound lifts Democrats up again and pulls Republicans down, unless the populists and progressives in the Democratic party break from each other and break the wheel once and for all.


Anonymous said...

But the repugnicans are divided between the hard-core christian "right", the socially-moderate, but fiscally conservative libertarians and the neo-cons who, apparently, won't settle for less than global domination.

Samuel Wilson said...

That division may handicap Republicans at the national level but presumably in any given district one of those three groups dominates the others enough to get one of their own kind elected to Congress.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, but there will have to come a time when the GOP "leadership" has to either willingly step down or they have to confront the teabaggers and let them know their "purity tests" will not be tolerated. On the other hand, if the teabaggers actually manage to gain control of the GOP, it won't be long until the GOP loses all credibility. Whether that will also translate into lower donations for their campaign warchests is another question entirely.