Tuesday, July 9, 2024

#191 / Party On!


The February 2024 edition of The Nation magazine has an article by Matthew Karp that analyzes the current state of the Democratic Party. His article is titled, "The Breakup." Here's the subtitle: "What happened to the Democratic majority?" Concerns about the future of the Democratic Party have been significantly magnified by the poor debate showing by President Biden on June 27th. 

Karp, who is an Associate Professor of History at Princeton University, provides readers with a mini-history of both of our two major political parties, but does focus on the Democrats, and he makes clear that the origins of the Democratic Party were, by no means, "progressive." Here's Karp's short course in how the Democratic Party came to be: 

Consider the history of the oldest mass electoral party in the world today, the Democratic Party of the United States. In the 1820s, it emerged around the magnetic figure of Andrew Jackson, but its political identity was impossible to separate from the coalition that gathered to elect him. This included a range of subgroups, but at its core the party was defined by an alliance between slaveholding elites, urban workers, and small farmers—“the planters of the South and the plain republicans of the North,” in the words of the Democrats’ first great strategic engineer, Martin Van Buren. The party lines may have initially formed around Jackson, but these planters and plain republicans also shared a set of mutual interests, demonstrated by both the issues they fought over (banks, tariffs, and infrastructure) and those that they silently protected from debate (slavery). In a national two-party system, where both sides depended on proslavery support, antislavery politics remained off the table (emphasis added).

In the 1850's, Karp reports, the Democratic Party became centered in the South, and centered on a defense of slavery, though its electoral strength was also dependent on support from immigrants in the North. What we think of as the modern Democratic Party was forged by President Roosevelt and his New Deal:

The Great Depression and the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt transformed the Democratic coalition all over again. In the 1930s, Roosevelt’s commitment to bold economic reform helped win over millions of previously Republican farmers and workers in the North, including most African Americans. The result was a new Democratic Party that could rightly claim to be the first mass party in US history grounded in a clear majority of the working class.
It was no coincidence that after 1933, the working-class Democratic coalition—with the support, and goading, of trade unions—constructed the only rudiments of social democratic government that the United States has ever known, from labor laws and financial regulation to old-age insurance, public healthcare, and support for housing and education. Nor was it a coincidence that this same working-class coalition, spurred by civil rights protests, finally overthrew Jim Crow itself in the 1960s (emphasis added). 

Karp's article notes that the description just above no longer accurately describes the composition of the Democratic Party:

Like other center-left parties around the world, from Norway to New Zealand, the Democrats have lost ground with working-class voters—especially those in blue-collar jobs—while winning more and more support from upper-middle-class professionals. The shift began in earnest in the 1970s, continued across the Clinton and Bush years, and has accelerated rapidly in the last decade. 
The Democratic electorate today looks almost nothing like the coalition that carried the party through the New Deal. In 1944, when Roosevelt presented his famous Economic Bill of Rights, he won about two-thirds of the country’s manual workers. Today, less than 30 percent of manual workers identify as Democrats
In the near future, the general trend looks likely to continue. A New York Times/Siena College poll last July showed Biden with just 36 percent support from voters without a college degree and 40 percent from voters making under $100,000 a year. Both of these numbers represent historic lows for the Democratic Party. If Biden does manage to fend off Donald Trump in this year’s presidential election, his coalition will almost certainly be anchored by college-educated and higher-earning voters (emphasis added).

The Wall Street Journal, incidentally, is also writing about how the Democratic Party is "losing their grip" on working class voters, and specifically Latino voters. Given the political bent of The Journal, I hear a certain amount of satisfaction in the analysis advanced. A reader can color The Nation's analysis as "concerned." The Wall Street Journal is closer to "ebullient." 

What I am concerned about, more than anything, is that our national government respond to and represent what organized citizens determine they care about. "Self-government" is the essence of what our history, and our Constitution, promise. Political parties may act as the agents of self-government, or they may ignore that assignment. As Karp's history reveals, there is no "purity" or consistent "ideology" in our political parties. They are coalitions of convenience, reflecting the "interests" of those who are interested enough in politics to organize sufficiently that the politics of our party system must recognize them, and advance them. 

So, my sense is that we should not, as we engage in politics, focus mainly on the political parties. We should focus on what we want, and organize to get it. If we are workers, we need to organize as workers, and then demand that the parties deliver for us. Workers need to demand that all parties advance their interests. The way to insure that the interests of voters prevail is not to listen to what the parties say, and promise, but to organize so that the parties (or one of them, anyway) will have to listen; have to commit, and then have to perform. Any working persons, including specifically Latino voters, who believe that the Republican Party is going to govern in their interests is, I believe, massively deluded, but if the Democratic Party wants to retain Latino and working class support, it is going to need to do better than assume that what was true during the New Deal is true today. 

According to The New York Times, "outside groups" have pledged one billion dollars to help reelect President Biden. Again, of course, these pledges may not hold, post debate. My (unsought for) advice to the Democrats is as follows. Whoever ends up being the Democratic Party candidate for president, the Party should use some of their money to assist working class voters, Latinos and others, to build an organization that can deliver for the working class this November. But that effort needs to begin "bottoms up." We shouldn't all be waiting around for the Party to figure that out itself. Political parties, like every other political power point, follow that "first rule" of political life, so well articulated by Frederick Douglas

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

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