Democrats lost elections for not being liberal enough
American politics is a topsy-turvy world, a funhouse of liberal democratic politics and federalist, constitutional governance. The United States is indeed exceptional, if not infamous, in the high drama of its periodic elections and numerous dysfunctions. Perhaps it comes with the territory of being what historian Richard Hofstadter has called the world’s “first post-feudal nation,” a republic first among all others for being born and bred “under the influence of Protestantism, nationalism, and modern capitalist enterprise.” In other words, America may be a “distillation” of some of the most avant-garde occurrences in Western civilization. If that’s the case, if we are truly that “city upon a hill,” a beacon of freedom, baseball, free samples and all that other good stuff, then our so-called democracy is in serious trouble.
There are perhaps few off year, midterm elections in my own 21-year-old memory that seem as manifestly eerie yet comedic in a menacing Joker kind of way than the farce that happened last week. The verdict: the Republicans, America’s favorite rump of gerontocratic Christian extremists, have taken over Washington, D.C. and also have conquered a majority of governorships and statehouses throughout the Union. To put this red tide, the GOP waves into a historical perspective, Republicans are set to have the greatest number of legislative seats and chambers in the Union since the Great Depression, when Democrat Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition broke the back of post-Civil War GOP dominance. By contrast, Democrats will control the lowest number of statehouses since the Civil War, when it led to the southern slave states to secession. History is coming back around full circle — although it’s the GOP that’s bringing back Jim Crow, of course.
Despite the shellacking, the gridlock that has crippled Washington may continue unabated and is even likely to intensify in the Beltway between a GOP Congress and a Democratic president eager to not slip totally into lame duck status. This isn’t your grandpa’s GOP, and I mean that literally. Gone are the tranquil days of moderate, liberal Republicans like Eisenhower or even Nixon, for that matter. Today’s GOP is injected with a insurgent, almost feverishly committed base, emboldened and organized by ideologically rigid, right-wing Tea Party populism. This grassroots movement is a lot more than simply an “Astroturf” affair supported by shadowy billionaires and venal political insiders. Tea Partiers have been out on the streets door knocking and leafleting, they’ve been organizing their neighborhoods, their workplaces, churches and schools. Indeed, it’s ironic how often they mock President Obama for being a “community organizer” back in his earliest days in Chicago’s South Side.
With a little wind beneath its wings, the congressional wing of the Republican Party has pursued a successful strategy both of obstructionism and of turning Obama himself into the central issue every election (or at least a caricatured image of Obama who is all at once a “secret Muslim” with atheistic proclivities and an Manchurian candidate who hates America and its honest, hardworking, paler-skinned denizens). This base of older, whiter and more economically secure voters consistently comes out to vote in these midterm elections to bring conservative GOP-ers to the Congress, while what political commentator Jamelle Bouie has called the “coalition of the ascendant” of younger, urbanized, college-educated, multicultural/racial voters bring Democratic presidents to the White House. There doesn’t seem to be an end in sight to this tension until perhaps redistricting in favor of including more concentrated urban-dwelling Democratic voters can dilute the suburban and exurban advantages the GOP. So, though this election may seem like a repudiation of Democrats and thus liberalism itself, toss that out of your head. According to a recent Pew Research poll, 54 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of the GOP, compared with 47 percent who view the Democrats favorably. Furthermore, as Time magazine reports, “Only 36.4 percent of eligible voters voted in this year’s midterm elections, down from 40.9 percent who voted in 2010…[t]he last time voter turnout was that low was 1942 …” So yeah, the Republicans won big, but only with the help of a narrow, graying sliver of the population in a country that’s becoming younger, more educated, browner, more urbanized, liberal and economically unequal by the month.
Yet strangely, this electorate also supported minimum wage hikes and marijuana legalization, as well as striking down radically anti-woman “fetus personhood” measures in red states like Alaska and Arkansas. Referenda in deep blue California and New Jersey ended up reforming the criminal justice system. There’s still a mass audience in this country for essentially left-leaning or social democratic policies, they just have to be reached out to and organized. Obama and the Democrats barely put up a fight, except for pointing at the Republicans and saying, “Hey, at least we’re not like those crazies over there, so you should just vote for us.” That’s not a policy agenda. If the Democrats had combined a platform of “bread and butter” as well as “identity politics,” such as pushing the federal minimum wage to $15 or higher, radicalizing the Affordable Care Act, equal pay for women and so forth, surely they could’ve beaten the Republicans. That should’ve been able to take the air out of the constant appeal to white identity politics that the GOP does by rallying white voters and voters of color around economic justice matters. The Democrats ought to have run on the progressive issues that won on referenda throughout the country to counter the right wing’s collective gasp of idiocy. The Democrats ought to emulate the Tea Party Republicans, whose organizational and propagandistic capabilities far exceed anything the left has to offer right now. We on the left ought to sort out our own house before we can imagine defeating our enemies. No more compromises. No more “reaching across the aisle” for some “grand bargain.” We have to outlive and out-organize the bastards.
José Sanchez is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in history and political science. His column, “The Champagne Socialist,” runs on alternate Tuesdays. You can follow him on Twitter @comradesanchez.
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