The Democrats are celebrating their win in the November election as a victory for democracy, a welcoming assertion if they’ve indeed checked the anti-democratic tendencies in the Republican Party and elsewhere. But it was also surely a defaulted one, dependent to a great extent on Republican failures: their mediocre candidates, refusals to explain positions on key issues, extremist, alienating rhetoric, measures to curtail voting, the blowback from Roe, etc.
This margin of victory would’ve been much greater had the party aggressively recruited the diversity of voices it once represented. The party leadership spent considerable time and resources to support moderates and defeat progressives to solidify its centrist course. This despite polls showing that most Americans support the issues the progressives represent (though not the label!). The form of democracy within the Democratic Party has repressed the democratic potential in the larger society.
The party has consumed cyberspace with its top-down rhetoric of “diversity,” a laudable moral inspiration for sure that has led to the greater demographic inclusion of racial and ethnic minorities. But a more inclusive diversity is lacking in the party, one that pays more attention to the class status of those successfully included while more broadly representing the economically disadvantaged. And this broadening need not eclipse the importance of the cultural categories of race and multiculturalism.
As Thomas Frank has recently shown, the Democratic Party has been moving toward the center since the 1970s, courting the suburban and educated legions of the electorate to compete with the Republicans. Polls from the last two election cycles show that those making under $50,000 a year from all racial and ethnic groups are trending toward the Republicans.
The Democrats’ legislation to compensate students for their loan indebtedness, for example, speaks volumes about its priorities. In failing to address the causes of this problem, it offers no distinction between those who reaped the benefits of college and can repay their loans, and those who either didn’t go to college or haven’t received sufficient rewards from their degrees to retire them. And it ignores the plight of those in the lower and working classes who could never attend. The Democrats of course have been pushing the fast-track into college for some time while slighting those who have neither the aptitude nor the interest in college, reflected in their weak support for unions and their reluctance to develop workable programs to expand the trades. Expanding the competitive field to get more bodies into college will not fundamentally alter the inequality gap between the educated and the un-educated, the urban and rural populations.
Instead of working to transform the party to become fully diverse, the Democrats are shoring up their current position, even moving further to the right. Hakeem Jeffries is being hailed as the voice of the new generation. Appropriately, since he fits the image perfectly of cultural inclusiveness. But despite his claim—on Meet the Press, 1/8/23—that the Democratic Party represents everyone, he has been at odds with the progressives’ support for the lower and working classes for some time. Tragically, as mentioned, since the progressives only want a return to the days when the Democratic Party represented this larger diversity.
Instead of reversing these trends to expand its base of support, and delivering a more inclusive democracy, the Biden administration and the Democratic Party elite have repeatedly targeted MAGA as a “fascist” threat to democracy. However credible such comments might be, this rhetorical flourish helps them avoid the issue of how they’ve managed to lose so many of their traditional supporters to the Republicans and the MAGA movement. These have captured a significant number of the lower and working classes abandoned by the Democratic Party, especially the less educated populace in rural America. Seduced is a better word since MAGA and the larger Republican Party offer no real solutions. It’s a reactive populism.
This being the case, the issue then is how and why citizens who’ve traditionally supported the values of the Democratic Party could end up essentially going against their own interests and supporting a movement that negates these values. This hasn’t happened overnight. Years and years of exclusion since the Democratic Party’s move to the center have spawned irreversible damage. The average wages for workers have been essentially stagnant since then, the moment when inequality began to increase. This decline in the standard of living has compounded alienation over time.
This alienation, and not simply the blockage from representation, explains why so many victims of this decline believe their interests are served by a reactive populism, one that bodes little help for correcting these conditions; and not a progressive populism, one that proposes to return the Democrats to its roots as the party of the economically excluded. They’re also drawn by a powerful symbolism: the strident rhetoric from charismatic figures that promises to take care of all problems with authority; appeals to a faux nostalgia for a world that never existed; and success at blaming the real victims of our problems which only serves to detract from their essential causes.
The Democrats must broaden its policies to lure these disaffected citizens back into the fold. Failing this, we will be faced with continual stalemate and extremist ideologies.