Whatever happened to the liberal Democrats?
[I was conferring several days ago with Hamline politics and law professor David Schultz about the Separation of Powers Clause in the Minnesota Constitution. (I wrote about it recently.) The conversation wandered, as conversations will, and the subject of cross posting some of Professor Schultz’s posts from his blog, Schultz’s Take, came up. Here’s the first one, a commentary written just after the close of the special session in the wee hours of the morning today.
We’re pleased that he will appear here from time to time; it is obvious he didn’t waste any time in drawing his conclusions about the just-ended legislative season. I picked the graphic, though, so you can blame that on me. Steve]
What the hell ever happened to progressive politics and liberalism in the Democratic Party?
When I first moved out here, DFLers bowed to the memory of Humphrey, McCarthy, Freeman, and Mondale. Later they added Wellstone to that. But such homage is living in the past, shallow in the sense that the DFL today lacks the courage of the convictions it once had. The same is true for Democrats at the national level.
At the national level Barack Obama is pushing a free trade agreement that only Republicans and Wall Street can love, and he now wants to ramp up troop commitment and base building in Iraq, essentially continuing Bush’s war and undoing the original rationale of his presidency. Hilary Clinton’s liberalism is hardly that; her speech on voting rights called for tepid reform at best, ignoring the socio-economic forces for why many do not vote, and her call for economic justice looks hollow next to support for Wall Street.
In Minnesota, a governor who just a few months was heralded in the national media as the most liberal one in America who got the job done, just folded to the Republicans on almost any measure. The give-aways on the environment, gun silencers, gutting the State Auditor’s office, and retreating on universal pre-K send signals that Republicans can win if they hold out long enough. And then there is Senate majority Leader Tom Bakk — why he is a Democrat is anyone’s guess. His leadership was deplorable, his messaging horrific, and his negotiating skills next to none. If he thinks that his capitulation will defend and protect Senate seats in 2016 he is simply wrong. His gaffes and missteps only make suburban DFLers more vulnerable, and he has done nothing to convince rural voters to support Democrats. He made the classic mistake Democrats have made for so long, believing that by acting like Republicans they are more electable. The reality is that the more the Democrat brand is muddled and undistinguished the harder it is to win an election.
The politics that looks dead is good old-fashioned economic liberalism. The progressive politics that appears dead is that of Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, and even Teddy Roosevelt. It is about the Great Society and the New Deal. It is about redistributive politics that sought to raise those at the economic bottom, narrow the gap between the rich and poor, and wrestle control of political power in the United States from corporations and plutocrats. It was a commitment to believing that the government had an important role in make sure we had a nation that was not one-third ill-fed, ill-clothed, and ill-housed, that kids should not go off to school hungry, and that corporations should not have the same rights as people.
But if Bill Clinton’s presidency did not kill off this type of progressive politics, surely Barack Obama has. If Obama did not do it directly, he did so indirectly with the 2010 and 2014 backlashes against him that has done more to kill progressive politics than can be imagined. With less than two years to go Obama is liberated, and you would think he would be bolder, but he is not. Why? He never was the liberal folks wanted to believe. In 2008 his liberalism was far distant to the right compared to Dennis Kucinich and even John Edwards.
Mark Dayton gets nothing his first year in office, then supports corporate welfare for the billionaire Vikings owner. Now, again in 2014, he gives in and Tom Bakk is complicit. Progressives are on the run everywhere. It is not just on matters of public policy such as with taxes, government regulation, and health care, but also in the rhetorical battle for the hearts and minds of the people. You can’t even call yourself a liberal anymore without being red baited. Thus the reason for switching to the term progressive. Conservatives have successfully labeled as left or socialist anyone who does not agree with them.
Watch cable news (not just FOX) or surf the web, crackpot conservative ideas dominate. In 2008, Ron Paul pleaded for a return to the gold standard; Michele Bachmann blamed Obamacare and Wall Street reforms for the crash in the economy (even though neither have really taken effect for the most part). The recession of 2008 is the fault of the government and not greedy bankers and speculators; Keynesian economics to stimulate the economy is wasteful; consumer protection is bad for business, and the Supreme Court’s Citizens United expanding corporate free speech rights to dump unlimited money into the buying of elections is good. Oh, and vaccines cause mental retardation and global warming does not exist, and Obama is blamed for the screw ups with FEMA and hurricane Katrina! [Even though Katrina was three years before Obama was elected. ed] Main stream media seems afraid to put real progressives on the air and what passes as progressive on MSNBC is watered-down, snobbish, and defensive.
How did it happen?
There is not one cause; there are several. First, what Obama and progressives have failed to do is craft a narrative supporting their views. Conservatives have the narrative of individual freedom – markets are good and government is bad. Government suppresses personal freedom and markets promote it. Never mind that corporations tell more people what to do with more of their life at work than the government ever does or could. That’s corporate freedom. Conservatives have made free choice their buzz word and equality a dirty one. Progressives have no overarching rhetoric and narrative to support their world view. Progressives need a winning narrative that appeals to Americans and which dictates a governing philosophy.
Second, Obama was not really a liberal but his rhetoric sounded like it. He ran promising change. The reason why so many are disappointed in him is not that he was too far left but that instead he failed to deliver on his lofty promises. After his inauguration, Obama had a window to change America but he flinched. Carpe diem was not his motto.
Third, progressives lack guts to fight. Obama repeatedly caves, and now Dayton has done it twice. Why? Democrats (and one should not confuse the party with progressivism) believe that they are the caretakers for government. They believe that they need to be responsible and not run the risk of shutting the government down for fear of how it would ruin the economy or hurt people. But conservatives know this and take advantage of the Democrats willingness to blink. But by blinking the Democrats are screwing over poor people and the economy slowly by giving ground one inch at a time and they seem unable to recapture it. Until Democrats fight and show conservatives they are willing to shut the government down and hold conservatives responsible, they will never win. Missing is the courage of their convictions.
Fourth, conservatives understand how to make structural reforms and policy changes that both benefit their supporters and enhance their power. Tax cuts and cuts in regulation are simple ways to benefit supporters, but there is more. Voter ID disempowers their opposition, attacking union rights undercuts labor support for Democrats and opposition to business in the workplace, and gutting regulations on money in politics strengthens corporations and rich individuals. Obama’s biggest mistake in his first two years was his failure to act accordingly. Instead of health care reform he should have used his sizable majorities in Congress to support the Employee Free Choice Act to strengthen unions, adopt national legislation banning voter ID, and permitting day-of-election registration in federal elections, and adopting real Wall Street and bank reforms that would have limited their power, including reauthorizing Glass-Steagall. [Hear, hear. ed]
Moreover, Obama should have first done something to help homeowners and workers get their houses and jobs back. Reward supporters up front and they are with you for life. Furthermore, when the Supreme Court issued Citizens United Obama could have issued an executive order barring corporations from bidding on federal contracts if they make political expenditures. Or he could have ordered the Securities and Exchange Commission to issue rules requiring shareholder assent before companies make political expenditures. Finally, to break the back of conservative news, he could have embraced a re-institution of the Fairness Doctrine to require the media to offer diverse view points. But he did not do any of these.
In Minnesota Dayton signed the death knell for campaign finance reform. His end-of-session negotiations with the legislative leaders were a contempt for open and accountable government. He and the DFL leadership have never supported lobbyist, campaign finance, or real structural reform of the government. Instead, if anything, what has emerged is a CEO-corporate style of management for government – a repudiation of liberal reforms of the last 40 years and an embracing of a Republican-style of politics.
This is the last problem: Democrats now feed at the same trough as Republicans. Obama, Clinton, and Democrats across the country and Minnesota are equally as dependent on big money and the kindness of millionaire friends as are Republicans.
Progressive politics is dead so long as it is married to the current Democratic Party. They need a party that is not willing to play it safe and worry that if a few Democrats lose that means the Republicans win. It means a willingness to fight for what you believe in. This is what progressive politics needs to be in the age of conservatism.
The dead don’t fight or win.
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