Aside from partisan redistricting, Democrats are victims of four
trends begun under Ronald Reagan in the 1980's. First, Reagan made hatred of the federal
government the dominant meme in the GOP. Being the Great Communicator, he laid
the groundwork for it to become the overriding thought about politics in bars, barber shops, and bargain stores. Even more damaging, this idea and its policy
consequences have left the poor and working classes, generally supporters of
Democrats, convinced that the government cannot and will not help them, so why
participate in elections.
Second, after the de-escalation of military programs
following the Vietnam War, Reagan promoted a more active use of the armed
forces overseas and sought costly equipment. Armed intervention has been
nearly continuous ever since. Military
contracts have ballooned. The so-called
war on drugs also escalated under Reagan.
The 1986 law intended to stem drug trafficking has been misused; more than half of all prisoners in the federal correctional system
are incarcerated for mandatory length
drug sentences. With this trend has come
increasing money spent on prison facilities.
These decisions come at the expense of keeping the deficit
down and maintaining the socioeconomic safety net, two areas of policy at which
Third, almost every Republican politician has signed Grover
Norquist's no new taxes pledge despite the obvious conflict it poses with their oaths of office. The
result has been that efforts to close tax loopholes or return the federal tax
structure to the progressive, growth inducing structure of the 1950's and 60's
are non-starters. No
legislation with a price tag gets much, if any, Republican support unless the
proposed act robs Peter to pay Paul. The
federal government does not bring in enough money but better to limit the government as much as possible, relying on blunt
instruments like sequestering, than do something as breathtaking as raising
revenues and cutting military and other expenses after considered debate. Then again, the GOP has shown no interest in trying to balance the budget since Newt Gingrich was Speaker.
Fourth, Reagan began the trend of spending great amounts of
money to get elected and confining most campaign appearances to select
audiences. Gone are the days when
volunteers went door-to-door for candidates and hosted parties for local
politicians. Opportunities to meet
candidates organized by civic organizations like the League
of Women Voters and the Jaycees are extinct.
Now, those running for office spend millions on commercials,
glossy mailers, and robo-calls.
Rarely do the contents of these communications contain any substantive
policy positions. Mostly, they smear
the opponent. Respond to any request for
a donation and the aforementioned e-mail messages begin pouring in. Raising money has become a full-time
job for elected officials who supposedly already have one: representing their
Despite the brief reign of McCain-Feingold, where politicians find money to fund their campaigns has always
been an issue. The Supreme Court only
blasted the doors off a structure that already had every window open. Money influences policy making. The effect is that members of Congress make
decisions based on the interests of corporate and wealthy donors more than
two-thirds of the time. The entire basis
for the Supreme Court decisions striking down campaign finance rules is false
according to the evidence. Given that
corporations and wealthy individuals find their interests best protected by
Republicans, Democrats are at a disadvantage.
Where do Democrats go from here? Interestingly, one of the few e-mail messages sent on November 5 was a call to action. Instead of donations, a progressive group wants to build an army of volunteers who will go door-to-door to introduce their fellow citizens to progressive candidates in the 2016 elections. Democrats have a registration advantage in many states that have bought the Republican line or voted out Democrats in 2014. Even in the reddest of states, Democrats exist in large numbers. Mobilization of these citizens will not be easy. Before it can happen, the Democratic Party must establish what it represents.
The most successful Democratic politician on the campaign trail in 2014 was Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). Warren's message is to reestablish regulation of Wall Street and banks, reduce the terms of student debt, reset income taxation to Clinton-era levels and use the Buffet Rule, limit campaign funding, enact reasonable safeguards regarding the sale of firearms, end discrimination of the LGBT community, balance the budget, protect women's health and economic rights, pass comprehensive immigration reform (including the DREAM Act), attack the issues that lead to bankruptcy, and cut spending on the military. None of this is radical. Indeed, it is more centrist than progressive and encompasses many longstanding Democratic policies.
In short, the way has been established. What is needed now is leadership, not by politicians, but by "blue" groups. MoveOn.org, Bold Progressives, and many others need to rally around a set of principles and make their positions known to the wider populace, not just those who have accounts with ActBlue. Education of this country's citizens is necessary. Let the Republicans pray on fears, real or imagined. Democrats need to build a broad foundation of active participants conversant in how the party will recreate the America that supports all individuals in their quest to live happy, prosperous, healthy lives. In the end, the new progressive message is to turn the clock back to before Reagan began our downfall. How conservative is that?