The Mid-Term Elections: Taking the Longer View
In the wake of an electoral setback on the scale experienced by the Democrats two weeks ago, the temptation to immediately rush to judgment is enormous. So also, if my e-mails and robo-calls are any guide, is the temptation to engage in yet more fundraising, as though money was the big thing of which Democrats were short. But both temptations need to be resisted. We need to throw less money and more brainpower at our politics, and we need to take our time doing both.
For defeat on the scale we have just experienced really requires a period of quiet reflection and careful conversation about the important lessons to be drawn from recent events by those keen to see a long-term reconstruction of a progressive majority in American politics. That emerging conversation is already underway, here on The Huffington Post and elsewhere; and the following thoughts are meant to be simply one contribution.
Certain mid-term lessons seem clear, at least to me if not (from what I have been reading) always to everybody else.
- Democrats don’t win elections by trying to be more conservative than the Republicans they are trying to defeat. As we noted in a posting last September, you don’t win elections by simply playing defense, and you don’t defeat Republicans by trying to outflank them on their right. If the American electorate want to support conservative candidates for public office, there are plenty enough in Republican ranks without the Democratic Party having to put up any more. And in any case, American voters aren’t stupid. They know real conservatives from fake ones, and so are not to be fooled by a Democratic Party offering them simply a more civilized form of conservative politics than the Republicans happen to be offering at the time. The Senate candidates who distanced themselves from Obama all went down to defeat: and rightly so, because their insistence on keeping their distance from the President just played into (and helped powerfully to reinforce) the Republicans’ main argument in their mid-term campaign: namely that the problem in Washington was too active and too radical a President. Voters believing that rhetoric rightly supported Republicans who offered principled resistance to White House policies rather than giving their votes to Democrats who offered simply to slow those policies down.
- Electoral coalitions that are not also governing coalitions flatter to deceive. Cruel as it may be to say now, much of the November 2008 hype to which many progressives (me included) subscribed, was just that – hype – the product of a profound misreading of what had, and what had not, just happened. The election of a black President was a critical achievement – that is not to be denied – but as we now well see, it did not by itself turn America from a racial to a post-racial society. And the election of a Democratic majority in both the House and the Senate did not, by that achievement alone, provide America with a progressive governing coalition. At the time we thought it did, but it didn’t. Far more of the 2008 Democratic Party vote than we initially realized was a vote against George W. Bush and because of the financial crisis, rather than one for Barack Obama as the leader of a progressive coalition. Too many seats were won in 2008 by blue-dog Democrats capitalizing on a temporary conservative unease with the Republican in the White House. Those “conservative” Democrats in the House were quickly replaced by proper Republican conservatives in the first re-election they then faced – in the “shellacking” of the 2010 mid-terms – and their equivalents in the Senate have just gone the same way in their first moment of re-election. They were defeated, even though in their time in office many of them did (as they often proudly asserted in their subsequent re-election campaigns) slow down the pace and dilute the direction of progressive reform. We should not forget just how much of the Affordable Care Act was chipped away, during its legislative passage, by resistance from blue-dog Democrats who are now no longer in office.
- Governing coalitions have to be created electorally by winning the argument as well as the immediate vote. The main Democratic candidates who won re-election two weeks ago were those who did not distance themselves from the President, but who instead maintained and re-affirmed their progressive credentials. More Democratic candidates might have succeeded in that fashion, indeed, had the White House not chosen to delay its immigration initiative. That delay certainly did not save Kay Hagan in North Carolina, or even Mark Pryor in Arkansas: it simply left the immigration lobby, the Democratic Party and the President in a far weaker position as he makes that initiative now. Polls taken during and after the election show popular majorities for many key Democratic Party policies, and yet in spite of that, the Republicans took back control of the entire Congress. It is quite an achievement for a political party to lose power when people agree with more of its program than they do of its opponent’s: and that rather suggests that a party confident about its positions – and willing to push them hard – is likely to win both electoral respect and electoral support. It is certainly more likely to do so than one so lacking in self-confidence that it simply chases the tail of its opponent’s policies, offering itself as a softer conservative political force rather than as an assertively progressive one.
- The building of electoral support for progressive politics requires total honesty about the problems that make progressive politics necessary. Too often, as elections loom, the governing temptation is one of talking up the Administration’s achievements rather than of emphasizing just how much more needs to be done, and could be done, if Congressional support for the Administration was more secure. Building the case for progressive change always leaves its advocates open to the charge that they are talking America down, that they are unpatriotic, even that they are the cause of the very problems to which they draw attention when making the case for change. But there is no ducking this dilemma. Making America stronger by progressive reform is an argument that has to be made; and making it may actually require a critique of existing Administration policy as well as of its current Republican alternative. The case for a different, more progressive, foreign policy will be the subject of a later posting. Now it is perhaps enough to insist that the Democratic Party – as a pre-requisite for an eventual return to effective power in Washington – be entirely honest about the scale and origins of key domestic difficulties: embedded poverty, stagnant wages, hidden unemployment, lack of adequate welfare services, under-funded public education, and an inadequate transport infrastructure, to name but a few. And that honesty will also require a clear recognition of how far the Obama Administration has actually failed to live up to much of its early promise. The man himself is fine, but his Administration has seriously under-performed. If it had not, many of these problems would no longer be in view.
- Why this under-performance? Largely because effective politics is about more than candidates. It is about programs. Yet in making that case for programs over personalities, it is likely that both the media and our own political habits won’t help; because left to ourselves, we (and the particular television channel we watch) will no doubt both remain excessively preoccupied with the comings and goings of different members of the political class. Left to themselves, the media in particular will invariably reduce politics to a matter of personalities, in a democratically-unhealthy pact with those personalities themselves. It is such easy journalism – the journalism of talking heads – but it is also a journalistic laziness that we can no longer afford to leave unchallenged. The question should not be: will Hilary run? The question should be: on what programs will the Democratic nominee who will follow Barack Obama run? And then, and only then: is Hilary the candidate most likely to pursue those programs with all due diligence? (where the answer may possibly be ‘no’) In other words, one lesson of last November, and indeed of the last six years, is that progressive politics requires programs that select candidates, not candidates that select programs. For until we, the Democratic left in the United States, go through a progressive equivalent of the Republican’s Tea Party moment – until the Democratic Party base, that is, gets serious about policy choices and policy discipline – the Party might win a few elections down the stretch, but the basic status quo in this country will remain fundamentally unchanged. And where will be the gain in that?
- Which is why it is now time again for a serious battle of ideas. Partly that battle will be one that Democratic Party activists are long accustomed to waging: pushing back against wholly misleading Republican claims about trickle-down economics, welfare queens, the burden of regulation on American business, climate change denial, and so on. All that will be vital, but there will need to be more – more ideological struggle on at least two fronts. (1) The case will need to be made again for the important role the federal government can and must play in managing the domestic economy and in regulating the worst excesses of American business: managing the domestic economy to bring back middle-class employment and wages, and to ensure that the benefits of economic growth are felt at the very bottom of the income ladder and not just at the top; and regulating in particular financial institutions that threaten us all if they focus more on speculation than on investment, as well as transnational corporations that make excessive profits by outsourcing American jobs. (2) And the overall narrative of American political history needs to be recaptured again, by challenging (for example) the conservative nonsense that the Federal Reserve System is a problem rather than currently a major source of economic stability and job creation, and by reminding this generation of American voters that the United States was at its strongest under FDR, and not under Ronald Reagan. Electorates are not simply inert phenomena. They are voting blocs molded by the political forces that appeal to them. Why leave that molding to the Republicans alone?
The temptation will be enormous – on both political activists and political candidates – to chase the rightward drift of American politics for short-term advantage, surrendering principle for expediency in some desperate attempt to hold on to the White House at any cost. But that temptation is a false one. The only way to be sure that the White House (and ultimately Congress) will stay out of Republican Party control is to stem the rightward drift from which the Republicans alone ultimately benefit. To negotiate effectively, as the English radical R.H. Tawney once told an equally embattled Labour Party in the UK, you first have to get off your knees. It is time for Democrats to stand up proudly for a progressive program to put America back to work and all Americans back into prosperity – stand up proudly, risk all, and go win elections again on a principled basis.
 Steven Rosenfeld, Will Democrats Try To Kill The Party’s Progressive Wing To Regain Power? Posted on Alternet.org, November 5, 2014: available at http://www.alternet.org/election-2014/will-democrats-try-kill-partys-progressive-wing-regain-power
 Adam Green and Stephanie Taylor, “Democrats Must Embrace Elizabeth Warren’s Agenda,” posted on The Hill November 9, 2014: available at http://boldprogressives.org/tag/adam-green/
 Zachary Goldfarb, “Americans will vote for Republicans even though they disagree with them on everything,” posted The Washington Post wonkblog, November 5, 2014: available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/11/04/americans-will-to-vote-for-republicans-even-though-they-disagree-with-them-on-everything/
 See Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin, The Political Consequences of the Great Recession. Washington DC: The Center for American Progress, November 7, 2014: available at https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/progressive-movement/news/2014/11/06/100712/the-political-consequences-of-the-great-recession/
 Kevin Zeese, Message to Democratic Party: It’s Time To Face Reality. Posted on NationofChange, November 14, 2014: available at http://www.mintpressnews.com/message-to-democratic-party-its-time-to-face-reality/198751/
 Elizabeth Warren, “It’s time to work on America’s agenda,” The Washington Post, November 7, 2014: avauilable at http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/elizabeth-warren-its-time-to-work-on-americas-agenda/2014/11/07/984da7b6-669c-11e4-9fdc-d43b053ecb4d_story.html
Tags: 2014 mid term elections, Barack Obama, battle of ideas, democratic party, domestic policy, electoral coalitions, governing coalitions, Kay Hagan, Mark Pryor, political narrative, progressives, Republicans
David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.
He writes here in a personal capacity.