As an avid fan of and early contributor to the "fall of the Republican Party" genre, I was keen to read New York Times reporter Nick Confessore's recent account of Donald Trump's popularity among blue-collar Republican voters, which took as a given that the party was collapsing "on itself."
As our newspaper of record steps back to take measure of a story that for a long time escaped notice, it is easy to ignore another story that has gone unmentioned--namely, the Democratic Party, although not in collapse, is in a state of decline.
I am not suggesting that Democrats have engaged in anything like the disgraceful spectacle of the Republican Party this presidential primary season. Nevertheless, even considered in the relatively narrow terms of the Confessore article, it is painful to read the descriptions of the GOP establishment's disdain for the concerns and realities of its voters and find that several apply equally well to Democrats.
While the Republicans dominate the stage with their absurdist drama, the Democrats supply their own cause for concern, not least for their indifference to their own predicament. So far, some measure of anxiety has surfaced among Democrats regarding low voter turnout in primary contests. This is not unusual on the heels of a two-term incumbent, as party operatives point out, quick to reassure us that a general election bid against Donald Trump will bring Democratic voters to the polls in droves.
To my mind, the far graver danger facing Democrats is the sort of complacency that regards running against a fascist to be a sufficient get-out-the-vote strategy.
I've written before that one of the principal differences between the Clinton and Sanders supporters is whether one regards the status quo as a constant or a variable--that is, is the present political framework is capable of meaningful reform, or is it the thing in need of reform itself? I think it's fair to associate the Clinton worldview with the Democratic Party establishment, and with it, the embrace of tactics over strategy; a pattern of soliciting support from leaders rather than inspiring voters; and the inclination to offer proposals amenable to special interests, even when doing so makes them less appealing or irrelevant in the eyes of ordinary people.
There is nothing wrong with working from within the establishment in theory; in practice, as a majority of Americans either don't vote or are registered Independent, the limited horizon of insider politics amounts to a race to develop a more effective algorithm to better exploit a space increasingly detached from the American experience. More and more, as both major parties regard appeasing the powerful as their central (maybe sole) preoccupation, they promote a stagnancy that endangers us more than any politically unpalatable reform possibly could.
Putting the GOP to one side, it's well past time to consider the problem of enervation and decline in the context of the Democratic Party--specifically in terms of its ability to recruit viable candidates, its treatment of prominent issues, and the degree of its devotion to maintaining a vital party infrastructure. While bearing in mind the numerous redistricting and voting impediments Democrats face at the state level--and in that sense at least, reports of the death of the GOP have been greatly exaggerated--it is nevertheless hard to conclude that the Democratic Party is serving either its voters or the country well.
Already some attention has been paid to the lack of depth in the Democratic Party, the absence of political stars below top billing. I agree with these remarks, but am more concerned by the presumption that at the uppermost level at least, all is well. Let me say this clearly and in defiance of establishment figures waving wands to suggest otherwise: Hillary Clinton is a weak presidential candidate. I am not suggesting she is unqualified or unprepared. I am saying that, by virtue of what Elizabeth Drew has called her "galloping greed" and influence peddling, she is fundamentally and irretrievably compromised in the eyes of millions of Americans, and that relying upon the terrifying aspects of the opposition's candidates or the composition of a Supreme Court in order to motivate voters is a de facto admission of what is politely termed an "enthusiasm gap." Added to and exacerbating Hillary Clinton's flawed candidacy is the way in which she has gone about securing the Democratic nomination, first and foremost by scaring potential rivals by amassing ungodly amounts of money for her campaign war chest and, more subtly, by monopolizing Democratic Party channels to the point that any challenger risks isolation.
Not surprisingly, her primary opponent wins support despite not because of insider networks, and he funds his operation without accepting large corporate donations. To the great frustration of the Clinton campaign, Bernie Sanders remains impervious to their most formidable threats.
While the unsavory realities of Clinton's candidacy are routinely discussed around kitchen tables and in coffeehouses all across America, they remain unspoken by the media and political establishment. If anything, the press gropes for more manageable ways to discuss the reservations regarding Hillary Clinton by personalizing them to a degree that is unfair and beside the point. I don't meet people who denounce Clinton's reluctance to smile (if she has one), but I do find a lot of folks willing to echo the remarks of one woman quoted in The New York Times, who said that when listening to Clinton speak, she got the sense that "all of her sentences are owned by someone."
Voters persist in their sentience, able to discern realities and develop opinions even when they are inconvenient to the Democratic Party, yet one gets the sense that the Clinton campaign in particular would prefer to deride and deflect rather than address and overcome some very real concerns.
This worrying disconnect plays out in a similar fashion when it comes to the preeminent concern of voters: the state of the economy. A "recovery" that has not brought prosperity to most Americans (or to most places) is not a recovery worth speaking of as such, especially if you happen to be a Democrat. Returning profitability to stocks is not the same as restoring value to the economy, and I say that as someone who is mindful of the important role that markets play in the saving cycle of millions of people.
Nevertheless the Democratic definition of affluence extends well beyond allowing wealthy people to feel secure--or it should. These days I cringe when monthly unemployment rates come out, as a parade of progressive friends and acquaintances trumpet the numbers, seemingly ignorant of the fact that they are celebrating low rates of labor force participation and the proliferation of low-wage jobs. Obviously, like anyone else, I don't want to see the unemployment rate go up, but to construe this one statistic as indicative of recovery is beyond insulting; it is in fact alienating, especially to unemployed, under-employed, and over-worked Americans. Apparently Obama partisans would rather burnish the president's reputation than acknowledge the struggles of many of the people who elected him.
Several other issues convey the Democratic Party's indifference to its voters and would deserve discussion in a more comprehensive reckoning. The damage wrought by trade agreements, for example, should be considered in precisely this setting.
Suffice it to say that, in light of the significant discrepancies between Party orthodoxy and the views of voters, as well as the clear evidence that outside insurgencies have found favor in this election cycle, the intransigence of the Democratic Party on purely procedural questions like campaign financing or various reforms to facilitate voting is a source of real dismay, and perhaps an indirect measure of denial. While Democrats praise these good government reforms in speeches, its own functionaries are apt to violate them in practice. This does not go unnoticed. People know when they've waited five hours on line to vote; they understand that Goldman Sachs doesn't write checks for speeches because they are keen to hear good orators.
Outside the well staked terrain of the two major political parties, there is a vast, unclaimed and poorly understood territory of voters' concerns. Procedural reforms look to navigate this expanse by bringing the Democratic Party closer to the people. Anything other than an earnest effort to facilitate voting speaks to a desire to control voters rather than empower them. Anything short of significant campaign finance reform bespeaks a smug satisfaction with ministering to the most powerful, a resigned and unprincipled disposition that not only asks Americans to choose the lesser of two evils, it narrows the ground separating them.
Any functional political system or party rewards engagement and honors sincerely held perspectives. At a minimum, stratagems should not depend upon ignorance for their success (as many GOP positions do). Although the Democrats show no signs of falling into epistemic closure, lost in a hermetically sealed land of non-logic where weapons of mass destruction were discovered in Iraq and climate change is debatable, that is hardly great solace. And I wonder if it isn't worth recasting voters' abiding attachment to the personal integrity of a candidate as something more than just an expression of values; is it not a critique of a political system, or a party? Perhaps integrity is the workaround many voters select absent other mechanisms of accountability; a "hack" to use while they wait around for the new release of the Democratic Party, version 4.0.