The Emerging Radical Center?
An historic opportunity for political realignment is arising, and the Democrats, true to form, are in the process of squandering it.
In this week's New Republic, John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira write that "ever since the collapse of the Reagan conservative majority, which enjoyed its final triumph in November 1994, American politics has been turning slowly, but inexorably, toward a new Democratic majority." The assertion seems odd at first glance, given that we have a Republican president, a Republican majority in the House, and Democratic control of the Senate by the slenderest of margins (and only because of a Republican defection). But Judis and Teixeira are not completely off-base, even if their argument (in its abbreviated article form, drastically condensed from a forthcoming book) is not entirely convincing. They write:
Just as the McKinley majority was closely tied to the onset of industrialization, the emerging Democratic majority is closely linked to the spreading postindustrial economy. Democrats are strongest in areas where the production of ideas and services has either redefined or replaced assembly-line manufacturing, particularly the Northeast, the upper Midwest through Minnesota, and the Pacific Coast--including the Sunbelt prize of California--but also including parts of Southern states like Florida, Virginia, and North Carolina. Republicans, meanwhile, are strongest in states like Mississippi, Wyoming, and South Carolina (as well as in former Democratic enclaves like Kentucky), where the transition to postindustrial society has lagged.
Participants in the new economy, Judis and Teixeira write, tend to be fiscally moderate but socially tolerant, believers in capitalism but also in the need for government to act as a fair referee to curb capitalism's excesses, supporters of political reform. And, Judis and Teixeira posit, as America increasingly moves to a postindustrial economy, these voters will become more numerous. They will not alone be sufficient to form a majority of voters, but they will represent an increasingly important portion of any majority coalition.
The Bush administration is in no position to benefit from the posited shift. From the large tax cuts for the richest Americans, to the refusal to do anything about American corporations relocating offshore to avoid tax liability, to the weak corporate governance reforms, to the massive giveaways in the farm bill and the energy bill, the Bush administration, at least in its domestic policy, is dedicated principally to the proposition that government of the cronies, by the cronies, and for the cronies shall not perish from this earth. Its basic outlook is therefore antithetical to the emerging center-left voters that Judis and Teixeira believe they have identified. The president's economic platform was never terribly popular—witness Bush's poll ratings last summer, before the terrorist attacks—and the wobbly economy, erratic stock market, and accounting scandals have done nothing to make it look more appealing. Likewise, the social conservatism that dominates the southern wing of the Republican party tends to alienate the new economy voters.
There thus appears to be a significant mass of voters defined loosely by the following characteristics:
* They recognize the importance of a dynamic capitalist economy as the engine for economic growth but fear that a market left to its own devices will inevitably lead to the excesses and abuses we are now seeing in the collapses of Enron, WorldCom, Global Crossing, and the like. To those who would argue that these collapses prove that the market ultimately will correct abuses on its own, these voters would point to the significant costs that the recent correction has imposed in terms of unemployment and investor losses. Preventative medicine is usually more effective than emergency care. They thus look to the government not only to set rules for financial reporting but to enforce those rules rigorously.
* They also want an honest accounting from the government. In this respect the transition from the Clinton administration, which consistently overestimated deficits and then underestimated surpluses, to the Bush administration, which has consistently underestimated deficits, is striking: the Republican administration's actions are hardly deserving of the label conservative.
* Speaking of preventative medicine: these voters recognize that, in contrast to the view expressed by Bush in the 2000 campaign and not modified since, the availability of emergency medical care at hospitals is no substitute for adequate preventative health care for the nation's increasingly numerous uninsured. Although leery of a massive bureaucratic plan like that proposed early in the Clinton administration, they also doubt that the Republican proposals for tax incentives will make a significant dent in the problem.
* They recognize that the welfare system as it existed prior to 1996 needed reform, but they also recognize that moving people from dependency to the workforce requires a transitional support system—education, job training, child care—that costs money, and that entering the workforce can be difficult in times of economic uncertainty. Simply cutting people loose to fend for themselves won't do.
* They are leery of the growing power of large corporations over various portions of their lives—the abuse of personal information, the restrictions on uses of new technology, the restrictions on choices.
* Joined by an increasing number of libertarian-oriented Republicans, they are suspicious of the administration's plans for homeland security, which threaten similar intrusions into their privacy in exchange for uncertain results.
The situation would seem tailor made for the Democrats—there is significant potential for a campaign of the people over the powerful that need not devolve into crude class warfare. Mounting this campaign, however, would require leaders able to formulate a coherent plan, articulate it to the public, and defend it from the inevitable Republican attacks. And, at the moment, none of the leading Democrats is in a position to assume this role.
Much of the blame must be laid at the feet of the Democratic Leadership Council, which in recent years has devolved from a useful counterweight to other factions within the party into a pure tool for business interests and the wealthy. Thanks to the influence of the DLC, Tom Daschle has refused to allow a straight vote on requiring stock options to be treated identically on tax returns (where many corporations treat them as expenses) and financial reports (where most do not treat options as expenses). Thanks to the influence of the DLC, the Democratic leadership refuses to call for repeal of the large prospective tax cuts enacted last year, cuts that redound almost exclusively to the benefit of the very wealthy. Thanks to the influence of the DLC, a number of Democrats support the egregious bankruptcy bill that, in a time of economic slowdown, would greatly favor the large banks that bombard consumers with solicitations for cards carrying usurious interest rates. And thanks to the influence of the DLC and the Democrats' ties to the entertainment industry, Democrats are supporting dramatic expansions of copyright law that would significantly complicate the creation, dissemination, and use of content for all but the big media players. These actions on behalf of the powerful over the people, combined with the failure to articulate and advance a coherent agenda in the one branch of the federal government in which they exercise control, means that Democrats, especially Senate Democrats, are ill-suited to seize the opportunity that, according to Judis and Teixeira, presently exists.
Indeed, the person best positioned to articulate a coherent Democratic position at this point is Al Gore, whose populist rhetoric in the 2000 campaign failed to carry the day in good economic times but would resonate more powerfully in our present circumstances. This week Gore rather pointedly avoided the DLC's gathering in Manhattan, and he is not tied directly to the questionable Democratic positions in Congress. This too, though, works to the Democrats' disadvantage. Despite his popular-vote victory, Gore emerged from the 2000 campaign a badly damaged figure, his credibility in tatters after relentless (and frequently untruthful) Republican attacks, his demeanor off-putting to many voters. Republicans champ at the bit at the thought of opposing Gore a second time. In the meantime, the Democrats' weakness in Congress allows the president to co-opt the more popular elements of the Democratic platform with his own window-dressing versions of those elements (no permalinks; scroll to the July 29 entry).
The Democrats' present failures do not mean that Ralph Nader was correct and that there is essentially no difference between Democrats and Republicans (one look at the president's judicial nominees should dispel that notion). But the Democrats' weaknesses threaten their ability to take advantage of an historic opportunity. And if they squander it, new political forces are emerging with an eye toward seizing the political center (again, scroll to July 29) and breaking the political status quo—a development that may ultimately cost the Democratic party its very existence. The next serious third-party candidate to emerge from the center will not necessarily be a crackpot like Ross Perot. The new economy voters are watching.