When a friend asks, "With such a beneficent and munificent party, how could it have been so shellacked in 2016?" it's a question worth exploring. We've heard all the glib reasons, and we even listed them so that we could put them aside to better focus on better explanations. For example, could it be an error to conflate the Democratic Party with liberals?
First let's define the term. Merriam-Webster says that liberal is "a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy " of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties specifically."
If that definition doesn't seem to fit the Democratic Party, we may have stumbled upon an important reason it got shellacked in 2016. The Party just might not be all that liberal at all, and where it actually is liberal it might not be all that effective. When the Party embraced a Republican blueprint for free-market universal healthcare, was that progress, or just expediency? When the Party supports increasing levels of regulation, does that reflect a belief in the essential goodness of humankind? And where is the passion of the Party for the kind of meaningful progress that could only come about through universal suffrage - and for ensuring that every person's vote is equally weighted?
Corruption from moneyed interests keeps the Party from reflecting liberal ideals. While corporate money flows to the GOP to promote its agenda, corporate money flows to Democrats to compromise its agenda. Corporate interests target Democrats on an issue-by-issue basis, often prying their subjects away from the Party on the basis of guns, abortion, or religion - depending on the threats and vulnerabilities their constituencies present. Worst are those Corporate Democrats whose political careers have been supported from the beginning by big-money interests. This kind of corruption separates the Democratic Party from its liberal ideals as well as the values and goals set forth in its own platform.
For decades progressives have good-heartedly promoted patches for the wounds made by bad public policy. They should have been pushing to change the policy itself and prevent the problems it creates. They see problems around them and they want to help. Often the problems are too big for an individual, a church congregation, or a local community to handle. So the government is asked to step in with a solution. Some very good things have grown out of this pattern, including some of the things Lakoff lists. But as good as these measures have been, they have often failed to address the underlying causes of the problems they were trying to solve. And we're watching - we see the failures.
Today, for example, the Party promotes a raise in the minimum wage. In and of itself, it might be good policy. But it doesn't address the economic practices that depress wages in the first place. We can see that burdening the employment of labor with payroll taxes drives unemployment up and wages down. Applying add-on solutions like minimum wage laws fails to address the underlying causes. It also reduces the freedom of employers. And it introduces a costly and disruptive complication into the labor market.
Democrats have promoted the earned income tax credit in the Internal Revenue Code that gives a tax break to low-income working families. In and of itself this may be good policy. But it doesn't address the fundamental economic problem of a tax system that favors capital over labor. We can see that favoring capital over labor drives unemployment up and wages down. It causes ever greater concentration of wealth and power. And it gives up our democratic institutions to those who possess that wealth and power. Applying add-on solutions like the earned income tax credit fails to address the underlying causes. It also reduces the freedom of other taxpayers. And it introduces a costly and disruptive complication into our system of funding the government.
Liberals throughout American history have been aggressive. The Founding Fathers were willing to literally hang together if necessary in their quest for independence. The labor movement was met with vigorous conflict and outright thuggery - and it rose to the challenge. The suffrage movement was marked by derision and arrests - and yet she persisted. The civil rights movement was opposed by the most egregious violence. Today's genteel liberals just might have lost some of that fire that has always been necessary to heat up the cauldron of social, cultural, and legal progress. Has the aggressive progressive given way to languid liberalism? Perhaps the Achilles' heel of liberal belief is embracing the essential goodness of the human race and waiting for the better angels of the opposition to emerge.Standard explanations can't be entirely ignored, and taken together they were a powerful force. And maybe the failure of liberal influence isn't really the same as the failure of the Democratic Party. But our history can show us the much more fundamental structural flaws in our system of allocating political power. And maybe - just maybe - a covert conspiracy has exploited these flaws to capture the institutions of democracy for its own purposes. Stay tuned.