Blog post

Democratic Dilemmas

David Plotke28 November 2016

Image for blog post entitled Democratic Dilemmas

After the US elections and Donald Trump's victory, Verso publishes the first in a series of pieces from our five-volume series produced in the eighties and nineties, 'The Year Left'. This article, by David Plotke, assesses why the Democrats lost the 1980 US election and what they will need to do win future elections.

"The choices this year are not just between two different personalities, or between political parties. They are between two different visions of the future, two fundamentally different ways of governing – their government of pessimism, fear, and limits, or ours of hope, confidence, and growth."

Ronald Reagan, acceptance speech at the 1984 Republican National Convention, 23 August 1984

I. Why Reagan Won

When a presidential election is won by almost 20 points, across all regions and most social groups, reasons are not far to seek. The result seems to have been inevitable, even though there were moments in the campaign when it did not. Following the California primary, Mondale moved to within 9 points of Reagan in several polls – not a great distance. And in mid-July, the nomination of Geraldine Ferraro momentarily seemed exhilarating; the normal calculations were thrown out, and new were created.

It is still worth trying to sort out the reasons for what happened, because they imply judgments of how those who opposed Reagan in 1984 should proceed. It is easy to say: Reagan won because he is charming and popular; his campaign was well-organized and well-financed; he benefited from a lucky economic upturn; and he had the good fortune to be running against a weak candidate.

There’s some truth in each of these reasons. The danger is that taken together they may, in 1985 and 1986, divert attention from problems with the organization, policies, and views of those who opposed Reagan. Or they may encourage the sort of pseudo-reflection which made the Democratic response to Reagan's 1988 State of the Union address so depressing (most viewers chose Dynasty instead).

In the aftermath of the major defeat suffered by Democrats of all stripes (and those to their left), many groups fear that a public analysis of the weaknesses of their efforts would only weaken them. Such fears are reasonable, since there are many Democrats who would be happy to dispense with discussions of the gender gap, or distance the party from labor unions, or reduce the role of the groups most active in the Jackson campaign. Yet defensiveness doesn't encourage clarity about the causes of Reagan’s victory, and implicitly tends to treat that victory as an approval of an unusual individual.

Reagan’s personal charms are considerable, but his personal performance during the campaign was hardly devastating. He was widely criticized for avoiding the press in favor of ‘morning in America' events. In the two presidential debates, he managed one mediocre and one very poor performance. On a deeper level, focusing on Reagan’s personality as though it were mainly a private matter, is misleading. Reagan has been a major public political figure for several decades; his personal traits and political themes have become intertwined. If he is now so personally popular, it is wishful to claim that this popularity is innocent of strong political associations.

Winning on Issues

Well into the presidential campaign, polls began to reveal a surprising result, apparently full of contradictions. Some people claimed to feel less confident in Reagan's personal abilities than in the direction of his policies; others claimed to disagree with many of his specific policies, yet to agree with his overall direction. Were these results the residue of a chaotic political moment, without much significance, or even the sign of a secret sympathy for liberal to left positions?

Such confusing findings can be explained by distinguishing between specific policies and broad political direction. On the former, Reagan had mixed success, and continues to encounter problems, especially where issues of 'fairness' are involved. On the latter however, the Reagan administration was successful in framing the terms of political debate and sustaining substantial popular identification with its overall direction.

Reagan and the Republicans won debates on two of the three main clusters of issues in the campaign. Winning such debates, given their sprawling, multisided quality – and the presidential-congressional division of power which makes a ‘mandate’ easy to contest – does not give programmatic license. It does offer the power to set a general political direction through the Presidency. Reagan knows how to do this.

On the economy and taxes, the Reagan administration has generally been successful. Most people now believe that the economy will perform better with less government intervention than more; with lower taxes rather than higher taxes; and with lower social policy expenditures for jobs, welfare, and housing. Most people, across most social groups, believe that economic growth is essential both for their personal futures and for the future of the nation as a whole. Here the left's willingness to credit the 1984 economic upturn for Reagan's victory is too simple. Obviously this prosperity was crucial, and without it Reagan would have faced a much tougher race. There is a strong connection between how people vote and how they perceive their economic condition to have changed in the recent past – and what they expect it to be in the near future. Yet there was an even stronger connection, in this case, between voting and perceptions of whether the economy as a whole was likely to improve, irrespective of individual prospects. The two patterns are related, but more is going on than short term calculations of economic self-interest. People – again, across social groups with the exception of the lowest 10% or so in income – have come to perceive Reagan and the Republicans as more likely to produce sustained economic growth.

Democratic attachments linger; in registration terms it remains the majority party, though by a relatively small and declining margin. And the Democratic Party is still perceived as more interested in the less privileged, in the condition of ‘ordinary’ Americans. Yet if these same Americans view the choice as one between growth with insufficient attention to social equality, and short term efforts at greater social equality with little attention to growth, they now tend to choose the former. All the arguments of conservatives have not been persuasive: witness the opposition to some proposed budget cuts. Yet inattention to growth is seen as irresponsible, and many – once again, across classes – feel that without growth inequality cannot be reduced.

On foreign policy, Reagan was also successful. Most people believe that peace is more likely to be achieved by sustaining a high level of defense spending (though not granting Secretary of Defense Weinberger every request) and by adopting a tough stance toward the Soviet Union than by cutting defense spending and pursuing detente. The campaign’s dynamic demonstrated that there is a strong popular sentiment in favor of arms control. Imagine the costs to Reagan had he not attempted to respond to that sentiment! At the same time, the Democrats – much less those to their left – were and are perceived as too weak to get a solid arms control agreement from an adversary who can’t be trusted. Another tension: there is widespread support for Reagan's general stance toward radical regimes in the Third World, and he continues to benefit from comparison with Carter. Yet there is no enthusiasm for direct military intervention in Central America, a line which Reagan has recognized as one that the Republicans would cross with grave domestic political consequences. If the population is not eager to fall into line behind every Republican foreign policy initiative, the Reaganite identification of security and tranquility with military strength has been persuasive. By the end of the campaign, the Democrats had even lost their position in the surveys as the party better able to avoid war.

In a third cluster of issues, Reagan was less successful. The 'social' agenda of the new right now shapes then Republican Party platform. It has substantial public support; its adherents were an important part of the coalition which reelected Reagan. Public debate has been moved significantly to the right on many of these issues, from abortion to crime. Yet there is certainly no popular consensus on behalf of Reagan's approaches, and disagreement extends to the Reagan electoral coalition itself, notably among many young first-time Republican voters.

By any standard, winning on two of three major sets of issues is a good performance. It's crucial to discuss why people now believe many of the things which Reagan and the Republicans would like them to believe; and in doing so, we should be careful not to assume that the agreement is a durable new fact of American political life. But it's also plainly realistic to recognize that people now do believe these things. Today, there is no automatic liberal (much less left) consensus on policies which got obscured by Reagan's personal appeal.

A New Electorate

Reagan’s victory was also a loss for all sections of the Democratic Party and those to its left. Some reasons for the Democratic loss have to do with misunderstandings or lack of attention to major socioeconomic and demographic changes in the U.S. in recent decades. Democratic strategies, with the partial exception of Gary Hart’s campaign, paid little more than lip service to these changes beyond those which have directly involved women. The Democratic campaign – and not just its Mondale centerpiece – seemed to combine the rhetoric of the 1930s with some of the movements of the 1960s.

Someone listening to a Mondale speech might have thought that most people in the U.S. are very poor or on the verge of becoming so; personally threatened by the decline of traditional industries, living in the northeast and industrial midwest; and eager to pay taxes to expand government social programs. None of these things is true, though there are millions of poor, some of whom have become poor as a result of Reagan's policies. And millions of people, from unemployed auto and steel workers to women and children in poverty, have been hurt by chaotic economic dislocation.

Yet the electorate has changed dramatically over the last several decades. First, there has been a major economic shift away from the industries of the first half of the century, toward new industries from computers to services. With this sectoral shift has come an occupational shift, so that industrial labor has declined relative to technical, service, and sales work, even within the ‘traditional’ industries. The socioeconomic configuration which provided the basis of Democratic power from the 1930s through the 1960s has been eroded; the groups which were both numerically and strategically crucial for the New Deal coalition, especially industrial labor, no longer play the same role.

Second, there has been a major population shift. The East and Midwest have declined relative to the South and West, while central cities have declined within larger metropolitan areas. These changes have much the same effect as the economic changes because Democratic power was concentrated in the urban, industrial North and Midwest.

It is not exactly news to note these developments. But to go from recognizing them to taking them into account politically is no easy matter, especially when doing so involves costs or risks. This is particularly true when many of the calls recognize these new realities have until recently come from the right and center of the party, often with the implicit message that Democrats ought to curtail their support for unions, government social programs, and welfare policies. The Democrats have been unsuccessful at winning the allegiance of new social groups or growing regions in ways which would replace the decline in political support caused by the weakening of traditionally Democratic groups. The result means political trouble for Democrats under any circumstances, but it spells disaster when Democrats act as though there is still a natural Democratic presidential majority, and the party's main task is to activate and mobilize it. That is demonstrably no longer true. For large new groups – from technical and professional workers in Silicon Valley, to office workers in Boston, to industrial workers in the Sunbelt – possess no automatic Democratic identification, even if Democrats think that they should.

In 1984, Democrats and independent voter registration groups affiliated with them expected new voters to fill in the gaps in the old electoral majority: 'The prospect that new voters and old ones who are reenergized can provide a constituency for progressive politics in the 1980s is lending a fervor to voter registration drives unmatched since the crusading days of the civil rights movement'. (Hulbert James and Maxine Philips, ‘The New Voter Registration Society,' Social Policy [Winter 1984], p 2.) Without the registration efforts, things would have been even worse for the Democrats in 1984. Yet new Republican registrations approached those of the Democrats. The ability of Democratic and left independent organizations to mobilize new votes was no greater than that of the Republican Party. Reagan was supported by 60% of first-time voters, a figure almost identical to his overall support (59%).

The disappointing outcome of voter registration efforts underlines the new reality: a Democratic presidential majority now has to be rebuilt, not just activated. This requires persuading people who have stopped being Democrats and people who have never been Democrats that they should vote Democratic in presidential elections.

What did Reagan Win?

Reagan didn’t win a mandate to do anything he pleases, although he did win broad approval for his foreign and economic policies. In his second term he seems determined to press forward his overall program. His vagueness during the campaign may haunt him, because it will be hard to claim that his massive vote means approval for x rather than y. Yet he can reasonably claim, for example, to have been elected in order to try to reduce the growth of social spending. He can claim support for relying more on spending cuts and efforts to sustain growth than on tax increases to reduce the deficit. And he can claim approval for maintaining a high level of defense spending, though public reaction to further dramatic increases has been mixed.

Perhaps the most valuable commodity Reagan earned is an opportunity. In 1980, many read Reagan's victory as principally a vote against Carter, not a vote for Reagan. Whether or not that judgment was true, his current position is stronger. Reagan now has the chance to turn his two victories into a lasting Republican regime. Republican presidents and Senates could become routine for decades, with the Democratic Party restricted to the House and to some state and local governments. Whether Reagan and the Republicans can take advantage of that opportunity is not a foregone conclusion. A shift to the right has demonstrably occurred, but it has not yet been consolidated either organizationally or ideologically.

II. Democratic Options After 1984

For everyone who opposed Reagan's reelection, preventing the consolidation of a Republican regime should be the main point of reference for the next several years. Taking that goal seriously means engaging in a politics concerned with reshaping the direction of the Democratic Party. To focus on blocking a Republican realignment is both realistic and desirable. It is desirable because a durable Republican regime would undermine many of the most important democratic achievements of recent decades, from civil rights to union recognition. A republican realignment would block further progress across a wide range of issues, from the environment to many international issues to education to the condition of the nation's economic infrastructure. It is also realistic to try to block a Republican regime, since, while popular ideological shifts to the right are more substantial than the left likes to acknowledge, the situation yet remains fluid. New socioeconomic groups are not ‘naturally’ Republican any more than they are ‘naturally’ Democratic. They can develop political identities entirely different from those offered by Reagan and the Republicans, but only if those identities make sense of their experiences and values, and seem to be linked to a positive vision of the future, not just economically but socially and culturally as well.

In 1984, however, the Democrats – from left to right – failed badly. For the most part, they tried to win an election by relying on their traditional 'natural' sources of support, adding some of the movements and interest groups which arose in the 1960s and 1970s. This strategy seemed to offer the best chance of beating Reagan in late 1983 and early 1984, when Mondale seemed likely to be the Democratic nominee. It was attractive to many whose enthusiasm for Mondale himself was limited. When groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW) and Friends of the Earth signed on early, organizational self-interest was only part of the reason. They sought, as well, to intervene in the most effective manner. In the crucial case of the AFL-CIO, broad agreement with Mondale's positions was also important. But these conceptions of the campaign assumed that the old Democratic coalition was much stronger than it is. Imagining that coalition to provide a solid electoral base amounted to ignoring demographic and social changes, and hoping that the campaign would be won by appeals to 'natural' or traditional loyalties. This strategy too quickly assumed that the official organizations of various social groups could deliver 'their' voters. This proved chimerical to the degree that would have been necessary to defeat Reagan. The AFL-CIO could help produce a reasonable margin among union households (45% for Reagan, 53% for Mondale) but not nearly so large a margin as required. And increasingly the AFL-CIO's political influence seems to end at its own organizational boundaries: nonunionized workers were not persuaded to vote for Mondale (53% of blue-collar workers voted for Reagan.) NOW and other women's organizations could make a significant difference among women voters, especially the working and unmarried, but there is no homogeneous ‘women’s vote’ to be delivered for the Democrats (57% of women voted for Reagan). A grand coalition of coalitions did not materialize in actual voting. The most Democratic social groups were blacks (90%), Jews (66%), and the unemployed (68%). (These and preceding figures taken from the New York Times-CBS Poll, NYT, 8 November 1984.)

Given the ineffective Democratic strategy, what political direction does the election's outcome suggest? Would moving toward Reagan help block a new regime? During the 1984 campaign, part of the Democratic Party advocated this course, and its candidates – John Glenn, Reuben Askew, Ernest Hollings – failed to win a significant primary vote. Yet a straightforward Democratic conservatism has powerful adherents, and after the election debacle they will surely find a wider audience. This tendency criticizes Mondale as the captive of liberal special interests, such as the women's movement and the unions; claims the party as a whole has moved too far away from the center to win a national election; and castigates the Democratic leadership for its foreign and military policies: 

"With peace and prosperity in the land, Reagan might have been unbeatable in 1984, but his landslide was something the Democrats brought on themselves… The message for the Democrats was simple: what they were selling, the voters were not buying. The Democrats were offering peace and fairness. But what the McGovernized Democrats mean by peace is military weakness and a retreat from global responsibility." (Joshua Muravchik, 'Why the Democrats Lost,' Commentary [January 1985], p. 25.)

The failures of this tendency's candidates in the Democratic primaries attests to the improbability of a prospective center-right democratic presidential majority. The neoconservative Democrats who advocate this course miss the ways in which the traditional Democratic voters they have in mind have been relocated – ideologically and often literally – by the last two decades’ socioeconomic changes. Moving right, the better to oppose Reaganism, also runs a major risk: that the popular left, from unions to the gay movement to environmentalists, will be demobilized by uninspired campaigns in which 'their' issues are ignored, while the Democrats fail to gain enough center votes to compensate.

Conservative strategies will continue to hold certain attractions. This is partly because many prominent Democrats agree with them in principle. Among this stratum, a number of influential office-holders in the South and the West, having survived two Reagan landslides, now gain considerable credibility as advocates of a different Democratic course. There are, however, major differences between southern and western critiques of the Mondale campaign. The latter – exemplified by Governor Bruce Babbitt of Arizona, or by Gary Hart himself – are often significantly to the left of the former in crucial ways: on the means to limit growth in social spending; on environmental issues; on foreign policy; and especially on the so-called social issues,' with Christian fundamentalism and other conservative tendencies playing a more modest role in most western states than in the South. For the moment, a rough working alliance exists between southern and western Democratic leaders despite obvious areas of disagreement. Even for those not entirely approving a conservative strategy, this direction offers at least a politically attractive change of course.

One alternative to this view, usually implicit in organizational behavior rather than articulated as a coherent strategy is to retreat into the trenches, defend existing positions, and prepare for a national campaign without Reagan's haunting presence. It would be unfair to call this strategy do-nothingism since it requires enormous efforts to wage the defensive battles now on the agenda, such as those over abortion rights. Yet the labor movement, and parts of the women's movement, have already given an account of the 1984 defeat which amounts to calling for a replay of Mondale's campaign. The hope is that in 1988 success will be achieved against a less attractive Republican, perhaps with a more telegenic or at least more eloquent Democrat, perhaps with the assistance of more troubled economic times. Mario Cuomo is the obvious candidate, with his insistence that 'we must be the family of America, recognizing that at the heart of the matter we are bound one to another…'(Keynote Address, Democratic National Convention; quoted in NYT, 17 July 1984). If Mondale's defeat had been narrow, this strategy might have dominated. Given the result however, this view must remain an undercurrent, even though it represents the implicit choice of powerful Democratic forces. It is, however, likely to fail as an electoral strategy for all the reasons that the Mondale campaign failed.

Another possible strategy has been suggested by elements on the left of the Democratic Party, as well as by left groups outside the party. This strategy proposes that the party move substantially to the left. In a modest version, this shift would follow the successful Senatorial campaigns of Paul Simon in Illinois and Thomas Harkin in Iowa. The claim is that despite neoconservative critiques, Mondale suffered by moving too far toward Reagan, and that greater success could be achieved by a candidate who tried to recapture a more militant and populist spirit for the same coalition Mondale appealed to unsuccessfully. Such a campaign would defend social spending more aggressively and attack Reaganite foreign policy with less reserve. In a more radical version of this strategy, Democrats are advised to move sharply to the left to take up the positions expressed in Jesse Jackson’s 1984 campaign.

The evidence for the strategic merit of the first type of left shift is mixed. Simon and Harkin won against weak opponents – but they did defeat incumbents in a difficult year. In other races, a more aggressive populism would have gained some votes, but the question is how many weighed against the considerable potential losses.

The prospects for the second type of shift are bleak if the aim is to win a presidential election in the near future, rather than to build a left faction in and around the Democratic Party. Jesse Jackson and George McGovern together represented at most 30% of the Democratic primary vote, and failed to win any primaries in the larger states. Further, Democratic primary voters make up a smaller group, as well as one more to the left, than the 41% of those voting who preferred Mondale to Reagan. Neither Jackson nor McGovern could have transformed the political scene dramatically in a short period, and both would have run much further behind Reagan than Mondale did.

In 1984, the lines between the left inside and outside the Democratic Party were more blurred than has been true for many years, and this was for two reasons. The Jackson and McGovern candidacies were quite radical, especially by American standards; a section the Democratic Party has moved well to the left, and expresses many positions with which those to its left have relatively little disagreement. From the other direction, among those who once disdained participation in the Democratic Party, the threat and the reality of Reaganism persuaded most to support the Democratic efforts. The movement into the Democratic Party from the organized left, and much more important, from the social and political movements of the last decade, has influenced most sections of the party. This influence has helped shift much of the organized party to the left of its traditional positions, especially on international issues.

Another effect of relations between the organized party and popular social and political movements has been the dispersion of the Democratic left among three of the main tendencies in the party, represented in 1984 by Mondale, Gary Hart, and Jackson. Leftists inside and around the Democratic Party were by no means unanimous in supporting Jesse Jackson, especially after Jackson's failure to deal adequately with charges of anti-Semitism. Feminists divided their support among Hart, Mondale, and Jackson; labor activists mainly supported Mondale, but there was some support for Jackson, and in the West, sympathy for Hart (especially in the service sector unions), Chicano activists were also divided among the campaigns, despite the overtures made by Jackson's campaign that they participate in a 'Rainbow Coalition'; this reluctance was due in part to a widespread perception that Jackson's campaign was basically a Black ethnic politics, with limited possibilities for becoming much broader.

Boundaries have broken down on the left of the party. There is more debate, and it sometimes unfolds in language which even the socialist left finds familiar. Yet there is no unitary ‘left’ with a clear, coherent position on the main issues confronting the Democratic Party. Various left currents (inside and outside the party) face most of the same problems as those to their right, with no apparent solutions.

One problem facing all the 'lefts' is that some of their core positions are politically so unpopular that they were among Reagan's favorite targets, even when Mondale did not really share them. The Democratic left's positions on defense, for example, are still framed by opposition to the Vietnam War, or to overt American intervention in Latin America on the side of the dictators. For many, including people highly critical of Reagan, these positions appear exclusively negative, or passive and indifferent to the course of events outside this country.

The policies of the left are also a source of problems in social and economic policy. This is not due so much to wild popular enthusiasm for Reaganite budget-cutting, as to the perception that Democrats are far more concerned with distributing wealth than with generating it. Many regard Democratic policies as aimed at preserving positions of relative privilege for industries (and unions) which are competitively inefficient – in effect, as efforts to force taxpayers to subsidize powerful special interest groups.

Interest Groups

The negative public reaction to calls for protectionism from within the Democratic Party – calls from its left as well as on its Center – is connected to a central problem which will confront Democratic efforts for the rest of the decade. Antiwar activists, feminists, environmentalists, and unionists share this image with those who guided the Mondale campaign. In recent years it has become known as the problem of 'special interests,' a term which the left has understandably resisted when it is applied to labor, the women's movement, and environmentalism. Gary Hart raised this issue effectively, and was rewarded with almost as many primary votes as Mondale, over 35% of those cast. Reagan amplified this theme in his criticism of Mondale, and used it to pad his victory. He charged that rather than having any firm principles or overall political direction, Mondale sought simply to please a range of powerful constituency organizations in order to obtain political resources for his campaign. Thus Mondale’s connections were treated, not as evidence of successful coalition-building, but as signs of political and even moral weakness. Reagan and Bush added that Mondale's inability to withstand interest group pressure was another sign of his ‘wimpiness,’ ' and exploited the growing racial polarization of the electorate, especially in the South.

On the left as well as the center, anti-Reagan efforts were often oblivious to the popular perception of these issues. Most efforts, assuming that 'natural' Democrats still constitute a majority, also conceived the Democratic vote as a collection of blocs to be delivered by their nominal leaderships, from NOW to the AFL-CIO. And while Hart's charges were bitterly resented by many on the left who defended Mondale's ties with the AFL-CIO, NOW, etc., Mondale’s campaign was vulnerable because it really was a collection of pressure groups, tenuously allied. A weak Democratic apparatus tried to coordinate their efforts or at least keep them from attacking each other in public, but without success.

Blaming all this on Mondale would unfairly continue the tendency among Democrats and the left to excuse their own weaknesses by vilifying a recent unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate (McGovern, Carter, or Mondale, depending on who's doing the accusing). In the wake of the decline of the Democratic political order, which had lasted from the 1930s through the 1960s, little holds together the remaining sections of the old coalition or the new groups around it. And neither old nor new groups' main organizations can easily deliver ‘their’ constituencies for Democratic presidential candidates. Nor is this situation just a problem for centrist Democrats. The left – inside and outside the Democratic Party – is no more able to present itself coherently than was the Mondale campaign.

Two levels of political discourse now predominate within the Democratic Party and to its left. One centers on very general statements of principle about democracy, equality, and social justice. The other makes specific programmatic commitments arising from the immediate demands of a multitude of groups, from comparable worth to toxic wastes programs. The general principles remain essential. And most of the immediate demands are worth defending. But there is painfully little to connect them. There is little sign of a political vision which mediates between the two levels, concretizing general principles and clarifying the rationale of specific policies. This weakness means at the extreme a lack of politics; in its place, moral exhortation or programmatic detail.

In this setting, Republicans claimed – and continue to claim – that Mondale and the Democrats lack any real political or moral core, and that governance based on interest-group coalitions is bound to be ineffectual and erratic. The political effectiveness of this critique raises a difficult problem for the left. From the 1960s to the present, the major accomplishments of the popular left have been achieved by a succession of mass movements which have fought to be recognized as an autonomous source of legitimate political and social claims. From the civil rights to the gay and lesbian movements, new social and political forces have developed through a logic of identifying and articulating particular grievances and developing distinctive collective identities. The modest power of the popular left in the U.S. still lies mainly in this richness and diversity among its voices, which have articulated a repeated, creative expression of novel demands. New forces have often refused to subordinate their programs to claims about a general political interest, which have often seemed to threaten the loss or political marginalization of painfully won new identities and forms of organization.

This approach worked well in establishing the right of new forces to exist. Further, it was strategically fruitful when a Democratic political order affirmed the legitimacy of such efforts, and, however grudgingly, made concessions for both moral and instrumental reasons. The decay of the Democratic order and the triumph of Reaganism have created a new situation to which the popular left has been painfully slow to respond.

Calls for coalition ('progressive,' 'Rainbow,' or whatever) usually avoid a key question: what is the glue for any such effort? What political conceptions can now provide a bridge between general statements of principle and specific programmatic points? This question has been relevant for years, but it is unavoidably urgent given the success of Reagan's campaign – against which a more left-leaning version of Mondale's collection of interest groups would have suffered even more devastating defeat.

Various groups and individuals – from the AFL-CIO to NOW to Jesse Jackson – may now continue rushing to exonerate themselves, blaming others for Reagan's landslide victory out of fear that they will be blamed and abandoned. This tactic will prove no more fruitful than clichéd Reagan-bashing accompanied by hopeful waiting for the next recession.

If such responses are all the popular left can manage, the special interest problem will be defined and handled by relatively conservative forces in the Democratic Party. For these groups, the lesson of 1984 is that 'special interest' politics should be abandoned in favor of a centrist appeal to a 'national interest' based on the needs of partly imaginary 'middle-class' constituencies. Thus labor, Blacks, and women as groups should play a more modest role - and such a change should be made structural by deemphasizing caucuses within the organized party. This argument has exerted considerable influence on national debate within the Democratic Party since the election. If its prescriptions were adopted, the result would probably be further Democratic defeats. Yet such an approach may prevail, particularly if the popular left has no alternative which goes beyond congratulating itself on its diversity and occasional capacity to make fragile alliances. The problem faces all parts of the Democratic Party, though it is formulated differently by different fractions. The New Republic's view, for example, is less conservative than others which may gain increasing power: 'Somehow, the Democratic Party must find a way to represent national interest that transcends the mere sum of these perfectly legitimate but still comparatively narrow group interests. And it must divorce the goal of representing the aspirations of minorities, working people, women, and other groups from the tendency to obey every demand of interest group spokesmen.’ ('Now What?' New Republic, 26 November 1984.) Reagan’s reelection shows that a collection of Democratic and left independent interest groups will not now defeat a much more coherent conservative political force. Calling for ‘unity’ among those opposed to Reagan will accomplish little without a sustained, open debate aimed at defining a political approach which could provide a credible alternative to Reaganism. Such an alternative requires a shared political and moral vision beyond a laundry list of complaints and demands. The left’s political vision is now as fragmented as that of the center of the Democratic Party. There is only vagueness at the crucial level between general principles – equality, decency, justice, democracy – and particular demands.

III. An Alternative Course

Those who oppose the direction of the Reagan administration and want to block its consolidation need to formulate a position which takes account of, instead of simply denouncing, the socioeconomic and demographic changes of the last few decades. To do so requires reshaping elements from several points on the Democratic spectrum. This isn't a matter of changing basic principles: commitments to social justice, to racial and sexual equality, to protecting the environment, to peace, to democratic procedures, remain fundamental. But we do need a new political vision; its absence made the 1984 Democratic platform a bloated shapeless document.

The national Democratic Party contains many tendencies which were broadly represented by the presidential candidacies of Glenn, Hart, Jackson, and Mondale. Most of these tendencies present ideas relevant to a new direction, and all try to represent electorally important groups. While not excluding any of these alternatives completely the only way to shape a new direction is to begin with a more limited focus, to which other elements can be added. The best such focus at present aims to rearticulate democratic principles politically by linking themes suggested by Hart’s campaign with themes from Jackson's campaign. Starting from Glenn’s campaign would mean a dramatic and electorally fruitless turn to the right; starting from Mondale's campaign would mean duplicating its incoherence.

Hart’s campaign recognized and made an effort to come to grips with new socioeconomic and political realities on a national scale. His actual program did not lack substance, so much as it lacked a broader democratic political vision within which his many specific proposals could be argued. In a sense, his campaign filled an empty space, signifying by its success the size of the absences in Democratic thinking and activity. Combining Hart’s themes with Jackson's means linking a commitment to economic growth with a defense (and reshaping) of social programs as both economically efficient and morally correct. It would mean combining a commitment to expanding political participation and broadening the range of individual choice, with respect for individual loyalties to conventional social institutions. Even more difficult, it would mean combining restraint in the use of American military power with a rejection of naïve beliefs about the nature of Soviet foreign and military policy.

The Problem of Growth

These syntheses are hard to achieve, for they involve issues over which there are deep divisions. Yet there may be more of a chance to create new perspectives than recent history suggests. One crucial example concerns the problem of growth, an area where Reagan enjoyed a virtual monopoly in 1984. For Democrats, and those to their left, one obvious difficulty in dealing with this area is that conflicts between environmentalists and trade unionists have often been severe, while both groups make strong claims to shape the direction of the Democratic coalition. The unions are for economic growth, while many environmentalists still cringe at its very mention. Beyond the unions, growth remains politically popular for most of the population – which, on the whole, prefers growth to protectionist policies that could retard economic prosperity in the name of limiting some of its negative effects.

A democratic political effort now has to define a national and politically viable growth model. Opposing a Reaganite growth model, which relies on the market with minimal intervention to protect the environment and thereby promises destructive results, is insufficient. Nor was the Mondale growth strategy significantly more appealing. Mondale initially gave strong support to environmentalists’ demands, but these themes later dropped out of his campaign. In part this was because he was allied with forces in the Midwest and East – not only labor – for whom environmental issues are not a priority. Mondale’s growth model was protectionist with regard to existing industrial constituencies. From an environmental perspective, it had the serious problem of tending to favor some of the industrial activities hardest on the environment. And from a broader perspective, it had the problem of seeming unlikely to produce growth at all, but would, instead preserve positions for supportive constituencies. The protectionist edge of Mondale’s campaign – duplicated in many more radical programmatic proposals floating around the left of the Democratic Party – was so politically unpopular that many viewed the Reaganite course as a better alternative.

In order for a left politics to have any prospect of winning majority support in the contemporary U.S., it has to combine a serious commitment to equity with a persuasive argument about growth. Without an economic and social growth model, the left in all its variants will be at the mercy of forces which claim to have workable strategies. There is now a basis for a growth strategy which could overcome some of the divisions that have plagued the Democratic Party. This strategy would develop Hart's emphasis on high-tech change, but broaden it beyond claims about the employment possibilities in high-tech industries per se. In direct terms, the latter will be more modest than their advocates sometimes claim. What is important is the restructuring and expansion of existing industrial and service activities, using not only the technical advances made available by the high-tech industries but the expanded organizational capacities for flexibility, communication, and development which can accompany those advances.

Hitherto, much of the left has mainly offered a high-tech growth, trying to dismantle simplistic claims about a bright new future. The critique of high-tech boosterism has effectively raised questions, but has not ever shown convincingly that the new forms of emerging stratification are dramatically worse than those of industrial capitalism. Thus the left has tended to become identified as a protection agency for the mass production industries and some of their unionized workers. This stance suffers from all the liabilities of the Mondale campaign, and also appears passive, never posing the problem of how to influence as much as possible the course of post-industrial (capitalist) growth. The similarities between Mondale and Jackson on this point stand out in Jackson's explicit statements about jobs:

"There is nothing more basic to the dignity of an adult than having a job. Military spending creates fewer jobs than any other kind of spending. A cut in the defense budget will allow us to put people to work. The Democratic Party must have a plan to rebuild America. We must put people to work rebuilding our nation's infrastructure – our roads, our bridges, our cities. We need 250,000 bridges rebuilt. That's how you put steelworkers back to work. They don't need training; they need contracts." (Jesse Jackson, speech delivered before the 13th Annual Convention of Operation Push, Inc., 7 June 1984, quoted from Black Scholar [September/October 1984], p. 5).

Such statements discredit what remains of the Democratic commitment to reducing unemployment in their naiveté about social and industrial change.

To return to the environmental example, intensive post-industrial growth contains serious environmental risks (as in toxic waste disposal), but it is not necessarily environmentally destructive (certainly not on the scale of the traditional industries which are being restructured or have gone permanently into decline). Active government policies very different from those of the Reagan administration are required to contain the dangers which will arise. And in many cases, the main environmental dangers stem from human error and technical failures; these problems can only be reduced by a broadly expansive strategy of upgrading labor skills and capacities. Those problems of Three Mile Island or Union Carbide which are in principle soluble – and some aren't – cannot be handled by traditional industrial deskilling and rationalization.

Hart’s presentation of a postindustrial growth strategy was framed in a way which offered much less than it could have to the labor movement and to some of the constituencies represented in the Jackson campaign. Hart may simply have intended to be provocative for purposes of short term electoral gain but future Democratic politics cannot afford the luxury of fragmenting its elements. An effective postindustrial strategy requires, for example, an expanding public provision for education and social services to cope with growing needs for training and retraining. The human capital side of such a strategy can offer genuine opportunities to those threatened with increasing marginalization by a Reaganite growth strategy, especially parts of the inner city minority populations. Such opportunities are more promising than those offered by the Reaganite strategy, with its reduction of social services and labor rights, or the Mondale strategy aimed at expanding traditional industries. What a post-industrial growth strategy cannot offer is guaranteed protection for narrow sections of the population; efforts to do so are perceived as a virtual anti-growth strategy aimed at preserving 'privileges.'

After Sharing the Blame …

Unions, along with other forces who opposed Reagan, were badly defeated in 1984. The Black political leadership also suffered a severe defeat, when an extraordinarily unified black vote went to a candidate who suffered one of the worst losses in modern history. Both groups want to defend their basic positions, against Reaganite efforts to attack their legitimacy, and against intra-Democratic efforts to blame them for the outcome. Defensive impulses are understandable for the union leadership, Black political leaders, feminists, and others. If unchecked they may exact a high cost: every group denies responsibility for the outcome, defending the legitimacy of their perspective, and blaming others. Political discussion disappears, and those who unsuccessfully opposed Reagan continue to do what they were doing for lack of any alternative.

Developing a new Democratic course requires a political climate within which reflective, self-critical discussion can occur. This has not yet emerged. The labor movement, for example, has issued an interesting document proposing reforms aimed at improving its ability to recruit new members. At the political level, however, the unions have claimed that they were successful because union members were significantly more likely than nonmembers to vote for Mondale. This defense is at most half true.  Union efforts did help persuade union members to vote Democratic, though the figures are less impressive when one subtracts Black union members who would have voted against Reagan in any case. Yet the labor vote is in serious decline, not only in terms of the relative weight of union members, but in terms of large sections of the working and middle classes, who once made their political decisions partly under the influence of the labor movement. In 1984, this positive effect had all but disappeared; in many cases, it was even reversed when people voted against Mondale partly because of his labor ties.

The point is not to berate the unions, who made a massive effort to defeat a president whose policies have hurt them and their membership badly. Yet the defensiveness born of defeat can only lead to further defeats. Precisely because almost every one’s reason for Reagan’s victory contains a kernel of truth, there is plenty enough blame to go around. Without a real shift in the political mood amongst Democratic groups, the angry exchanges of the first months after the election could be a sad preview of further decline.

Stopping the onset of a durable Republican regime remains central, to prevent this outcome, environmentalists, feminists, antiwar activists, and others will have to make many compromises. Compromises are difficult, and often distasteful for representatives of social movements whose experience have led them to view political compromises as abandoning their movements’ basic goals. In this context, one possibility which may tempt sections of the Democratic Party's left is to focus on consolidating its mainly secondary positions of power within and around the party. In pushing hard for its programs, and in the process entering into sharp conflicts with the center and right of the party, the Democratic left could probably make organizational gains, especially given the weakness of the formal Democratic organization in most parts of the country.

There are serious dangers that lie along this course. It risks confusing organizational advances with the much broader process of political change necessary to rebuild a popular Democratic – and democratic – majority. Given the character of the Democratic left, such a course would be apt to maintain the form of interest-group conflict which now dominates the party. Placing the main emphasis on building a (Democratic) left force would probably mean, in a world where it is hard to do everything at the same time, downplaying efforts to force a broad alternative to Reaganism. If this happened, and a durable Reaganite realignment occurred partly as a result, the Democratic left would in the short-run enjoy at least modest growth. It might become a political force with considerable power inside and around the Democratic Party, and electoral strength equal to perhaps 10-15% of the general vote.

Yet this growth would be small consolation for the marginality which the left in all its forms would face during a Republican regime that could last into the first decades of the next century. The fluidity of the political moment, when an old order has been finally destroyed, but not replaced, combined with the scope of ongoing socioeconomic changes, offers a more attractive option. There exists a serious chance of fusing democratic, egalitarian, and modernizing themes in a political project aimed at shaping the forms and direction of postindustrial growth; this project could unify large sections of existing Democratic constituencies; and provide a framework for creating new ones. This is not a project for a postindustrial utopia, but for selecting one of the more decent of postindustrial alternatives now available, and for creating a dynamic in which more ambitious goals can become politically realistic.

Filed under: 2016uselection, elections, trump, us-politics