Essay, Research Paper
The Democratic Party In the 21st Century: Danger on the Horizon
It has become customary in modern American Politics, when one party inflicts a major defeat on another, for pundits to cosign the losers to the trash receptacle of history. Political obituaries have been written for the GOP during the long presidential tenure of Franklin D. Roosevelt, for the Democrats when Dwight Eisenhower was in office, for the Republicans again in 1964, and for the Democrats again in 1984 and 1988. In each and every case, the dead party rose from the ashes like the mythical phoenix.
However, political parties really do die. In the 19th century, the federalists, the National Republicans, and the Whigs, among others, vanished. In our own century, the Populists and the Progressives expired, and if the Socialists and Communists are still alive, no one seems to notice or really care. Now, in the wake of the 1994 Elections and the storm that will be the 1988 Elections, it is a strong possibility that the Democratic Party will be placed on life support as well.
A careful look at the voting patterns in the 1994 election and at the radical changes that resulted thereof-changes in Congress, in America s political agenda, in Speaker Newt Gingrich s attractiveness to the media, suggests that the Democrats have lost their sense of purpose, their raison d etre and are summarily doomed. Democrats may continue to win elections for some time to come. But the party of FDR, Truman, JFK, and LBJ seem quite beyond any hope.
In 1994, Democrats did not just lose Congress for the first time in 40 years. They also lost 10 governorships and for the first time in nearly four decades, control fewer than half of the state legislatures. The Democratic Party was so undone in the last national election that they could not manage to defeat a single Republican incumbent candidate for governor, the House of Representatives, or the US Senate. Losses of that magnitude mean that they Republican Party will now play a dominant role in American Political life at all levels and cast an even darker shadow on Democratic fortunes in the future.
The 1994 elections are evidence that the Democratic Party has lost the key constituency in American politics, the workers of the middle class. Edsall of the The Washington Post wrote that while maintaining an alliance with Americans on the margin, the Democratic Party has alienated middle America, moving far from its New Deal roots as the ally of such groups as European immigrants, Catholics ethnics, and organized labor seeking entry into the social mainstream. Today, the party is increasingly seen by swing voters as seeking to redistribute income from workers to nonworkers ..[The] Democrats are losing credibility as a national party
Based on data compiled by Mitovsky International and published after 1994 Elections in the New York Times, African-Americans, Jewish-Americans, and self described liberals are only members of the old Democratic coalition who remained steadfast. In the congressional voting, 88 percent of blacks , 78 percent of Jews, and 82 percent of liberals voted for Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives. Outside the dwindling lists of the registered faithful, not other broad national grouping-including organized labor approached that degree of solidarity with what was once America s majority party. Indeed, even gays, lesbians, and bisexuals fell away in 1994; Democratic House candidates, who received 77 percent of their votes in 1992 won only 60 percent in 1994. And the Solid South , which produced the only Democratic presidents since John F. Kennedy, seem to have abandoned the Democratic party forever. Only 45 percent of Southerners cast their ballots for democratic House candidates in 1994.
Some blame President Clinton for this occurrence. But that is comparable to blaming Romulus Augustulus for the decline of the Roman Empire. Clinton, like Rome s last emperor, is as much a symptom as a cause. It was Clinton s bad luck to win the presidency at a time when his party had already been decimated by a succession of weak or weakened presidents and presidential candidates; by internal party reforms , by the corrosive and corrupting effects of having held power too long in Congress, and the statehouses; and, last but certainly not least, by various ineluctable historical tides—economic, demographic, social, and political. Clinton probably would not have been elected had Ross Perot stayed home in 1992 and attended to business and entrepreneurial concerns. However, evidence suggests that the Democrats general collapse would have occurred sooner or later.
In first half of the 19th century, when modern American politics were born, the Whig Party advocated social conservatism, high tariffs, and federal intervention in the fiscal and monetary affairs of the nation. With this broad platform the Whigs managed, as any successful political party must under the delicately checked and balanced American system of government, to rally many disparate Southerners. Evangelical and anti-Catholic Protestants, and anti-Masons, and such Northern moralists and reformers such as Thaddeus Stevens, John Q. Adams, William Henry Seward, Horace Greeley, and Abraham Lincoln. By the beginning of the 1840 s, the motley Whigs were quite competitive, North and South, with the older and more established Democrats.
Whig candidates won the presidential elections of 1840 and 1848. By the end of the 1840 s, the Whigs had captured both houses of Congress and 20 of the gubernatorials seats. As the Civil War loomed, however, the whigs were torn apart. They had been trying for years to have it both ways on the slavery issue, and to put it quite simply time ran out on them. Whig slaveowners in the South began to see a more steadfast champion in the Democratic Party, while many Whig abolitionists and moderates in the North insisted that their party take a stand against slavery or against its extension into the territories and new states. When Northerners split off to form the new, antislavery Republican Party, the Whigs were finished as a national party. The election of Lincoln in 1860 as the nation s first Republican president not only helped to precipitate the Civil War; it also established, the political foundation on which the modern two-party system was built. For the next 130 years, the Democrats and the Republicans would dominate America s political landsscape.
So permanent did the post Civil-War political system seem that some high-school civics texts treated it as if it had been ordained in the heavens above. An omniscient being did not create the system nor was responsible for making that system work; that was accomplished by consensus building, compromising human beings. In the immediate post-Civil War years, the Republican Party combined industrialists, bankers, and relatively well off Midwestern farmers with Northern progressives and former slaves, who continued to think of the GOP as the party of Lincoln. It was, and for a longtime would remain, a winning combination.
On the other side of the two-party divide, the Democrats managed to unite conservative Southern whites and sharecroppers with blue-collar, Northern workers, including ever-growing numbers of European immigrants, especially Catholics from Ireland and Italy and Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia. This basic alignments remained in effect, with some adjustments from time to time as the nation grew and the economy changed, until well into the Great Depression. Only then did the alignment begin to change radically. African-Americans in the South, finally realizing that the Republicans abandoned them, began to gravitate in significant numbers to the Democratic Party, even though the Democrats were then still walking arm and arm with Southern segregationists. Economic viability was the key to their mass migration. The Democratic Party no matter their allegiances, at least promised economic reform and paying jobs as opposed to the near slavery of segregation, which was being condoned by the once faithful Republican Party.
The great African-American migration out of the South to Northern cities and towns, where the jobs existed, began just before World War II and became a flood during and after the war. Throughout the 1940s and 50s, however, even Northern voting blacks were far less important to the Democrats than Southern whites and labor unions. It was not until the 1960s that many of the inherent contradiction in the Post World War II Democratic coalition became evident. The most obvious and immediate was tension between segregationist Dixiecrats and Northern liberals who were belatedly, but to their lasting credit determined to rid the nation if Jim Crow and all his works.
The great optimism expansion of the post World War II years, an expansion for which the Democrats may justly claim much of the credit, had magical effects: It turned blue collars into white collars, laborers into burghers, urban liberals into suburban conservatives. In the South, the Democrats were once again the victims of their own success. Enlightened civil-rights policies transformed a segregated backwater into one of the fastest growing regions in the country although white voters did not remain greatful for long.
More than a few Democrats saw their party s problem and sought to correct it. The late Senator Henry M. Jackson, former Democratic party chairman Robert Strauss, the late Senator Paul Tsongas and Fred Harris, even Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton tried to move the party off the margins and back toward the center. But the marginalized party, reinforced by internal rules that gave disproportionate power to its own special interests , was bigger than they were and always won. In the early 90 s , the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which Jackson, Clinton, and others created in response to the crisis, churned out position papers and policy statements. Their aim was to find a progressive alternative to the GOP s Contract with America . Many of the ideas coming from the DLC camp made sense and started to address some fundamental issues- market-oriented health care reform, work-oriented welfare reform, reality-oriented military spending, to cite only three examples. Moreover, the devilish details of specific DLC proposals often do seem to have a progressive cast. Still, the question remains: Can the Democratic Party, as presently constituted, overcame the inertial thrust of historical forces that brought it to its current pass? And can the party reform itself, as it were, on the run? On the record to date, the answer is decidedly no. Much more likely is that the party will experience further decline and gradually be supplanted, from within and without, by some new coalition of forces better able to cope successfully with the exigencies of the 21st century.
The disparate and rather inchoate elements of such a new coalition are already in view: Ross Perot s following of disaffected independents and Republicans who invite a plague on the houses of both major parties; moderate Democrats of the Scoop Jackson stripe; moderate Republicans of the Nelson Rockerfeller mole; and the relatively new members of what might be termed the minority middle class -Asians, Latinos, and African-Americans who , while uncomfortable with the Democrats marginalized big government approach, are even more dissatisfied with the tendency of the modern GOP to embrace various extreme policies, while ignoring the legitimate needs and concerns of racial minorities and the poor in the inner cities. It is conceivable, though barely, that the Democrats might be able to reconstitute themselves and rally these groups and others to come under the auspices of some sort of New Democrat banner. But it appears more likely now that another party will form (the reform party), a third party that for a period will provide the swing votes necessary for election, before it finally supplants the old democrats as the second major party. Former U.S. Senator David Boren (now President of the University of Oklahoma School System) has predicted that an independent presidential candidate i.e., one with no party affiliation- will be elected to the White House in the next decade or so. Given the current power of independent voters and the nation s antipolitics mood, it is not unthinkable that a nonpartisan candidate could capture the presidency. Nor is there any shortage of potential candidates. In addition to Boren and Poss Perot their is retired General Colin Powell, and Minnesota Governor Jesse the brain Ventura.
The American political system tends to discourage truly independent candidacies, however, the nuts and bolts of presidential campaigns- fund-raising, qualifying for federal contributions, attracting endorsements and volunteers, developing state-by-state strategies, and primaries. These example and others make it much easier and more likely to succeed in the context of an organized national party. That is a major reason why past independent candidates, including George Wallace, John Anderson, and, in somewhat a different way, Perot, formed parties when they pursued the presidency. Then, too, the democratic dynamics of a political party make it possible to develop a platform with broad and lasting appeal and can provide the discipline and the intellectual and political resources necessary for effective governance. Should some man on a white horse win the presidency, the hard work of finding a true successor to the old Democratic Party- one that competes successfully over time and at all levels for middle-class voters-would still remain to be done.
And what of victory-drunk Republicans? Is the U.S. going to have to endure one-party rule until the Democrats get their act together again or a new party replaces them? Perhaps so. It would be foolhardy to predict the outcome of the 2000 elections this early. Yet it is nearly impossible to see how the Democrats, even allowing that they still have some election victories left in them, will be able to roll back the GOP tide with their current leaders and policies. The Republicans are riding a crest, it will be very difficult indeed to deny them their hard won days of wine roses.
But they should heed the counsels of caution that even now are heard in some recent Republican caucuses. The marginalization of the Democrats could happen to the Republicans as well. Many left wing, and centrist political pundits believe that it already has. Nativism, isolationism, racism, a frightening disregard for the civilizing qualities of art, education, and government, a belief that the interests of people and society at large are always best served by business and the marketplace all these tendencies, and others as destructive, are clearly evident, in the modern Republican coalition. To the extent that the part allows them to direct its affairs and dominate its governance, to that extent it will hasten the birth of a serious and worthy opposition.
For while, the Democratic Party appears to be on the verge of extinction, the political system- a reflection of the nation s determination not to let anyone have the upper hand for to long- is hardly dead and, all likelihood, is gathering strength for the new century that will soon begin. The role that we play in our political future in the next millennium will shape the fabric of our nation in time to come.