In your view, what is the historic position of the Democrats in the US political system and where do they currently stand?
The Democrats have undergone an evolution over their course. It’s the oldest political party in the United States and, just to resume very briefly the late 20th century, it was the party of the New Deal, of the New Frontier, John F Kennedy, the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson. Over the most recent 30-year period, it has become somewhat different from that: a party of third-way centrism with what I think we identify in Europe as a moderately neo-liberal agenda but, in the United States, strongly associated with the financial sector.
Now it’s facing a crisis of that particular policy orientation, which is largely discredited and does not have a broad popular base. This is the meaning of the Sanders campaign and the strong appeal of that campaign in 2016 to younger voters suggests that the future of the Democratic Party, so far as its popular appeal is concerned, lies in a different direction, one that really encompasses substantially more dramatic proposals for change and reform and renovation.
In coming to the structure of a SWOT analysis, where would you identify the strengths and weaknesses of the Democrats today?
The strengths are evident in the fact that the party retains a strong position on the two coasts and the weaknesses are evident in the fact that it doesn’t have a strong position practically anywhere else. The polarisation works very much to the disadvantage of the Democratic Party because the US constitutional system gives extra weight to small states, to rural areas, and the control of those states also means that the Republican Party has gained control of the House of Representatives.
The Democratic Party has failed to maintain a national base of political organisation and has become a party that is largely responsive to a reasonably affluent, socially progressive, professional class and that is not a winning constituency in US national elections. That’s not to say that they might not win some given the alternative at any given time but the position is by no means strong structurally or organisationally.
When it comes to the opportunities and threats that the party is facing, a threat is obviously what happened in the last election with the rise of Donald Trump. How would you frame this in the context of the Democratic Party? Going forward, where do you think there are opportunities?
Up until this most recent election, the Democrats had won the presidential contest in a series of Midwestern and upper Midwestern states on a consistent basis since the 1980s. If one looked at Michigan and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Ohio a little less so but Minnesota, certainly, this was known as the Blue Wall. It was a set of states the Democrats felt they had a structurally sound position in.
It was clear, particularly since the global crisis in 2007-2009 and the recession that followed, that that position had eroded because it was rooted in manufacturing jobs and organised labour and those jobs were disappearing after the crisis at an accelerated rate and this preocess was concentrated in those states. Trump saw this and took advantage of it.
The Clinton campaign, which was deeply rooted in the bi-coastal elites that dominated the Democratic Party, failed to see it adequately, failed to take steps that might counter it, failed to appeal to those constituencies and, in fact, treated them with a certain amount of distance if not disdain. It was something that could easily be interpreted as disdain in the way in which they scheduled their campaign.
She never went to Wisconsin, for example, and in certain comments that she made and the way in which she identified the core constituencies of her campaign, she really did not reach out to these communities. Trump, as he said himself, saw the anger and took advantage of it and that was the story of the election.
Hilary Clinton did win the popular vote by a very substantial margin, mainly because she had an overwhelming advantage in the state of California but that was 4 million extra votes that made no difference to the outcome whereas, in these upper Midwestern states, a few tens of thousands of votes were decisive and it was Trump that was able to walk away with the electoral votes of those states.
Obviously, the threat or the challenge of populism, especially right-wing populism, is not unique to the United States. If you broaden the discussion a little bit, what would you recommend? How should progressive parties in the US and beyond react to the challenge that right-wing populism poses?
I dislike the term populism as a general purpose pejorative in politics because it tends to be used by members of the professional classes to describe political appeals to, let’s say, working class constituencies. Populism in the United States in the late 19th century was a former labour movement. It was a movement of debtors against creditors and of easy money and silver advocates against gold advocates and that was the essence of it.
I find a lot to identify with in that tradition and so I’m not inclined to say dismissively that one should be opposed to populism. The Democratic Party’s problem is that it had a core in the New Deal liberal period that was rooted in the organised labour movement – the working class and trade unions. That has been structurally weakened by the deindustrialisation of large parts of the American economy and the party has failed to maintain a popular base.
It could have developed and maintained that base but, in many ways, chose not to do so. Why not? Because if one really invests power in a working class constituency, you have to give serious consideration to what people in that constituency want. It’s obvious that that would be in contradiction with the Democratic Party’s commitment in the ‘90s and noughties to free trade agreements, to use the most flagrant example.
It would require a much more, let’s say, real-world employment policy. It would require a responsiveness that was not there to the housing and foreclosure crisis after the recession. What happened in the period following the great financial crisis was particularly infuriating because everybody could see that the class of big bankers was bailed out and protected whereas people who were ordinary homeowners, particularly people who had been in neighbourhoods that were victimised with subprime loans, suffered aggressive foreclosure.
There was a fury that was building and it was building on a justified basis that the party had not been responsive to a series of really, I think, clearly understood community needs and demands.
You mentioned the constituencies, the working class, one of the discussions that we had in other episodes of this series was: is there still a coherent working class and what does that mean? For instance, if you compare the socio-economic position of, say, skilled workers who now have a pretty good wage compared to, say, cleaners somewhere, is there still some kind of working class identity or is this actually fraying?
There’s certainly the case that working class is a shorthand, which has a certain dated quality to it, for sure, but it’s certainly the case that, since the mid-1970s in the US, the industrial working class represented by powerful trade unions has diminished dramatically and, in particular, in the regions of the country which constituted the manufacturing belt that was built up from, let’s say, the 1900s into the 1950s.
There has been a terrific change in the economic structure of the country and it has diminished the membership, power and influence of the trade unions. No question about that. The concept of working class now does span a bifurcated community… There’s certainly still manufacturing activity and some of it is really quite well paid and it’s certainly better to be a manufacturing worker than to be in the low-wage services sector.
Figuring out how to appeal broadly to those constituencies and to constituencies that lie on a lower level of income than the established professional classes is the challenge. That challenge was met, pretty effectively, by the Sanders campaign in 2016. What Bernie Sanders was proposing was the $15 minimum wage and universal health insurance and debt-free access to higher education plus progressive income taxes and a structural reform of the banking sector.
Those things stitch together some strongly felt needs particularly amongst younger people and that was, I think, why the Sanders campaign took off. People grasped that this was not an unlimited laundry list of ideas. It was a select and focused set, which Sanders advanced and repeated in a very disciplined way over the course of the campaign and so it was young people who rallied to that campaign. That does suggest that there is a policy agenda that could form the basis for the Democratic Party of the future.
Of course, a lot of that is already becoming even assimilated into the mainstream and, just yesterday, Tuesday 7 November, we had the election in Virginia and the substantial victory was won by a Democratic candidate who had endorsed the $15 minimum wage, for example. We are seeing that there is progress in advancing a redefinition of what constitutes an agenda for, let’s say, working people, particularly young people who either are working or hope to be working some day.
One of the interesting discussions is probably how you relate campaigning activities on such issues to a constant or permanent communications strategy. One of the issues is that it’s not good enough if you turn up six months before an election and you cover topics and you, basically, drop messages onto a ground that is very badly prepared for this.
How do you create a public discourse that basically entrenches these policies much more firmly in the discussions that would then give you the opportunity in a campaign to put this foundation into policies that could then rally support around them? It seems very difficult if the hegemony in the public discussions is elsewhere.
It seems to me this is a cumulative process but in order for a cumulative process, for a programme to reach a large body of the electorate, it has to be advanced in a consistent way. The extraordinary thing about Bernie Sanders in 2015 was that he was, essentially, unknown in the country. He was an independent senator from Vermont who identified as a democratic socialist and said so openly and proudly and who had been treated for the course of a long career as a figure very much on the margin of the national political debate.
People who had heard him, and I saw him occasionally in hearings at the banking committee in the House, and heard him speak in the Senate knew that this was a fellow of considerable stature who could speak very effectively on a range of issues. When he became a presidential candidate, what people grasped about him, an otherwise improbable personality to become president, he wasn’t a polished candidate with a big diverse résumé such as Secretary Clinton had but what they grasped was that this was a person who was authentic in what he believed in advance.
He’d been articulating his beliefs on a consistent basis. The alternative candidate, and one could have said if there had been multiple other candidates in the race than there was, the Governor of Maryland and there might have been Vice President Biden and so forth, were people who were in the position of coming to the race on the basis of their résumés and inventing their policy proposals and developing their policy proposals and saying, “This year, this is where I stand”.
Now, for Secretary Clinton, to take just one example on the trade bills, on the TPP, she was for it before she was against it, to coin a phrase. It was clear to anybody that her coming out in opposition was something that she did, not out of conviction but because it seemed to be the politically advantageous thing to do in the Democratic primary given the challenge that Sanders was mounting.
People can see that that’s not a principled stance. You can justify it and you can write a policy paper on the details that makes it appear perhaps plausible but people aren’t dumb about these things. They can see a political manoeuvre. They don’t necessarily despise political manoeuvres but they’re not going to treat a person who frames positions in that way, they’re not going to invest that person with the same credibility which they invested in Bernie Sanders.
This is what caused a lot of people who, actually, would not have agreed with Sanders or, if you’d just given them the policy proposals, would have said: “That’s far out, that’s ridiculous, that’s socialism”. They would have said: “I don’t think we can afford it” or whatever they would have said but, when it came through as the positions of someone who had been advocating this consistently, they said: “Well, I can respect that, this is a figure we can…”
He won a measure of trust, let’s say, for candour and decency and honesty and that gave him, I think, an appeal with, among other things, working class voters that Secretary Clinton wasn’t able to match.
As in similar cases elsewhere, progressive parties have an authenticity problem, when the electorate clearly perceive that a policy position is taken out of election utility rather than conviction, that creates this suspicion.
Yes. The Democratic Party has a vast authenticity problem and has had for a generation. In fact, you can say that the conquest of the presidency that occurred in 1992, with Bill Clinton, and 2008, with Barack Obama, was built on a foundation of inauthenticity. That is to say, it was won by candidates who governed very differently from how they’d campaigned. With Obama, there was a vast surge of popular enthusiasm, which he showed absolutely no interest in developing into a political base.
Once in office, he governed on crucial issues and, fundamentally on the financial question, as the president of the financial elites and they had provided strong and financial support for his campaign. On national security questions, he established essential continuity with the previous administration, keeping on the Secretary of Defense who was perhaps not a bad appointment but we were not seeing the change or the break that the public, clearly, was ready for at that time.
Finally, if you look to the future, what are the policy issues or political issues that you think the Democrats need to target in order to reconnect and rebuild that authenticity that is clearly a precondition for reviving their fortunes?
I think the Democratic Party needs to face up to the fact that it lost the election in 2016 on the basis that it had lost an essential piece of its constituency, which it wasn’t able to replace from anywhere else. It did not lose the election because of meddling or hacking or Facebook ads or Vladimir Putin or anything of that kind. It lost the election because it was attempting to restore a political coalition that had elected Bill Clinton and elected, with an extra boost from special circumstances, Barack Obama.
That coalition had been fundamentally weakened by demography and structural and industrial change. That weakness is getting deeper as we speak. It’s not as though the conditions in the upper Midwest are becoming more favourable for the Democrats. This is just a simple matter of, again, demography and political changes too as states fall under control of right-wing Republican administrations at the state level, it becomes harder for black people to vote.
There’s a matter of voter suppression, which is a fact on the ground. The Democratic Party needs to have a strategy that can restore itself as a functioning political organisation with a mass base and that is able to take advantage, either of the ability to regain ground where it has lost it or to build a new coalition in places where it hasn’t previously been able to win.
It can look across the belt of the southwest and parts of the south and you can see, actually, trends that favour the Democrats but that would need to be accelerated in order to move those states from being modestly Republican to being solidly Democrat. That process already happened in Virginia. North Carolina is borderline. Georgia is something that has potential and Arizona and even Texas. In fact, in Texas, Hilary Clinton did better in 2016 than Barack Obama did in 2012.
You have some movement that is happening in parts of the country that the Democrats have not won in 30 or 40 years -since Jimmy Carter. Again, in order to make that work, it cannot be a party which raises money from Wall Street and spends it on television advertising and expects people to fall in line. Anything can happen when you have someone like Trump. We saw the Democrats have had a good week this week but that is not something on which one can rely as a strategy for winning a presidential election in three years’ time.
We’re going to see where this all ends up and the midterms are next year, I think.
Mid-term elections for the House are next year. The House is extremely difficult because of the gerrymandering, which is entrenched. The Republican majority, on the other hand, quite a lot of those members, a substantial number are retiring so it creates open seats in which there’s a better chance for Democratic pickups.
It is, however, an underlying problem since the Democrats need to restore themselves at the state level so that they don’t have a structural disadvantage in the House of Representatives. Whatever happens in 2018, of course, and then the White House comes up in 2020.
This is the sixh in a series of SWOT analyses on the future of social democratic parties promoted by SE and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung