Lessons from the Midterms – The American Perspective
We’ll soon know if the Democrats took the beating that so many commentators predicted, or if the pundits were stuck in their own echo chamber, and the Democrats are doing better than expected. But even if the Democrats manage to retain one or even both houses of Congress, it is important to learn the right lessons.
One lesson is far more important than the 2022 midterm elections: this whole period of American life, starting in the 1980s and escalating after 2016, has been a huge missed opportunity that will not be reversed in one. electoral cycle.
The Democrats, after all, are supposedly the party of the workers. The past few decades have been a time when working people have suffered one attack after another on their standard of living, their economic security, their future horizons and the life prospects of their children and grandchildren.
It should have been a golden age for ordinary people flocking to the banner of the Democrats as their champions, against a corporate class that has become increasingly rapacious at the expense of the common American. Instead, it was a time when working-class voters were abandoning Democrats for a Republican Party that slavishly favored corporations and bankers over working people. And it was happening long before Donald Trump used crass racism and hyper-nationalism to divert popular frustrations from pocketbook issues.
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In 2020, Democrats lost the white working class vote by about 40 points. Yes, it’s partly a matter of race, but race doesn’t begin to explain everything; Working-class Latinos and African Americans also moved to the right.
How could this have happened? Do the workers somehow ignore how badly they are getting screwed? I do not think so. The most plausible explanation is that the Democrats have lost most of their credibility as champions.
Much of that loss dates back to the Clinton administration, when a Democratic president defeated government, liberated Wall Street, pursued balanced budgets as an end in itself, and approached big business. Hillary Clinton in 2016 compounded Bill’s damage by thinking that going left on social issues could compensate for going right on the economy.
There are Democrats who express superbly how increasing corporate concentration has destroyed the prospects of ordinary Americans and corrupted our politics – Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Tim Ryan and John Fetterman, to name just four. But their compelling message is drowned out by mixed messages from the national party.
The failure of the national party apparatus to support Ryan speaks volumes. There are simply too many corrupt National Democrats making too much money being comfortable with corporations and banks for the party to welcome its kind of unabashed left populism.
Whether Ryan wins or narrowly loses today, he will do much better than the other Democrats who have run statewide in Ohio over the past two decades, with the exception of Sherrod Brown, who speaks the same language as Ryan.
The other populist Senate candidate in a swing state, John Fetterman, would have won the start had he not suffered a stroke. And win or lose, it will be a very close race.
One of the factors that destroyed regional economies was the blind support of the Democrats for the myth of “free trade”.
Another factor that has hit Democrats hard is the rural vote. Rural economies have been left behind by economic change. Likewise, small towns that were once centers of manufacturing. Even more than the working class in general, the inhabitants of these counties feel ignored by the Democrats, who have not done enough for them. The upper Midwest, rural and urban, was once a Democratic stronghold.
One of the factors that destroyed these regional economies was the blind support of the Democrats for the myth of “free trade”. Over the past decade, even mainstream economists have begun to recognize this. Tom Edsall, writing in The New York Times the other day had an aha moment. Even top-notch economists now agree that Democrats are losing the working class because they eased worries about good jobs. Imagine that.
Edsall cites a 2020 report by MIT economist David Autor (a relatively recent convert) and two colleagues: “The United States has allowed traditional channels of worker voice to atrophy without fostering new institutions or strengthen those that already exist. It allowed the federal minimum wage to roll back until it became almost irrelevant, lowering the floor under the labor market for low-wage workers. It embraced an expansion of free trade policy with the developing world, Mexico and China in particular, but failed to direct the gains towards repairing lost jobs and retraining workers’ needs.
Edsall also quotes Gordon Hanson, professor of urban politics at Harvard: The Democrats “have come to be seen as the party of free trade, given that President Clinton pushed through both NAFTA and the entry of China at the WTO and that President Obama has championed the Trans-Pacific Partnership. — they are seen as the engineers of the loss of jobs in the manufacturing sector.
Like we used to say in my elementary school, “No shit, Dick Tracy.”
A few of us have pointed out for about 40 years how misguided trade policies and deindustrialization have destroyed working families and communities, with the Democratic Party as collateral damage.
When a handful of courageous and recognized economists such as the late Bennett Harrison and Barry Bluestone, a few journalists like me and aberrant Democrats (notably Dick Gephardt) began to point out these trends and the political fallout in the early 1980s, we were dismissed as flat earth types and demagogues. But when ultra-mainstream economists confirm these realities and their deadly impact on the Democratic Party, it’s a big story.
You could say better late than never. But in this case, late may be too late. The desertion of working-class voters from Democrats is so entrenched that it will take many more than one election cycle to begin to reverse.
Joe Biden, to his great credit, has begun to steer Democrats in a more progressive direction. More support for the myth of free trade. A resurrection of antitrust, corporate regulation, public investment and public planning, and unions. But after so many decades of neglect, the short-term practical impact of these policies may be too marginal to change very many votes this year.
On Monday, I received a bombshell email from a campaign operative named Cliff Schecter, who runs a Democratic media and consulting firm called Blue Amp Strategies that has worked for Biden among others. Schecter writes, “The closing argument of this election is that the Biden administration delivered on its promises to Americans, creating the most manufacturing jobs in 30 years, reducing child poverty by the largest percentage ever, and finally giving Medicare the ability to negotiate the prescription. drug prices. This is a positive record of achievement that we must protect on election day.
Sorry, Cliff, but if you unpack those claims, they just wouldn’t resonate with voters who deserted the Democrats.
The “highest number of manufacturing jobs in 30 years” turns out to be a pittance. And if you don’t, the claim rings hollow.
Likewise, Medicare’s alleged ability to negotiate drug prices. It does not cover most drugs and does not start to take effect until 2026. This unnecessarily slow rollout reflects the influence of the pharmaceutical industry.
Even the exact claim of having reduced child poverty (via an expanded child tax credit) was overturned by Republicans and a business Democrat (Joe Manchin), who refused to continue, so this is not is not there ‘to protect election day’.
As our colleague Stan Greenberg keeps saying, it makes no sense to brag about Biden’s great economic accomplishments when most voters are living their economic lives like hell.
But this kind of rhetoric is the lowest common denominator of Democratic ideology and language. I want to avoid the misleading term “messaging” because it implies that the problem is tricky language. Bad. Behind the muddy language hides a confused ideology and corrupt politicians.
I also want to be careful not to oversimplify. This defection of people who in the past voted Democratic reflects the intersection of economics and race, and the experience of working-class white workers having lost their status on the cultural and economic front. But the evidence suggests economic factors are paramount.
There’s the added complicating factor that populist class politics may not play well in vibrant suburban neighborhoods. There, local Democrats are shaping a narrative that suits their districts. The problem is that the Democratic national story is ubiquitous.
In the past, progressive National Democrats have overcome these contradictions by offering first and foremost to working-class Americans, but also by offering much to the middle class on a daily basis, via benefits as broad as Medicare , social security, affordable housing and educational assistance. . If the rich wanted to vote Republican, fine. We outnumbered them, and the fact that the Republicans got the support of the wealthy only made it stronger who was on which side. But today, there are far too many Democrats on Wall Street, and the other side of the coin is far too many blue-collar Republicans.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. But it will be a very long journey. And it will be a trip to nowhere if we lose our democracy in the meantime. If we can make the heroic assumption that democracy will survive, Democrats must listen to the Ryans and the Fettermans.