Monday, July 23, 2007

Democratic surrender of social class

The easiest to analyze of the four reasons that explain America's slide from relative enlightenment to the schlerotic brink of fascism is the Democratic surrender of social class as a potent political weapon and, oh by the way, the uniting principle of the post-Depression Democratic Party.

For more than fifty years, the Democratic Party was universally acknowledged to be the party of the little guy. It was a grand coalition of union laborers, farmers, and wage slaves against the plutocracy. It included lots of uneducated people, patronage hacks, ruffians, yeomen, the salt of the earth, teachers, colored people (the polite label of the time), factory workers, and anyone else you can imagine who needed a little help or wanted a little protection when faced with the superior forces of wealth. Even poor Southern whites were comfortable with the general run of Democrats, even though they were more racist than their midwestern allies.

Sometime in the 1970s, Democrats began to renounce "class warfare" (how's that for a slanted framing?). Owing to the power of incumbency, this change didn't happen overnight. Instead, class-conscious politicians aged out and weren't replaced. What we got instead were colorless technocrats who claimed they were more competent governmental managers. Michael Dukakis was the prime exemplar.

Technocrats lit a fire under almost no one, just good government affluent educated liberals like me, and there aren't nearly enough of us to win elections. Besides, even when our fires are lit, they don't burn as brightly as the fires of people who have more at stake, and let's face it, we already have pretty good lives. If the government cuts outlays, we don't go hungry.

Most writers essentially agree with Zell Miller and with his less lunatic brethren: The Reagan Democrats didn't leave the Democratic Party; instead, the Democratic Party left them. They point to the multiple social upheavals of the 1960s (in rock and roll time, 1964 to 1976) and the Nixonian claims about a silent majority.

There's some truth to this, but it's mainly limited to the old Confederacy and mainly related to race. While racism remains a strong thread and a threat in American politics, its force is diminishing, at least regarding African-Americans.

The silent majority hypothesis also fails to explain the continuing dominance of Democratic policy ideas about the economy, the role of government, and civil rights to name a few. Even when the media crowned Newt Gingrich's bomb-throwing Republican Party the "party of ideas", Americans polled in favor of neutrally worded Democratic ideas of government. The only "Republican" idea that is dominantly popular is tax-cutting, but the voters remain much more responsible about tax cuts than the Grover Norquist drown-the-government-in-the-bathtub Republicans.

Other writers blame George McGovern and his liberal-dominated 1972 coalition for pushing the common man out of the party. I've met McGovern and knew his chief of staff, Owen Donley, and they held no hostility toward the common man. Donley once told me a story of a carefully crafted compromise position that McGovern threw over because of a conversation he had with a porter in the Senate subway.

No, Democrats gave up their unity voluntarily as a result of the marketplace, not of ideas, but of campaign contributions. They passed post-Watergate reforms in reaction to the financial abuses of Nixon's Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP), but they ran afoul of unintended consequences.

Democrats could no longer raise large chunks of money from wealthy ideological sources; they now had to spread their fundraising to wealthy business interests who were much more likely to play the access game.

The power of incumbency again masked this effect, particularly since Democrats were completely dominant in Congress after Nixon's impeachment-driven resignation. Many moneyed interests with business in Washington continued to give against their natural political inclinations because it was in their financial interest. This was a temporary situation, waiting only for the Republican Party to revive its national competitiveness. Karl Rove knew this, which was one lever he and Tom DeLay saw available to achieve their now-lost "permanent Republican majority".

Nonetheless, populist Democrats, especially those with national ambitions, found they could not raise the smaller but still non-middle-class contributions they needed to fund their ambition. I'm sure the Democratic consultants realized this dilemma, too.

So, it was campaign finance reform that led Democrats to discard social class as a weapon and unifying principle.

The Republicans had no such dilemma. They could still raise ideological contributions and business-oriented contributions, and the more power they gained, the more these contributions would swing to them. They had no need to discard social class as a weapon and they have continued to wage aristocratic war on working people ever since, mainly in the form of reduced social safety nets and radically reduced taxes on the wealthy.

As if that were not enough, the Republicans went one better. They embraced faux populism in the form of brush clearing, pork rinds, and planned displays of apparent stupidity (real cupidity). This was supposed to prove that they were really the party of the little guy; it has always been bullshit, and the Roves of the world know it, but they will continue to claim that you'd rather have a beer with them than with the Democrats as long as the media sells that cockeyed idea and as long as the voters buy it.

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