Election Lessons for the Left

Portside Date:
Author: Joseph M. Schwartz
Date of source:
1. Democratic Funders and Consultants Avoid the Politics of “Class Warfare”  by Saying Nothing
Mainstream pundits cite as causes of the Republican triumph in the 2014 elections an electorate whiter and older than the presidential vote and the unfavorable terrain for the Democrats, who defended 21 of 34 Senate seats, eight of them in “red” southern and border states. But too few point to the Democratic consultants’ and affluent funders’ conscious choice to avoid any populist, economic justice themes in the campaign. They advised the Democrats to focus on winning swing voters, mostly affluent suburban women and single women. This would not necessarily be a problematic strategy if they put the needs of women in a broader economic context. But, instead, the consultants pushed the vapid theme of  “we are not crazy Republicans who make war on women,” without speaking to policies such as publicly-financed child care and parental leave, nor to the reality that poor- and moderate-income women often cannot access reproductive health services.
Thus, the Democratic national establishment, by running a strictly anti-Republican campaign, inadvertently turned the election into a national referendum on the Obama administration. Given that real family income has fallen six percent since 2008 and that the benefits of the uneven economic recovery have almost all gone to the top 10 percent, the Democrats fared poorly, even in traditional blue states. Folks are angry at Washington’s failure to improve their living standards, and the majority of voters took it out on the party that controls the White House. Populist resentment can also take a racist form, and undoubtedly some of the ire towards President Obama derives from that source.
But was another road possible? The electoral success of Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) demonstrates that an anti-corporate agenda can appeal to working-class voters of all races. Of course, the national Democratic leadership was unlikely to bite the Wall Street hand that feeds its campaign coffers; but what if the administration had at least prosecuted some of “the banksters” who caused the economic crisis?
The failure of the Democrats to portray the Republicans as the party of the rich and the Democrats the party of working people accentuated the expected mid-term losses. Not only did the Democrats likely lose eight Senate seats,  but the Democrats also failed to defeat incumbent right-to-work Governors Scott Walker (R-WI) and Rick Snyder (R-MI). The Democrats also lost the gubernatorial races in normally liberal Massachusetts, Illinois, and Maryland and the Republicans gained over 600 state legislative seats nationwide. Even in Pennsylvania, the lone governorship picked up by the Democrats, Governor Tom Wolf will face a legislature that swung further to the right.
Unfortunately, most Democratic gubernatorial and Senate candidates followed the advice of technocratic Democratic consultants to target affluent suburban swing voters on social issues while avoiding any talk of redistributive policies, as well as any overt appeals to Latino and black concerns about immigration, voter suppression, or mass incarceration. Such appeals have helped elect relatively populist Democratic mayors in Los Angeles, Seattle, New York, Newark, Pittsburgh, and Phoenix. But on the state level, if the Democrats offer few policies to raise working people’s living standards, many moderate-income swing voters will go for the siren song of the party of tax cuts and “limited” government. With Republicans now controlling all three branches of government in 27 states, the Democrats will have to revitalize their state legislative political operation if they are to avoid another round of Republican gerrymandering in the 2020 reapportionment process.  
The Democratic establishment’s obsessive concern with winning over socially liberal affluent swing voters meant the party failed to run a populist national campaign on issues that would have appealed to working people of all races: increasing the minimum wage, relieving family economic distress via paid parental and sick leave, expanding public education funding, easing the burden of student debt, and creating good paying jobs by investing in infrastructure and alternative energy. Undoubtedly such a program, combined with calls for a path to citizenship for all immigrants and an end to arbitrary police violence and mass incarceration for non-violent offenders, might have increased turnout among black and Latino voters and the white working class. How to fund such a proper role for government in enhancing social opportunity? Restore progressive taxation on the rich and corporations and stop funding futile overseas military adventures. 
Imagine if the Democrats had highlighted universal Republican opposition to raising the minimum wage and the fact that Democratic governors brought free comprehensive medical coverage to seven million working parents and their children while Republican governors denied such coverage to six million. The Republicans tarred the Democrats with Obamacare; why didn’t the Democrats proudly own Medicaid expansion, its most progressive, single-payer provision?  
Of course, such a program would have to be accompanied by candidates willing and able to explain that native-born Americans do not compete for the low-wage service and care-giving jobs that immigrants take up. Such a forthright defense of immigrant rights – and an implicit apology for the past Obama administration’s policy of mass deportation – might have hurt Democratic senatorial chances in Arkansas and Louisiana. But those races were likely lost anyway and low Latino turnout, combined with an increase in the percentage of Latinos voting Republicans, cost the Democrats the Senate seats in Colorado and perhaps North Carolina.  Forty-four percent of Latinos voted against Democratic incumbent Senator Mark Udall in the Colorado Senate race and the Latino national vote rose from 27 percent Republican in 2012 to 34 percent Republican in the mid-terms. Contrary to Democratic consultants who talk about the Democrats’ natural “demographic advantage” in the younger, less affluent and more racially diverse presidential electorate, demography is not destiny. See Jeb Bush winning nearly 40 percent of the non-Cuban Latino vote in Florida during his two gubernatorial victories. Hence the Obama administration’s executive order on immigration must stop mass deportations and provide legal residency and work permits for as many undocumented immigrants as possible.
2. Mainstream Democratic Strategy: How to Lose the White Working Class
An economic justice campaign might have addressed the continuing problematic performance of Democrats among the white working class. Seventy-two percent of whites without college degrees believe that “the U.S. economic system generally favors the wealthy,” but these same women and men voted for Republican House candidates by a margin of 64-34. Outside the Deep South, whites without college degrees vote about 47 percent Democratic. Less affluent white families in the bottom one-third of family incomes vote about 55 percent Democratic outside the south. The Democrats’ problem is most severe with decently paid non-unionized white workers, particularly men, and with Southern whites of all classes.  But you wouldn’t know from most Democratic candidates’ silence on policies that would raise working- and middle-class living standards that non-college-educated whites constitute 35 percent of the presidential electorate and close to 30 percent of the mid-term vote.
 The Democratic vote among the working class simply was not strong enough to defeat Rick Snyder, Scott Walker, and the rabidly anti-union new billionaire Republican governor of Illinois Bruce Brauner, nor to elect former steelworker union and gay activist Mike Michaud governor of Maine. Democratic Illinois incumbent Governor Pat Quinn’s concerted effort to weaken public union pensions didn’t help him generate enthusiastic rank-and-file resistance to Brauner’s campaign.  Union density is 35 percent in the public sector, but only seven percent in the private sector. This leads many non-unionized workers to resent the halfway decent salaries and benefits that unionized public sector workers earn (though public employee salaries are considerably lower than those working in the private sector with similar skills and educational credentials earn). In fact, 35 percent of white trade union members in Wisconsin voted for Scott Walker. 
The technocratic, affluent Democratic campaign consultants fail to comprehend how a reversal in the decline of union density would aid the Democrats. White trade unionists vote above 60 percent Democratic (about 15-20 percent more Democratic than whites with similar educational, income and employment status).  If union density returned to the 20 percent mark of 1980, Democrats would probably still hold the Senate and about 30 more seats in the House. So why doesn’t the national Democratic leadership call for the restoration of the democratic right to form a union in the workplace (see fears about wealthy donors and media accusations of “class warfare”)? 
The Democratic establishment assumes that the current composition of the mid-term electorate is a permanent feature of our politics. Mid-term electoral turnout remains a challenge for the Democrats, as lower-income citizens are more likely to vote, if they do at all, in presidential rather than congressional and local elections. As politicians in this country tend to serve more affluent, highly educated voters, it is the less affluent and younger sectors of the electorate who are more likely to skip non-presidential elections because they lack a sense of political effectiveness.  A majority of U.S. adults cannot identify their two senators, let alone their House members. But progressive campaigns, rooted in social movements, have periodically convinced previously disengaged voters that there is something at stake.  White immigrant working-class voter participation soared during the 1930s, for example. African-American presidential electoral participation lagged significantly behind that of whites before Jesse Jackson’s two presidential runs in 1984 and 1988 registered masses of black voters. Once African-Americans realized they could have a major voice in presidential politics, their presidential voter participation rates came to equal those of whites.  
Does Republican control of the Senate matter? As much as the Democratic establishment may have moved to the center, the near-total elimination of white “blue dog” (aka, conservative) Democratic representatives from the Deep South means that the ideological and policy distance between the Republicans and Democrats in Congress is greater than ever.  The Republicans will use their control of the legislative agenda and their ability to attach riders to appropriation bills that the President will hesitate to veto, in an effort to overturn environmental regulations, eliminate the employer mandate in the Affordable Care Act, and reverse any executive order granting legal residency and work permits to undocumented immigrants. Republican senatorial control of the nomination process will prevent most progressive judicial and administrative appointments. (We should all pray for Justice Ginsburg’s health!) At the state level, Republican gubernatorial and legislative gains mean right-to-work laws and cuts in funding of public education are likely to spread. 
In response, the Obama administration may be tempted to imitate the Clinton administration’s “triangulation” (or move to the right) in response to the 1994 Republican mid-term triumph. The administration may try to claim the mantle of bi-partisanship by advancing a center-right agenda around “free trade,” corporate “tax reform” (that fails to raise corporate tax rates),  “education reform,” and a “grand bargain” on the long-term budget that would cut the real value of Social Security and Medicare.  The labor-left’s first challenge will be to defeat the administration’s backing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership “free trade” deal that favors the interests of global capital by failing to protect the rights of workers. But this may be just the first pitched battle on the part of the left against a possible administration drift to the center-right. Will Obama, for example, sign a bill authorizing the Keystone Pipeline?
3. Voter Suppression: A Major Threat to Democracy in the United States
The Democrats should run against Republicans on the grounds that they are a party that is hostile to democracy.  Republican voter restriction laws in 14 states potentially disenfranchise 11 percent of the electorate due to their lack of official government IDs. These are new poll taxes, since lower-income people often cannot take time off from work or afford the fees to purchase official government voter ID cards. Nate Silver of the blog 538 estimates that voter ID restrictions may repress turnout by as much as 2.4% (disproportionately students, the poor, the elderly and blacks and Latinos).
Ari Berman of The Nation and Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center for Justice have done preliminary analyses of the effect of voter exclusion laws on the 2014 elections. Their analysis should motivate progressives to prioritize organizing to overturn voter restrictions.  In Kansas, slash-and-burn tax-and-budget cutter Republican Governor Sam Brownback defeated Democratic challenger Paul Davis by only 33,000 votes. Yet 24,000 Kansans tried to register this year unsuccessfully because they failed to present the documentary proof of citizenship now required of state law. An earlier study by the non-partisan federal General Accountability Office found that new voter ID laws reduced turnout by two percent in 2012 in Arkansas and three percent in Tennessee.
In Texas, over 600,000 citizens do not have the proper ID required for voting, while in 2014 only 450 people completed the arduous process to secure alternative government identification (!). In North Carolina, incumbent Senator Kay Hagen (D) lost narrowly by 1.7 percent or 48,000 votes to State House Speaker Thom Tillis; one of the harshest new election laws probably cost her the election (a law that Tillis helped craft). In 2010, nearly 200,000 voters in North Carolina cast early ballots in the extra week of early voting cut by the new law. (This cut aimed to eliminate one Sunday of “souls to the polls” efforts in black churches.) In addition, in 2012 more than 100,000 North Carolinians, over 1/3 African American, used same day registration, which was not available in 2014.
Finally, in Florida, incumbent Governor Rick Scott overturned former Governor Charlie Crist’s return of suffrage rights to 150,000 of the 1.3 million Floridians who have lost the right to vote due to the state’s permanent disenfranchisement of all felons. Scott’s reversal of Crist’s reforms returned Florida to being a state where over 25 percent of African-American men are ineligible to vote (versus an already horrific eight percent nationally)!  Again, Scott defeated Crist by just 72,000 votes. Yet how many major Democratic politicians rail against felony exclusion laws or even understand their adverse impact on Democratic candidates?
Most mainstream pundits believe that the Democrats cannot walk on two legs by appealing simultaneously to black and Latino voters and white working class voters. But this insults the intelligence of ordinary Americans. What if the Democrats boldly said that the Republicans are  an intolerant nativist party, a party that diverts white working class anger at corporations that outsource jobs onto immigrant workers who rarely displace native-born workers. And what if Democrats said (as even some Republicans now do) that the mass incarceration of unemployed youth of color (and, increasingly, unemployed whites) costs taxpayers far more than would job training and high-quality reentry programs.  For too long the neoliberal wing of the Democrats thought that being “Republican lite” on criminal justice and “welfare reform” would win over swing white Democrats. But it hasn’t, so why keep trying?
4. Analysis and Program Alone Do Not Bring Social Change: Building Social Movements Does
Astute political analysis by itself does not make for progressive political change.  Given the structural advantages of corporate power in democratic capitalist societies, social change only comes when mass social movements use their power to disrupt (and to vote) to wrest concessions from beleaguered elites. There is plenty of resistance in American society; witness the protests around Ferguson spreading across the nation. But the national sum of the left’s grassroots local parts is weakened by the absence of a national, multi-racial progressive political organization. As Bill Fletcher consistently argues, movements must build organizations capable of bringing resources and coordinated numbers to bear upon policy elites.
The left lost a huge opportunity when it failed to build a national, grassroots-based, democratic Rainbow Coalition out of the 1984 and 1988 Jackson campaigns. The remains of organized labor today would be better served financing a pro-labor, anti-corporate political formation than funding moderate Democratic candidates who deliver little for working people. White middle strata progressives active in Move On or Progressive Democrats of America cannot win radical social change on their own, as evidenced by the failure of the “get big money out of politics” movement to gain traction in working class and black and Latino communities.  The demand to get money out of politics will only gain broader social traction when put in the context of corporate powers’ opposition to movements for economic and racial justice (e.g., corporate opposition to raising the minimum wage and the private prison industry’s role in mass incarceration).
Radical activists should not wait for the birth of such a national, federated, grassroots neo-Rainbow. We should join the “neo-Rainbows” being built at the local and state level, be it Moral Monday in North Carolina or the black- and Latino-led “New Majority” coalitions in Florida and Virginia. Multi-racial coalitions, with strong ties to progressives in labor, have recently won municipal power in Los Angeles, Seattle, New York, Pittsburgh, Phoenix and elsewhere. These administrations are working to enact living wage ordinances and to increase access to affordable housing. But only grassroots pressure from below can offset the heavy weight that real estate developers and downtown corporate interests will place upon these governments. Addressing the needs of urban communities will necessitate major state and federal investments in education, public housing, and job creation. One cannot have true urban social democracy in one city.
5. White Progressives Need to do Anti-Racist Political Work in Their Own Communities
White progressives have to work in their own communities to weaken a “white” identity that the right works daily to strengthen. Despite people of color and immigrants doing the hardest, least well paid, and most valuable work in our society, the right has constructed a mythical “white” consciousness centered on the belief that “hard-working whites” pay excessively high taxes to fund anti-poverty programs that coddle the largely non-white poor. This despite welfare, food stamps, and public housing assistance having been gutted over the past 40 years by both Republican and neo-liberal Democratic national and state governments.
Where to start? DSA locals must seek to work in multi-racial coalitions that focus both on economic redistribution and the expansion of democratic rights. They must learn the political landscape of their communities beyond that of a predominantly white, middle strata, ideological “left.” Multi-racial coalitions need to be built (or strengthened) that speak to the needs of all working people for a living wage, the right to organize, and an easing of the regressive tax burden that falls on the middle class and working people. But these coalitions (and the candidates they support) must also speak openly and forthrightly for an immediate and expeditious path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented workers and their children and an end to voter suppression, the privatization and defunding of urban public education, and mass incarceration. Is this possible? In California, a labor- and Latino-led coalition has created a solid Democratic majority in state politics. The main political faultline in California politics today is between a neoliberal Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, who desires to use increased progressive tax revenues to shore up fiscal reserves, and the progressive wing of the party, that wants to spend the funds on social programs.
These movements must dispel the right-wing ideological myth that we can only afford such programs if we raise taxes on people of modest means. Regressive taxation did not fall from the sky but from the Reagan and Bush II tax reforms that massively cut taxes for the top 10 percent and gutted effective corporate tax rates. In the early 1960s, corporate tax revenues made up 30 percent of federal revenues; today only 10 percent. The more prosperous 1950s and ‘60s saw marginal income tax rates of 70 percent, versus 35 percent today. Americans, overall, are not heavily taxed. We channel only 34 percent of our total GDP thru the state, whereas Germany spends 42 percent of its income on public goods, Scandinavia 50 percent, and France 55 percent.  And these nations only spend one-tenth of what we do per capita on “defense.” 
Campaigns such as a Bernie Sanders’ run in the Democratic primaries for president or progressive Cook County Commissioner Jesus Garcia’s race against Rahm Emmanuel in the May 2015 Chicago mayoral race provide a natural opportunity for white progressives to campaign in white working- and middle-class neighborhoods and discuss why economically progressive and anti-racist policies are in the interest of all working people. The electoral expression of such politics can also take a form outside of the major parties,  in non-partisan local, even explicitly socialist campaigns (such as Jorge Mujica’s socialist campaign for a non-partisan City Council seat in Chicago) or when the Democratic nominee is a neoliberal who faces certain victory or defeat (e.g., Howie Hawkins’ Green Party campaign against neoliberal Democratic Andrew Cuomo in New York). But if a multi-racial left grows, its most predominant electoral expression is likely to be in primary challenges against pro-corporate Democrats. In short, we need to build a multi-racial Tea Party of the left. 
Even elected officials put into office by progressive coalitions will only buck corporate power if subject to continuous street heat from independent social movements. Progressive electoral coalitions, built by independent social movements in labor and later civil rights, engendered the legislative victories of the 1930s (the federal minimum wage, unemployment insurance, Social Security, and labor rights) and the legislative victories of the 1960s (the civil rights acts, Medicaid and Medicare, and Food Stamps). Corporate America opposed all of these measures whole-heartedly. Too many leftists forget that “bourgeois democracy” is both too “bourgeois” (or capitalist) to be fully democratic, but also too democratic to be purely “bourgeois.” That is, the power of democratic numbers in an imperfect democratic society can and do matter. But until the left rebuilds the type of organizational capacity that can elect people to office (at first at the local level) and hold them accountable, corporate power is likely to continue to dominate both major parties.
Joseph M. Schwartz is a professor of political science at Temple University and a DSA vice-chair. Schwartz’s most recent book is The Future of Democratic Equality. 
Individually signed posts on dsausa.org do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership.
[Thanks to Joe Schwartz for submitting this article.--moderator]

Source URL: https://portside.org/2014-11-21/election-lessons-left