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Political Trends Indicate Democratic Party at Sea
Tim Francis-Wright

20 May 2001

The exit polls from the 2000 presidential election should convince the Democratic Party that its greatest chances lie with its left wing. Despite almost a half-century of aiming at the political center in America, the party continues to win elections only by accident. By examining its stalwart constituencies, the party can regain a sense of purpose that it has not enjoyed for a third of a century. Doing that, however, will require political courage that its centrist masters have lacked.

The Gore campaign in 2000, like the Clinton campaigns in 1992 and 1996, and the Dukakis campaign in 1988, sought to present the Democrats as a centrist party. Al Gore spoke of a middle-class tax cut, of increasing defense spending, of paying down the national debt, of continuing welfare reform. Unlike Bill Clinton, he did not have Ross Perot splitting the conservative vote with his Republican opponent. Instead, Ralph Nader took votes from his left wing, enough to swing several states. Gore lost Florida so narrowly that the Socialist and Workers' World candidates might have kept him from the presidency.

One remarkable aspect of the 2000 election results is that huge advantage that the Democrats had with certain voters, according to the Voters News Service exit polls. African-Americans voted 90% for Gore. Hispanics votes 62% for Gore. Union members voted 62% for Gore. Other results, however, are remarkable in their balance between candidates. Gore won only 57% of the vote from those earning less than $15,000 per year, and won 43% of the vote from those making over $100,000 per year. The Democrats, whose housing, welfare, and medical policies benefit the poor, should be able to do better than that. On the other hand, many affluent people were not swayed enough by the Bush tax plan to vote for him.

Income and racial categories matter to students of political behavior because both are tied to voting behavior. Census bureau reports, which reflect reported registration and voting behavior for the 1996 election, showed that income and likehihood of voting were strongly related. While under half of respondents with under $10,000 of annual income voted, over 82 percent of those with incomes over $100,000 did so. When a party's natural constituency votes least often, it should sit up and take notice.

In political science, rational choice theory dictates that two candidates in a single-issue election should try to place themselves where the median voter on that scale thinks. In real life, there is more than one issue, and candidates do not know where every voter stands on all issues. Most importantly, the median voter theoey assumes that everyone votes, or that there is no statistical difference between voters and nonvoters. The Census Bureau data suggests otherwise. If the Democratic Party were serious about a mass mobilization of the poor, it could well seize back the White House in 2004, even without running a better campaign, having a better candidate, or having better policies in its platform.

The Democratic party has much to gain from portraying itself as the party of labor, the party of the poor, and the party of the immigrant. Even in its current centrist guise, it still stands for public education, housing for all, protection of the environment, and relief for the poor. The Republican party, by contrast, seems hell-bent on sending the country into debt, not for repair of infrastructure, not for new and innovative social programs, but for a massive tax cut that will benefit its most loyal supporters, the rich. (The $1.35 trillion price tag over 10 years for the tax bill ignores that many of its provisions take effect in 2011. For example, the estate tax would slowly decrease from 60% to 40% in 2010, then to 0% in 2011.)

The actual Democratic party has aimed at the center for at least the last four Presidential elections. The result has been a party that has supported a free trade agreement that has decimated American manufacturing. The result has been a party that is afraid to take liberal positions on fiscal policy, gun control, abortion, corporate power, or missile defense.

Al Gore planned to govern from the center if he won the presidential election. George Bush never planned to do so. The Republicans knew from Ronald Reagan's legacy that Presidents set the agenda for politics in Washington. Reagan's popularity among conservatives stemmed from his conservative beliefs. His popularity among other Americans depended on his having beliefs. Even when his advisors ran a private war out of the White House, Reagan's popularity remained high, and the Republicans did not lose the Presidency.

Since 1968, national Republican candidates have benefitted from the strong opinions of fiscal and social conservatives. In 1968 and 1972, the Republican "Southern strategy" catered to Democrats opposed to civil rights legislation. In 1980 to 1988, the Republican strategy catered to social conservatives opposed to abortion and fiscal conservatives who wanted tax cuts and defense spending, no matter what the cost. In 1992, many conservatives in his party viewed George H. W. Bush as suspect on both counts, and, thanks in large part to Ross Perot's independent candidacy, he lost the election. In 2000, George W. Bush reclaimed Reagan's mantle as a social and economic conservative. With plans for tax cuts aimed at the conservative wing of his party, he won one of the closest elections in history, defeating a sitting Vice President, even though the sitting President remained popular and the economy was in good shape.

In each of the Republicans' successful campaigns over the last 25 years, the Republicans have mobilized their natural constituencies. The Democrats, by contrast, have done far less to mobilize their natural constituencies. As a result, several Democratic Senators--for example, Breaux of Louisiana, Lincoln of Arkansas, Torricelli of New Jersey, and Miller of Georgia--are more likely to vote with the Republicans on issues like the 2002 budget and tax policy. By contrast, very few Republicans--notably Jeffords of Vermont--are threats to vote with the Democrats on issues of substance. The leadership of the Democratic party has shown little desire to appear particularly liberal on almost any issue, even though much of its voter base is liberal. The party needs two things to succeed. First, it needs leaders willing to listen to the grass roots of the party for a general direction. It is not sufficient to simply be the un-Republican party and no more. Second, it needs grass roots that are at least as vocal and uncompromising on important issues as the social conservatives are to the Republicans.

Several issues could resonate with the American people, if only the Democrats had the courage to endorse them. The party could stand with individuals against the growing power of corporations. (The Republicans have clearly stood for the corporations.) The party could stand for a balanced and fair energy policy. (The Republicans have clearly stood for the oil companies.) The party could stand for a tax code that doesn't favor the rich. (The Republicans have sided with the millionaires.) The party could stand for health care for all; for responsible defense spending; and any number of issues that benefit all members of society, including those without money to waste on campaign contributions.

I fear that it will instead gear up for another national campaign with another well-funded centrist from yet another formerly Confederate state with yet more centrist ideas that fail to inspire anyone outside a Washington think tank. The Democratic party has done that. It doesn't work.

The Green Party presents a possible alternative to the Democrats, but the Greens have done a worse job of organizing the left than the Democrats have. First, the Greens are split between the Association of State Green Parties, who endorsed Nader, and the Green Party USA

Second, the Greens ran a national campaign primarily from the top down, not the bottom up. They duplicated the mistakes of the Socialists in the early parts of the 20th century, who ran Eugene Debs for President, but the party had little besides Debs. Once his political days were over, so was the party. Who stands to inherit the mantle of Ralph Nader? Probably no one.

Third, if the Greens want to do to the Democrats what the Republican party of 1856 did to the Whigs, they will need an issue so vital to most voters that the issue redefines American politics. In the middle of the 19th century, the issue was slavery. Even though they had the right issue, in 1860 the Republicans needed a three-way Democratic split to gain the Presidency. No issue pervades the American polity like slavery did 150 years ago. Perhaps rampant corporatism will be the wedge issue of the 21st century; perhaps it will be the environment. But neither issue is at the necessary level right now.

The Greens can still be a positive national force on the left. They could push for fusion ballots (like in New York City). They could endorse appropriate Democratic candidates on all levels. They could push for proportional representation schemes on city councils and state legislatures. But they are wasting energy on quixotic Presidential candidacies.

Ralph Nader's candicacy would have been beneficial to his causes if the United States had a modern voting system like the single transferable vote. It would have been beneficial to the left in the United States if Green Party votes were all new votes, or if Green Party votes were in states like Massachusetts or Utah where the Green Party vote would not determine the election.

The Democratic Party must realize that its national political strategy is a strategy that matters. Politics is a more important game than most. In chess, whether to play d4 or e4 as the first move is a matter of style that does not affect the outside world. In contract bridge, the strength required to open the bidding with one no-trump is a matter of style that does not affect the outside world. In politics, however, a party's fundamental policies matter not only to the game of politics, but also to the populace affected by that game. The Democrats should start taking that game seriously.

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