Sunday, May 8, 2005
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My greetings to Dan's readers as well. As I hope some of you will know from my columns for Slate and elswhere, I am less of a foreign policy expert than Dan or Suzanne (though not averse to offering thoughts on the subject). I'm a historian and political writer -- like Dan, I enjoy joining debates on political affairs not necessarily connected to my scholarship -- and I appreciate your indulging my areas of interest this week.
One of which is the Democratic party's struggle to find direction. For 35 years everyone has been aware that Democrats have lost working-class voters because of “social” issues -- from “acid, amnesty, and abortion” in 1972 to prison furloughs and the pledge of allegiance in 1988 to gay marriage in 2004. Last fall, Tom Frank won attention as the latest commentator to pick up this theme, catapulting himself to mini-celebrity. Now his book is out in paper, with a new afterword analyzing the 2004 election, well worth reading, which appears in the NYRB.
I’ve always thought Frank (a fellow historian) to be shrewd about many things, and he makes a convincing case that in nominating Kerry, the Democrats guaranteed they’d again have an uphill battle in refuting the stereotype of their party as in thrall to "cultural elites." Frank's especially good on why the Democrats perennially struggle on issues of war and the military:
Now, the solution of Frank -- and many others of his ilk over the last 35 years -- is to return to "economic populism," stressing the bread-and-butter issues on which the Democrats’ stands are naturally more appealing to most voters, including the Silent Majority-Reagan Democrat-Nascar Dad-types, than are the Republicans’.
The only problem with this argument is that the Democrats haven’t abandoned their economic populism. This charge has been leveled from the left at every losing Democratic candidate since the 1980s, and it’s just wrong. Economic populism was a key ingredient in the campaigns of Dems from Walter Mondale onward -- incluing John Kerry, scourge of outsourcing. The reality is that economic populism is a necessary but not sufficient element for a Democratic victory.
In 2004, foreign policy was more salient in the news almost every day than were economic issues. The issue environment consistently favored the Republicans, and no Democratic candidate could have changed that. What Democrats can change is how they're viewed by the public on foreign policy.
One way the Democrats can change on Foreign
Do you believe that would sufficent for the
Frank is a poor historian if doesn't realize he is standing at exactly the same fork in the road as the the Marxists of Europe in the 1880's and 1890's.
Then, all over the industrializing world, workers were organizing not to smash the capitalists as Marx said they would, but to squeeze out modest gains. Theory said that workers would reject religion and nationalism but exactly the opposite happened. They became more nationalistic and religious. They weren't opting for the Marxist polices that were 'obviously' in there best interest.
Since the theory was perfect then it must be the people that were wrong. They are too stubborn, foolish, and easily swayed by emotional apeals and religious mumbo-jumbo.
This is exactly Frank's argument today - just replace 'Marxist economic theories" with "Liberal academic economic theories."
The fork in the road that confronted the Marxists lead to democratic socialism on one path - and to anti-democratic socialism (radical syndicalists, Lenninism, and fascism, Marxism's bastad child) on the other path.
Frank doesn't seem to realize that history is repeating itself. And that he's helping it to happen. He believes that the people of Kansas have rejected a watered-down version of democratic socialism due to a fog of conservative and religiuos mumbo-jumbo.
If he realy believes that the folks in Kansas can't trusted to see to their own best interests, then he'll have to abandon atempts to 'help them' or, sooner or later, he'll have to turn to anti-democratic means to help them.
With "What's the Matter with Liberals?" Frank's blaming the people of the left for poor execution of his agenda, not questioning the agenda itself. Remember, when something is so self-evidently right then its the people who must be wrong - even the ones on his side.
We'll see, over the next few years, as his frustrations grow, how far he's willing to walk down that other path in the road ...posted by: Jos Bleau on 05.08.05 at 09:37 AM [permalink]
Joel Bleau -- everything you say about the left now was just as true of the right in 1964.
Everything moves in cycles, often because the winners over-reach. I suspect that is what we are seeing now.posted by: spencer on 05.08.05 at 09:37 AM [permalink]
I don't think you can talk about the recent history of Democrat's economic policy without including their stance on welfare, which played a significant role in separating "Reagan Democrats" from the Democratic Party. The 1996 welfare reform and policies such as the EIC are bi-partisan in nature, but tend to have higher support among Republicans. Call this Republican economic populism, if you will. One also cannot leave out the most significant feature of Republican economic populism that factored into converting working people into Republicans, tax cuts. By ignoring these factors, Frank's analysis is quite deficient, forcing him to give undue weight to cultural factors to explain a purported divorce from economic interests that would have been less puzzling if he had considered more economic policies than Republicans=corporations=bad.posted by: Norman Pfyster on 05.08.05 at 09:37 AM [permalink]
Spencer - i don't think so.
The right responded to the Goldwater defeat by splintering and turning inward. The torch was taken up by the institutions and think-tank tanks who asked themselves, "what are we about? Why are we for what we are for, and why should others be for it?". The best of them looked at the 1964 election and realized, in their own words "we won the wrong states for the wrong reasons." In essence, they chose democratic conservatism.
Frank's work is about avoiding that type of introspection. The left doesn't have to ask itself any tough questions - it just has to realize that a lot of working people are too foolish to know what's good for them, and adjust its methods accordingly.posted by: Jos Bleau on 05.08.05 at 09:37 AM [permalink]
For 35 years everyone has been aware that Democrats have lost working-class voters because of “social” issues -- from “acid, amnesty, and abortion” in 1972 to prison furloughs and the pledge of allegiance in 1988 to gay marriage in 2004
This is off by about four years. The tide began to turn rightward in 1966, the year of Reagan's election to the governorship of CA, and of big mid-term gains in the US Congress. (The bellwether candidacy of George Wallace would follow 2 years later). And you don't have to look very far for the cause, namely, the landmark civil rights legislation passed in the preceding congressional term.
Joe: I mostly take the same dim view of protectionism as you seem to. But I think your political science and sociology are way off. Thomas Frank, AFAIK, isn't an internationalist. And if 'economic populism' gains a foothold, it will be precisely by tapping into the hatred that already surges through the anti-immigrant movement, and is a not-inconsiderable part of the impetus for the war on terror itself (especially the farther one gets from Ground Zero, and the less that genuine fear is a motivation).posted by: ktheintz on 05.08.05 at 09:37 AM [permalink]
Kerry was not very articulate with his economic populism, which is one of the reasons he lost Ohio (our economy is continuing to sink).
There was also a more-than-vague feeling that he would turn the enviro-wackos loose on the auto industry as soon as he was sworn in.
When NAFTA was passed Clinton told us jobs would be lost but we would be flooded with new high tech jobs. We are still waiting.
Republicans may be overly simplistic, but they are understood.
Tomposted by: save_the_rustbelt on 05.08.05 at 09:37 AM [permalink]
What Democrats can change is how they're viewed by the public on foreign policy.
That isn't going to happen until Democrats change how they view foreign policy.posted by: rosignol on 05.08.05 at 09:37 AM [permalink]
If the Democrats' weakness has been their views on foreign policy, how do you explain that only two Democrats since WWII have received as much as 50% of the popular vote [LBJ in 64 after Kennedy's assassination, and Carter in 76 in the wake of Watergate]. During the same period Republicans have exceeded 50% seven times. This is a long-term structural weakness, not one tied to a specific set of issues.posted by: D.B. Light on 05.08.05 at 09:37 AM [permalink]
Economic populism was a key ingredient in the campaigns of Dems from Walter Mondale onward -- incluing John Kerry, scourge of outsourcing.
This is just silly. Clinton was no economic populist (NAFTA and welfare reform, anyone? New Democrats' Third Way, anyone?) Gore flirted with economic populism, especially at the convention, and his numbers shot up. But the DC establishment lambasted him for it, and (ever sensitive to the opinions of Tim Russert and the WaPo editorial board), the Gore campaign soft-pedaled its people-versus-the-powerful rhetoric.
Kerry definitely was no economic populist. Like Gore, he had his moments, but it was hardly a major theme of his campaign. He occasionally made suggestions that we could be smarter about outsourcing (i.e., there's no reason the government should give tax breaks to companies to help them outsource), but that's hardly red meat for the masses.
On the other hand, the basic message here is correct: the "issue environment" in 04 was dominated by foreign policy issues, and the Dems had no coherent message on that front.posted by: pdp on 05.08.05 at 09:37 AM [permalink]
So where are the fire and brimstone democrats? Frankly, all that has to come out of the democratic party is a sense that they'd fight at all. There's the real rub. With the republicans, I get the sense, irrespective of how you feel about it, that they'll talk a bit, but push come to shove, they'll shove. With the democrats, I haven't ever gotten the sense that they're really willing to act, eventually, rather than continue talking. I mean, the point at which you act, can be debateable, but the trust that you will act cannot be.posted by: Supercyber on 05.08.05 at 09:37 AM [permalink]
pdp is right.
Kerry was no economic populist or "scourge of outsourcing" - in debate #3 (I believe) he proudly related how he told the Ohio unions he wouldn't end outsourcing. Great move. Besides, Kerry voted for every Nafta deal that came along.
Why don't the Dems attack free trade as a fancy idea of the rich boys from Yale, an elitist one-world theory that's selling out America.
We ran a campaign for US Congress on those lines in 2004 and took 20 points off the incumbents re-elect margin - in a gerrymandered "safe" R district.
And ktheintz, if protectionism means protecting American families and the American standard of living, I'm a protectionist.
(And if it means protecting American businesses from imported goods made by cheap labor in a country that has a policy of forced abortion and imprisoning church leaders, I bet I can get a few 'values' types to sign on to the program, too.)
And by the way, let's be clear - outsourcing isn't trade, free or otherwise. It is labor arbitrage - the replacement of well-paid American labor with cheap foreign labor.
Misdiagnosis has killed more than once; this time the patient is America.posted by: CurtisE on 05.08.05 at 09:37 AM [permalink]
Franks' point is that the Democrats cannot be taken seriously on foreign policy as long as they are perceived as the party of the upper class.
He says the way to kick the upper class label is to embrace the economic issues that work for the working people. (Democrats, hooked on the corporate money like the Republicans are buying the corporate free trade/outsourcing bullshit so there's no there there on substantive issues.)
His argument is not economic populism vs foreign policy as the way for the party to regain credibility with voters.
It's economic populism (the antivenom for the right wing backlash/cultural populism) as the way for the Dems to shake the effete elitist label, a prerequisite for Dems to have credibility on foreign policy issues.posted by: Curtis E on 05.08.05 at 09:37 AM [permalink]
Franks' point is that the Democrats cannot be taken seriously on foreign policy as long as they are perceived as the party of the upper class.
Why on earth not? Republicans are percieved as being the party of the rich and corporate, but they're still considered credible and serious on foreign policy.
Something else is going on.posted by: rosignol on 05.08.05 at 09:37 AM [permalink]
I'm afraid the Democrats are dead on national security for the foreseeable future. I.e., they have little or no chance for national office while national security is an issue unless a Republican president screws up really bad.
This opinion is based to a significant degree on patterns of raising campaign funds. The amount of discretionary (word-of-art alert) out-of-state campaign funds available for Congressional and most US Senate primaries has grown so large relative to local fund-raising that it pretty much centralizes and limits the national security policies which a candidate can espouse.
I.e., the availability out-of-state campaign funds has become a means of enforcing a national security orthodoxy on Democratic candidates for federal office (legislative as well as presidential).
The reason for this is a high degree of ideological uniformity by individual Democratic contributors. This was true before Howard Dean's breakthrough in internet fund-raising, when the influence of a relatively small group of really wealthy contributors was dominant, and remains true afterwards. The smaller contributors who were able to express themselves courtesy of Dean's internet campaign share the foreign policy ideologically-based views of the wealthy contributors.
Few if any Democratic candidates for federal office will risk a torrent of out-of-state contributions going to his/her primary opponent[s] by diverging from, let alone challenging, the foreign policy views of what is effectively an ideological monoculture of campaign contributors.
Which locks them into general election defeat save in blue states and congressional districts while national security is an issue. Absent of course, a GOP screwup. Given some of the foam-at-the-mouth GOP knuckle-draggers who won U.S. Senate races last year, that may take a lot.posted by: Tom Holsinger on 05.08.05 at 09:37 AM [permalink]
The reality is that economic populism is a necessary but not sufficient element for a Democratic victory...What Democrats can change is how they're viewed by the public on foreign policy.
I believe that this analysis of the Democrats is dead on. The party can't (and my view shouldn't) move to a position on social issues that could rest moral majority types from the GOP, what they can do though is change the language they use to talk about national security and foreign policy issues. These issues are the most important function of the federal government and, with very few exceptions (Sen. Biden, Gen. Clarke, and...um....anyone else at all?) the Dems are embarrassingly out of touch with these issues.posted by: Joe on 05.08.05 at 09:37 AM [permalink]
Republicans are percieved as being the party of the rich and corporate, but they're still considered credible and serious on foreign policy. Something else is going on.
rosignol: I believe the "something else" has nothing to do with perceptions of the Dems as effete or whatever else, but the REALITY that they are not serious about foreign policy. Kennedy, Johnson, and Clinton were all to the right of their opponents on foreign policy and won. JFK especially would not shy away from talking about national security related issues or from talking tough (and acting tough) against communism. Kerry on the other hand (a symptom of the party in general) would simply give 20 seconds worth of incoherent talking point babble and then change the subject as quickly as he could to something else. If he could have spoken with any gravitas on foreign affairs or even just talked about it more often and more clearly he would have won. Though I am very much a progressive, I almost decided against voting for Kerry because he seemed so incredibly weak when it came to national security.
P.S. - Even though Bush has made some misteps in Iraq and with his unilateralist/combative rhetoric, when push comes to shove, Americans believe (rightly) that W will do what is necessary to overcome a threat to the good ol' USA, rightly or wrongly, average work-a-day folks did not believe this of Kerry, and though "values" was most prominent issue in the campaign by strict percentage, if you add Iraq, terrorism, and foreign affairs as reported, they made up a much higher percentage of the electorate than values votersposted by: Joe on 05.08.05 at 09:37 AM [permalink]
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