All Parties, like countries have myths. For the Democrats the myth is simple, we are the party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. We are the party of the people. In many ways the people have bought the myth. This is as integral to party identity as Ronald Reagan is to the Republicans. Both men inhabit a state of being where they are perfection, and where all their ideas are spoken off in almost religious reverence. This also short circuits the questioning of the myth, or the party identity, even when it is more than obvious that the party is no longer matching that myth. Something has happened, and that party of the people has abandoned the people, and embraced Wall Street and the corporations that once it fought.
Some of this is the Great Man in History ideology at play. Like all countries, parties subscribe to the hackneyed view of the great man in history. It fits party formation and identification. Abraham Lincoln was the lone visionary that broke from the Whigs, and formed the Republican Party. Franklin Delano Roosevelt identified with the needs of the working man and pushed forwards the New Deal. They were the special, and unique men, who could see things and saw the need for this. Without them, these great chances would have never happened. They were the special men at the moment.
This is a damaging ideology, since it prevents the party, or it’s members from thinking in terms of a movement. In the United States this Great Man in History theory also prevents the formation of populist ideologies adopted by the people. It may work great in grade school, where complexity is yet to develop, but when it becomes the national creed it affects how citizens act. Parties become easier to control by party elites that have no worries regarding the lowly party members who are waiting for the next great man. It is understood that this great man is never them. It cannot be them. These singular men emerge at special moments and save us all, They are supermen, superheroes in a way.
The process of politics.
Many are unaware that politics is constantly adapting and evolving to new economic conditions. The New Deal did not emerge fully formed from FDRs head, but it was a process. It was a process started by popular demands in the 1910s, and went on to become part of the Socialist Party platform, for a few cycles. Theirs was not Social Security as we know it, but it was the predecessor to the system.
The 1932 election and the unrest that was starting to overtake the country due to the Great Depression had all to do with the New Deal and the rise of the Social Security Administration. It was a process. Just as we have seen the modern Republican and Democratic parties shift right, the Democratic Party shifted left to respond to conditions on the ground. When Paul Ryan complaints to CNN that the Democratic Party is a far left party, one has to wonder if he believes those words, or is just propaganda for the rubes? After all, both national parties have adopted conservative policies that are eating away at that social safety net that Americans have become used to.
It is process. It is the process of party realignment as different people and factions within a party rise to the top and take over the helm at both leadership and ideology. It is a process that for the Democrats started in 1968. That is the moment that labor started to lose it’s preeminent place in the party, and started to be replaced by business interests. Labor had taken over as one of the preeminent legs of the Democratic stool over the course of the 1930s. It seems labor is still in denial that it no longer occupies that spot.
Social change and party change
Party ideologies does not just change because. They change due to social pressures. No party exists in a vacuum. No person exists in a vacuum. The Democratic Party started to lose elections after 1968, and they blamed Labor and other so called leftist organizations. They wanted nothing to do with liberals, or liberal ideology.
This also needs an explanation, since part of the party brand is that Democrats are indeed liberals. While ditching the real aims of 20th century national security state, such as progressive taxation and a strong safety net, they were still fighting the label, since they were branded as liberals, at times communist which in the middle of the Cold War was a problem. Some of this rejection by voters came from the Vietnam War, which President Dwight D Eisenhower started, back in the 1950s, when the first advisors were sent to Indochina, but Democrats expanded into the morass that it became. In many minds, especially the conservative mind of the era, Democrats became weak in defense because they lost the war.
Then there was the civil rights movement. That movement climaxed in 1965, and President Lyndon Baines Johnson was fully aware that by signing the Civil Rights Act, he was surrendering the south to the Republicans for a generation. In fact, he surrendered the south it seems for at least two generations, if not more.
After Watergate the Democrats retook the White House, with President Jimmie Carter. He never got the support of his party while in the White House. In some respects he was ahead of his time. Some of the policies he wanted or believed in, were way ahead. One of them was related to the energy crisis. He was correct that we needed to transform the economy from a fossil fuel economy to a green economy. But some of his other polices would not be fully realized until Bill Clinton came to the White House. That came after Carter lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980, with the rise of the Neo Conservative movement, and Democrats losing the White House for 12 long years.
Neoliberalism is a return to a more conservative ideology for the Democratic Party.
When Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992 two things happened. This was effectively the end of any real influence that labor ever hoped to have over this new party. There was plenty of lip service, of course. The Party still needed labor to bring out the vote, but labor was not needed for anything else. It was also the beginning of the obvious rise in influence for Wall Street.
There was a second thing that happened. Ryan did address that last night at the CNN town hall. Republicans could extract long term goals of theirs from Democrats. It was not because they were willing to work with Republicans, but because Bill Clinton adopted this neoliberal ideology. This ideology put the market above all, and privatizing public services became a central goal of the Democratic Party. Reforming entitlements, that is privatizing Social Security and Medicare, remains a goal that has yet to be fulfilled. While at the same time talking a good game about how the party of FDR will save them for future generations.
Bill Clinton and his policies.
Bill Clinton was not just the point that the party was taken over completely by other interests, but also the point when the New Deal started to be taken apart. It was a slow process, and at first in places where most Americans are not paying attention. The end of Glass Steagal, this is legislation stemming from the Great Depression that put a wall between commercial and investment banks. This was taken down in 1999 by a Congress happy to end those regulations. This was to great fanfare. Then there were two other reforms, long term policy goals for both Republicans and New Democrats. The first was Welfare Reform, and the second was crime fighting legislation that has led to mass incarceration and the toughening of the war on drugs.
At one point we even had the present candidate for the White House, for the Democratic Party refer to African American youth as thugs. Those needed to be brought to heel. While Hillary Clinton was reminded of this during the campaign, it is still a great mystery to this observer how those most affected by these policies vote for this party.
The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was not just about triangulating the Republican Party out of being tough on crime, it was a policy goal of the Democratic Party. We are living though the results of those two pieces of legislation that have hurt deeply people of color, in particular. We have also seen the rise of a private prison industry that donates to Democrats and does not fear any upcoming regulation that might affect their bottom line, or for that matter the end of the line for them. Welfare reform came in 1996, was introduced by Representative E, Clay Shaw, a Republican from Floridan and signed happily by Bill Clinton,
Aa early as 1996 the bill was criticized since it would hurt children, mostly poor children. It also reduced food assistance, and prevented millions of legal residents from receiving payments from Social Security in their old age. According to Peter Edelman, as early as 1997, the bill was going in an opposite direction from the goal of poverty reduction of previous democratic administrations. This was borne out by the stark increase in income inequality since then.
The result of getting rid of Glass Steagal was truly seen in the 2008 Great Recession, and even after that, New Democrats are still committed to the invisible hand of the market. This brings us to the present…
The end of the realignment: Barack Obama.
When Obama was elected in 2008 he was even portrayed as a new FDR. We go back to that great man in history theory. He was supposed to take the helm of the ship of state, and bring it out of the right wing shoals where it ran aground, and back into the open sea of classic 20th century liberalism. Even Newsweek, had him on the cover as if he were riding FDR’s car, with top hat and cigar.
None of that happened. What we got was another center right neoliberal president that went out of his way to preserve the new system in place as much as he could. His presidency marked truly the end of the political realignment and the remaking of the Democratic Party into a right wing political party. During his presidency he put Social Security and Medicare on the table, saved only by Republicans who have gone so far right that the Grand Bargain was not enough.
Yet, they were this close to ending the New Deal, which they have tried to do for the last 70 years. The first moment we saw this was with the banks. The President never fought for the return of Glass Steagal. Reform has been weak. Less he never pushed for prosecution of the bankers that almost crashed the world economy.
It makes sense, his party depends from donations from Wall Street. He was the first Democrat to get more donations from Wall Street than a Republican. Pushing for reform that would reduce their fortunes would be silly. It is like biting that hand that you depend on for funds. It is not going to happen.
The second was with health care. As much as Republicans hate the Affordable Health Care Act (ACA), it is truly a right wing project hailing for the Heritage Foundation. The first implementation was in Massachusetts, under governor Mitt Romney, a Republican. In fact, the ACA was based on that project and did not include single payer health care at any moment. Obama payed lip service to the idea, but nothing more.
The last moment was the Supreme Court decision of Citizens United. While this was brought by the Lincoln Club of Orange County, California, to the Supreme Court, it was a decision that was embraced by Democrats. It allowed Democrats to continue to raise money from corporations. While in theory Unions could, in reality Unions have real legal limits to those contributions. Effectively they continue to be muzzled.
We are at the end of the road. In many ways the political system of 2016 is a two party system that is right of center. Both major political parties favor corporations over people, and the needs of the market over the needs of labor. The process has taken over two generations but it is now complete. Granted, the Republican Party is so far to the right that they do believe Democrats are still the communists and they like to caricature them as such. But this leaves little choices to the voters. Though the voters will be treated to the illusion that Democrats continue to be the party of the people. This is why elections have become a theater of the absurd.
Voters do not buy the illusion forever though. This year has proven to be a very strange election. One reason is that many voters, especially younger voters, have come to terms with this new reality. They voted in droves for the outsider, 13 million when all was said and done. Some are convinced, and there is some evidence to support this, that the elections were not precisely clean. That does not surprise me. Neoliberal democracies treat elections as a side show to gain some legitimacy, even when the process is far from transparent or easy to audit.
This is by design. Both national parties are going to have candidates with historic negatives on the ballot. Democrats know that low turn out elections are not good for them. There are clouds forming in the horizon due to the fact that voters have figured this out. Voting for one party or the other, gets similar policies enacted anyway. They are not friendly to the people, but very popular with corporations.
Voters, those who show up in November, and this is for both parties, will be voting against the other candidate, not their candidate. This is not 2008, when people voted for Obama, believing in the illusion and a message of hope. Historically when this happens other forces take shape, and this is starting to happen. In the 19th century, during the latter part of the century, both national parties were in the pocket of the industrialists. Americans were not fools, just like they are not fools now. Back then they organized outside the two major parties. It was possibly easier to do it back then. This is the origin of the Granger Halls, mostly in agricultural western states. They were the beginning of the fight against the monopolies.
We are seeing similar calls these days for people to vote third party. Voting is good, but people need to organize beyond elections. That message is also starting to register. In fact, this started a while back. It started with people demanding fair trade in Seattle in 1999. Americans are not stupid and can only be conned for so long.
Does this mean that one, or both national parties are in trouble? Yes, and no. Republicans have a problem with demographics. It is a white older party. Democrats might start having issues with labor no longer supporting them. In my view, if we are going to see a complete political realignment, the Democrats might replace Republicans, with a new labor left party rising. That said, what will happen to these party myths? Not much. After all, Republicans still call themselves the party of Lincoln, never mind that Lincoln, or for that matter Reagan, would not join this modern far right Republican Party. We predict something similar for the Democrats. FDR will remain forever a figure of myth, but would not join the modern Democratic Party.
Though unlike other periods in U.S. History there is a little wrench in the worlds, that might force rapid change, That is climate change. While one party pays lip service to it, and the other denies it, the reality is that it has become part of the fabric of our current world. Actions required to deal with it, mean that parties will be forced to change and perhaps change faster than at any other time in human history.