top of page

The Democratic Party's long road to ruin

This was originally published on 9th November, 2017, and republished here on 4th January, 2022.

It’s been a year since the election of Donald Trump, and the Democrats are only now returning from the hidey-hole they’ve been in for the past few months, but only partially. This is not merely because they are minorities in both the House of Representative and the Senate and are without the presidency. Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, Tom Perez, Keith Ellison, all those that have led the charge against Donald Trump from the moment he won, are being drowned out by media speculation about FBI investigations, mass shootings, sports protests, and celebrity scandals. A much vaunted change of strategy from the Democrats in July introducing an economic ‘Better Deal’ has gone absolutely nowhere, and was always a little suspicious, because the leadership of the Democratic Party is still yet to give any real indication that they properly understand why they lost the 2016 election.

Let’s see if we can figure it out for them.

(Image: Natan Dvir/Polaris/Newscom)

The grand strategy of the Democrats in 2017 has been refusing to accepting defeat. Hillary Clinton has been promoting her new book recently, amusing titled ‘What Happened?’, which perfectly sums up the stunned and confused attitude of those who didn’t and still don’t grasp the nature of political ideologies. The dissonance of Trump winning when he ‘should’ have lost has led to all manner of conspiracies, the most popular and enduring of which has been that he colluded with Russia. It has never exactly been clear what the form of this collusion was, but Russia is a convenient and historically recognisable excuse.

It’s not, however, one that is ever going to help them to win again in the future, because the only people that care are those who were already convinced about Trump being unfit for office. The Democrats haven’t been helped in moving on from the election by the fact that Sanders supporters have spent most of the past year complaining about Trump than about the workings of the Democratic Party. They, of all people, should realise that there is something intrinsically wrong about the Party, and yet they have been distracted from it, though former DNC chair Donna Brazile is doing her best to shift their attention back to the curious primary campaign.

Last time, we looked at the states that decided the election, seeing how each county in these states voted, and how the results compared to the 2012 election. The question Democrats should be asking is this: what is the relationship between the voting pattern of 2016, and the parties and candidates that were on offer to voters?

Before we can answer that, we must first define the pattern of the election, which is as follows:

  • Overall turnout was stable

  • Turnout was up in the biggest states

  • There was a noticeable correlation between turnout, region and the direction of votes

  • Rural and regional votes had a stronger than usual correlation to the Republicans, while metropolitan votes had a stronger than usual correlation to the Democrats

On election night, CNN’s John King summed this pattern up as ‘the red areas are more red, and the blue areas are more blue’. This is true, to the extent that many rural and regional areas that were blue last time flipped to red, while a number of metropolitan counties (though there weren’t many left that had voted Republican in 2012) went the other way. If the US president elected by popular vote this wouldn’t really matter, because urban areas have more voters than rural areas.

Thus, no problem for the Democrats, who could count on the majority of votes from the majority of American voters. The electoral college system is a somewhat convoluted and old-hat way of avoiding that scenario, and it worked exactly as it was supposed to in 2016. The votes of those living outside of major metropolitan areas in Pennsylvania became critical in deciding the election, while the record Democratic vote in California was irrelevant.

County map of the US presidential election, according to the size and direction of the swing from 2012 to 2016. (Image: Ali Zifan and Magog the Ogre/Wikimedia)

But what was the reason for regional areas turning away from the Democrats in states they have been able to hold on to at election after election? The Republicans had not won in Pennsylvania and Michigan since 1988 and Wisconsin since 1984, and winning even one of them had for some time been considered a long-shot, let alone all three.

And yet they won all three.

To understand why this happened, we need to go back to January 1975, when the 94th United States Congress is about to meet. Mid-term elections had been held two months earlier, and the Democrats were celebrating an increase in their majorities in both houses, a result of the Watergate scandal and high inflation under Richard Nixon’s replacement, Gerald Ford (who had also pardoned Nixon almost immediately).

Of those Democrats, around 80 of them were entering Congress for the first time, many being in their 30s and early 40s. They had grown up in the postwar era, knowing nothing of the hardships of the Great Depression, and consequently bringing with them no desire to continue the economic nationalism of the generation that had preceded them. Instead, they were concerned about civil rights and international peace, and intended to bring their complaints to bear on their party and their nation. They were the Watergate Babies, and their entry into Congress shaped the Democratic Party into what it is today.

The Watergate Babies

The path for the Watergate Babies’ entrance into Congress was set in the 1968 presidential elections. The Democratic Party nominated Hubert Humphrey, who had been vice-president to Lyndon B. Johnson. Humphrey was born in small town South Dakota, and his experience of the Depression shaped his view of how the government should protect the economy from business, and the people from the economy, in a way that was typical of his generation.

In 1964 he was chosen as Johnson’s running mate, pitting him against Barry Goldwater. Goldwater campaigned heavily on states rights and limited government, and was, more broadly, what would now be termed a libertarian. As such, he was diametrically opposed to someone like Humphrey. Johnson won comfortably, with only five southern states and Goldwater’s home state of Arizona voting for the Republican.

Eugene McCarthy, Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern in 1968. (Image: Minnesota Star Tribune/United Press)

Come 1968, things were not so simple for the Democrats. President Johnson declined to run again, and the policies of his presidency were dividing the party. Humphrey was the continuation candidate, seeking to carry on with the market interventionist, paternalistic Democratic Party that resonated with working class voters. Vietnam War activists, considering Humphrey to be the pro-war candidate, rebelled in support of fellow Minnesota politician Eugene McCarthy, who was the first significant anti-war candidate.

McCarthy was actually relatively similar to Humphrey apart from this, but his relentless anti-war message won him many votes among young liberal baby boomers, who saw him as a reformer. Robert Kennedy was also considered an anti-war candidate, but his focus was primarily domestic, and identity politics worked heavily in his favour among Catholic, African-American and Hispanic voters. Finally, voters from the states that were traditionally Democrat but voted for Barry Goldwater were unimpressed by any of these candidates, all of whom supported the Civil Rights Act, and chose ‘states rights’ supporter George Wallace, who did not support the Act.

The assassination of Kennedy sent his supporters in three directions: some went to McCarthy, the remaining anti-war candidate; some went to Humphrey, for his protection of the working classes; and the remainder went to George McGovern, a anti-war late-comer to the race whose positions were, like McCarthy, otherwise fairly similar to Humphrey. With his biggest challenger no longer in the picture, Humphrey swept to victory — much to the annoyance of liberal activists, who interrupted the Democratic National Convention with protests repeatedly, capturing the nation’s attention, and guaranteeing that Humphrey would have no chance of winning the election against Richard Nixon.

Four years later, many of those protesting were on the campaign trail for the 1972 Democratic nominee, George McGovern. He, along with political strategist Fred Dutton, had examined Humphrey’s loss and come to a conclusion: the Democrats had to widen the net in order to bring young and ethnic voters into the party. Identity politics were not a new idea — the New Deal coalition that supported Franklin Roosevelt was built around a similar idea, and Robert Kennedy was doing something similar — but the choice of identity groups in the McGovern/Dutton coalition was new.

Their emphasis was on “the young, the poor, and the oppressed minorities,” along with the “workingmen” and the “educated affluent,” to create a “coalition of conscience”. Although the working class was part of the coalition, they would only be along for the ride. The ‘conscience’ in question had much more to do with the college-educated than it did with them. Dutton, especially, was convinced that the liberal baby boomers were the future of politics.

George McGovern arrives at a rally in San Francisco in 1972. (Image: Ron Pownall/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty)

Having begun reforming the Democratic Party in this image, McGovern was annihilated at the 1972 election by Nixon, and the Democratic Party could well have collapsed entirely, were it not for Watergate. The “workingmen” who were supposedly going to join this coalition went straight to the Republicans, but reconsidered their decision once Nixon was brought down. But those college-educated voters who had worked on the McGovern campaign were the same people who entered Congress two years later (hence the name ‘Watergate Babies’) — and the many more who didn’t become congressmen were supporters of those who did.

Though neither entered federal politics that year, Bill Clinton was a part of that generation, as was Al Gore. ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ wasn’t just a memorable slogan, it was a core belief of these Democrats. They were familiar with neither the Depression nor the Second World War, but instead with the post-war boom and the Vietnam War. The concerns of their predecessors had been around regulating commerce to prevent another Depression and intervening in foreign nations to prevent another World War, but the world the Babies lived needed, to them, less intervention in the market and in foreign nations to secure a peaceful and prosperous society.

Not that there was some grand, organised conspiracy at every level to take over the Democratic Party. While McGovern and Dutton were setting the long-term direction of the party, many of those entering Congress had the more immediate aim of reducing corruption. The effect of Watergate on the nation had been enormous, and these Democrats were swept in on the back of sentiment desiring Congress to be cleaned up.

Once in office, these new Democrats set about taking over the various instruments of congressional power, voting out long-serving committee leaders from the New Deal era one-by-one, and replacing them with their own. To the Babies, even though they shared the same party affiliation, these committee leaders were the epitome of corruption in Washington. Jimmy Carter was not among their number, but nonetheless his term in office saw the beginning of this liberal push, through economic deregulation.

Economic deregulation was anathema to the previous generation of Democrats — like Humphrey — and was a policy that generally belonged to the Republicans. American party politics has never been ideologically stable, shifting every few decades by drawing up battle lines to fight over the most important issue of the day. But come 1992, the biggest issue of the day was economic policy, and the Republican Bush and Democrat Clinton were nearly identical on it. The insurgent Ross Perot was able to make serious challenge for the presidency, and did so on the back of the similarity of the major parties’ economic policy (especially with regards to free trade), and he led the polls for a time. But in the end, Clinton won, NAFTA was signed, and more deregulation was on the way.

From Clinton to Clinton

In once sense, Dutton was right. The liberal baby boomers were the future of politics, but the long-term success of the Watergate Babies was not in eliminating corruption, which found its way back into Washington DC sooner rather than later, but in becoming partners with big business. They weren’t alone, as the Republican Party mostly in lock-step with them regarding anything to do with deregulation (though not on taxes, which was really the only thing the two were able to fight about economically). Despite this, hostility between the two parties and their constituents, as presented in the mass media, continued to grow. Why?

Image: Steve Liss/Time Magazine)

Well, the Democratic Party leadership had not forgotten about the strategy worked out by McGovern and Dutton. The ‘coalition of conscience’ was nearly full formed with its grouping of ethnic minorities, the college educated and single women. The economy under the Clinton administration was booming, especially in telecommunications, and NAFTA appeared to be a great success, at least for buyers. 2000 was an electoral blip, the slimmest of losses on the back of a reaction to Clinton’s personal misdemeanours and a split of the Democrat vote to Ralph Nader. So too was the 2004 defeat, a result of 9/11 and its aftermath in Afghanistan and Iraq, being fought almost entirely on national security.

Underneath the surface, though, were signs that it wasn’t just a blip. The deep south, which had for many decades been the bedrock of Democrat support, abandoned the ‘rainbow coalition’ Democrats in droves, while their allies in the party, the northern industrial working class, remained (mostly due to the continued association of the Democrats with the union movement), but were increasingly unhappy with what the deal they were getting. Social liberalism was costing them their jobs, and supporting causes they didn’t agree with.

But where could they go? There are only two options in US politics, and if they weren’t blue, they had to be red, and the Republicans weren’t offering much different to work with. And so these working class voters were opted to remain at their political home instead of becoming politically homeless — if they even chose to vote at all.

The onset of the GFC exacerbated this issue, and the arrival of Barack Obama, offering ‘hope’ and ‘change’ but mostly bringing a continuation of the Dutton/McGovern plan, did little to quell their unhappiness. Once again, though, the Republicans managed to offer them even less, first in John McCain and then, above all, in Mitt Romney, a wealthy, free-market supporting liberal. Moreover, their political clout seemed to be diminishing, as Dutton had predicted it would. There were larger numbers of ‘coalition’ voters than ever before, and Barack Obama had won two elections in a row with their support. Hillary Clinton was clearly going to continue down that path unopposed, and the Republican favourite was Jeb Bush, whose policies were a continuation of his brother’s and his father’s, who were themselves in line with Bill Clinton.

The phrase ‘demographics are destiny’ had never seemed more accurate — but there was one little hitch.

Check your electoral privilege

Dutton’s assumption that a coalition of voters could overcome one big bloc of voters is probably fairly safe in any election won by popular vote, as of today, thanks to mass immigration. But the presidency of the United States is not decided on popular vote. It’s decided on a state-by-state basis, according to the population that those states have.

This still wouldn’t be a problem if the coalition of voters and the big bloc of voters are distributed evenly in every state. But they aren’t, as the coalition of voters tend to congregate together in large cities and other places that already have a high proportion of people that identify with the modern Democratic Party. California is the most obvious example of this, but under the electoral college system it doesn’t matter whether the winner of the state receives ten or ten million votes more than their opposition, because they’ll still get the 55 EC votes the California gives them. So, in some sense, the large proportion of voters that are of a minority ethnicity, young, college educated or (single) women doesn’t actually matter than much if they aren’t distributed across the right states.

Of course, they can still overcome that to some extent if they are the only voters voting as a bloc. If everyone who does not fit those categories split their vote 50/50, the Democrats would easily win the election because they would win every state. But there are still many more voters that do not fit in that coalition than there are those that do. What if all those other voters voted as a bloc as well? The Republicans would comfortably win. What if we removed richer voters from the equation? In fact, what if we just had the northern and midwest working class voters switch to the Republicans? Well, then things would get interesting. But first, the Republicans would need to put forward a candidate that would appeal to them.

Enter, Donald Trump.

It wasn’t as though the Democrats had had no warning that working class voters — whom they had assumed would stick with them until they were no longer needed — were unhappy. Bernie Sanders (who is not a member of the party) may well have had a real chance at being the Democratic nominee on the back of working class support, had the party’s National Committee not already decided that Hillary Clinton would be the nominee, no matter what. But the party leadership wasn’t interested, believing that the ‘rainbow coalition’ would get them over the line and continuing to ignore the very real possibility that Sanders supporters would become Trump supporters. Indeed, the Clinton campaign had long believed that the 2016 election would be a ‘turnout’ election, and devoted all their energy into winning the ‘usual’ swing states, of Florida, Iowa and North Carolina.

Alas, in assuming that it would be a ‘turnout election’, they made the assumption that there would be no shifts in the voting blocs for either party, even after Trump became the nominee and was clearly gunning for the voter base that the Democrats had spurned, unlike any of his Republican predecessors since Reagan. Instead, there was an enormous shift, because voters who were not part of the ‘rainbow coalition’ chose, for the first time, to vote as a bloc.

The Dutton/McGovern strategy was a fifty year gamble on identity politics, and it would’ve worked had those excluded from the coalition of voters not wised up and formed their own coalition, which, despite mass immigration, is still bigger than the rainbow coalition could be. In other words, they got it absolutely right except for the one crucial part of the plan, which they got completely wrong.

The voting pattern of 2016 was that voters who had been flipping between parties or not voting because both of them were liberal, pro free-trade, pro mass immigration parties, living predominantly in the north and midwest, had a candidate who appealed to them for the the first time since Ronald Reagan, and voted for him accordingly.

Voters aren’t stupid. If they believe they’re being sold up the river, and someone comes along who says they will stop selling them up the river, they’re going to vote for that person. So, they did.

Go your own way

If the next presidential election was held tomorrow, would the Democratic candidate be able to defeat Donald Trump? Probably not. The Democrats are only held together right now by being not-Trump, and even then, sometimes that isn’t enough. There are two opposing camps of political ideologies, one with liberals like Hillary Clinton and the other with socialist like Bernie Sanders, but there are also two opposing camps when it comes to the extent and shape of identity politics they wish to be involved in, and they don’t neatly split along the ideological lines, so there are Sanders supporters who disagree with other Sanders supporters about identity politics, but who agree with Clinton supporters about it, even though they disagree with the latter about economics.

So, whoever they put forward as a candidate, there are going to be people unhappy about it. Of course, liberal Republicans don’t really like Donald Trump either, but seem to be convinced that they can get what they want out of him (tax reform) and just ignore the other stuff (immigration and trade), and everything will be alright, so they would probably rather vote for him again than for a Democrat who will probably either be promoting identity politics they don’t identify with, or economic policies they don’t support.

You could actually argue that the Democrats have won five out of the eleven presidential election despite, rather than because of the ‘demographics is destiny’ plan. Carter won because of Nixon and Bill Clinton spent most of his campaigns trying to court voters excluded from the ‘coalition of conscience’ (and may have had some help from Ross Perot). Only Barack Obama could be argued to have won on the back of this coalition, and even then, he only did so because of the working class did not vote as a strong bloc.

(Image: Associated Press)

That is not a record of long-term success, and this argument is not even a new one. Here’s an article from the New York Times in 2006 making exactly the same point. Hillary Clinton lost because the electoral strategy of the Democrats relies on identity politics, and identity politics are unreliable in a healthy democracy (which is, presumably, what Americans want). Don’t just take the presidency as an example of this. Look at how the Democrats struggle to win in Congress outside of their city fortresses. Look at how they have disappeared from state and local elections in the south especially, the place they once had one-party rule in.

Three options stand before the party. First is the easy option of continuing down the path they’re on, perhaps by running Michelle Obama in 2020, or someone similar who ticks the right boxes, and hope that Trump has a Nixon moment. This option is in favour by much of the party leadership, because it’s all they know and they think it works.

Option two is the back-to-the-future option, advocated by people like Mark Lilla, of choosing a policy area that captures the public’s interest and unites people from across the country, and run with it. This, as he mentions in that interview, was how the Democrats once worked before they went down the identity politics path, and it had forced the Republicans to adopt a similar strategy under Eisenhower in order to break the Democratic stranglehold on national politics.

Option three is not so much an option as it is a result. If things continue to go south for the party, they will probably split. This is true of most major parties around the world, and it would force them to pick an ideology, and let the party system expand from two to three.

They would never countenance it, but the latter would lead to a much healthier democratic system. That is, however, a discussion for another time.


bottom of page