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What Next For Democrats?

by Andrew Levine. This article was first published on Counterpunch.

With the midterm elections behind them, Republicans are riding high. It won’t last; the next election could do them in.

2016 is shaping up to be like 2012, only more so.

Two ideologically like-minded parties with different constituencies pulling in opposite directions will again be at each other’s throats.

In American politics, money talks – louder than ever, since the Supreme Court decided that political corruption is “free speech.” This is why it hardly matters, in the larger scheme of things, how voters pull one party or the other. They both serve the same masters and come out at pretty much the same place.

It does matter, though, around the margins – in ways that affect peoples’ lives a little and the fortunes of politicians a lot.

Thus Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” was, as pundits and pop historians say, “transformative.” It dragged the GOP and therefore the country to the right.

Thanks to its success, the “solid South,” once solidly Democratic, is now solidly Republican – increasingly even at the state and local levels.

This transformation has been remarkable, not least because it left everything the same – except, of course, that outright segregationists are gone. This is a major advance, but it hardly redounds to the Republicans’ credit.

Thanks to developments beyond the control of politicians in the South, it would have happened no matter which party got the lion’s share of the white vote.

Indeed, it was because it was already happening, and because the national Democratic Party was perceived, more or less correctly, to be on the side of people struggling to make it happen that Nixon and the strategists around him got the idea for the Southern Strategy in the first place.

The white voters that make the South solid still constitute voting majorities in most areas. The GOP panders to their concerns, and is repaid with their votes.

But the South is changing; old school Southern reactionaries aren’t getting any younger, and new people are changing the demographics of the region. Immigration has brought diversity to a South that is no longer only black and white.

In a few Southern states, politics is changing too – driven, in part, by Hispanic and Asian immigrants. It is plain to everyone that they could change Southern politics more if they asserted themselves more forcefully. This is bound to happen before long.

Desperate to hold on, Republicans have lately gone in for voter suppression – targeting African Americans and other Democratic-leaning constituencies.   They have had some success, but their insistence on voter-ID laws and the like has not gone as well for them as they had hoped.

Despite their efforts, the African American vote throughout the South and elsewhere is more important than ever, and other likely Democratic voters are still turning out to vote when they have someone to vote for.

In fact, in recent years, the Southern Strategy seems to have worked better in areas outside the South than in it. A few under-populated, mainly rural, states in the southern plains and the Mountain west are now at least as solidly Republican as any of the states of the old Confederacy.

The hyper-rich and those who identify with them still mostly vote Republican. Otherwise, though, support for Republicans runs deep and broad only in places where there are hardly any people, or where backwardness reigns. And even in such places, it is mainly older voters that keep the GOP afloat.

This means that, in Presidential elections, when voter turnout is high, the GOP is vulnerable almost everywhere – including places where Democrats get shellacked at other times.

*  *  *

Nixon and his fellow strategists probably weren’t thinking four decades ahead, but it was not until this last election that their vision came fully into its own.

November 4, 2014 could well turn out to have been the Southern Strategy’s consummate moment. It will not get better than this for Republicans. More likely, it will get worse – much worse, fast.

That what Nixon and his advisors started made sense forty and fifty years ago has been demonstrated time and again in the decades that followed. But the 2014 election marked a turning point.

Republicans will therefore find the elation they are now experiencing short-lived; they will also find that the way down is a lot steeper than the way up.

How ironic! Because Nixon got it right back in his day, the GOP is now encumbered with a burden that it may never be able to shed.

Establishment Republicans get it. They understand that unless their party appeals to the so-called moderates at the dead center of the American political scene, it will soon be the Republicans’ turn to get shellacked.

They understand too that, for the foreseeable future, it can only get worse; that 2016 will only mark the first phase of a precipitous decline.

But the Republican base won’t let them do anything about it. Why would they? Their party just won all they could have hoped for and more. To see beyond that, requires smarts, and smarts are scarce in diehard Republican circles.

Therefore, the next Republican nominee for President is very likely to be someone who appeals to the dwindling and aging Republican base – either one of their own, perhaps someone truly ludicrous like Chris Christie or Scott Walker, or some hapless establishment type like Mitt Romney who is willing to pander to people he would have nothing to do with in other circumstances.

Either way they lose. If they go for a loony tune, it will scare the moderates off; if they nominate someone like Romney, or Romney himself, it will put off the Republican base. That was a problem in 2012; it will be again. Rank-and-file Republicans don’t know much, but they can smell a phony a mile off.

This is why, at this point, it seems almost certain that the Republicans will lose the presidency again in 2016 — even if, as now also seems likely, the Democrats nominate Hillary Clinton.

All Republicans hate her and most Democrats view the apparent inevitability of her nomination with dismay.

The only people who actually like Hillary are unreconstructed Clinton-boosters left over from the nineties, and people, mainly women of a certain age, who are determined to elect a woman no matter what, and who can’t get it into their heads that, as the saying goes, there are other fish in the sea.

Elizabeth Warren, the Hillary-alternative many liberals yearn for, is one. But it is already plain that she too is no prize — that beneath her “populist” veneer, there lies a conventional Democrat.

It is telling that, at this moment, she is visiting with and paying obeisance to Benjamin Netanyahu, and that she has not had a bad word to say about the Obama administration’s latest uptick in bellicosity: its plans to revive America’s lost war in Iraq and to expand it into Syria, and its decision to spread yet more murder and mayhem in Afghanistan.

Neither has she objected to Obama’s not-so-secret wars in other historically Muslim regions of Asia and Africa, or to his efforts to restart a Cold War with Russia.

Though the evidence is sparse, all the signs suggest that Warren is a “liberal interventionist” in the Susan Rice – Samantha Power mold. That would put her in the same moral and intellectual space as Hillary Clinton.

On the domestic scene, it is different – so far. Warren, to her credit, has spoken out against the banksters and corporate moguls who have done, and are still doing, so much harm to so many people. Hillary Clinton is their best friend forever.

One can only wonder, though, how long it will be before Warren too cozies up to Wall Street.

This is how it goes with well-meaning, “progressive” Democrats who are politically ambitious. They begin by assuming that the road to the White House, or to the Senate or the House, runs through Jerusalem. Soon they find that this concession to political expediency – or rather, since the Israel lobby is becoming a Paper Tiger, to what they believe to be expedient — functions like a starter drug. Before long they fall into line behind some or all of the other outrageous positions that deform American politics.

There is no doubt, though, that, in the “hope” and “change” department, Warren’s record, so far, is more promising than Barack Obama’s was in 2008. Close observers knew from Day One that Obama had been thoroughly vetted by Wall Street and that he was poised to be their man. For most voters, though, he was a blank slate upon which he and his handlers encouraged illusions to grow.

This won’t happen with Hillary Clinton. Her campaign slogan might as well be “abandon all hope.” She and her husband have been around too long and done too much harm for anyone to harbor any illusions.

Democrats who are resigned to her candidacy – and therefore to the likelihood of her becoming President — believe that she will be more servile to the plutocracy, more inclined to let the “intelligence community” have its way, and more bellicose even than Barack Obama has been to this point.

No one thinks that she will do any better at upholding the rule of law either, or on protecting basic rights and liberties.

Of course, Obama could still defeat the expectation that Clinton will be worse. Now that he is revving up the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that he used to take credit for winding down, and now that he has given the liberal interventionists he empowered free rein, we may not need to wait two years for the horrors a Clinton presidency would unleash.

For the time being, though, it still looks like the turn to Clinton will be a major step down. Rank-and-file Democrats feel this in their gut; so do those apolitical “moderates” on whom the outcomes of elections depend.

Therefore, Democrats cannot count on sweeping back into office on Clinton’s coattails, or whatever the pants-suit equivalent is. Obama was good for that in 2008; Hillary, with Bill by her side, will be useless in 2016.

There are indications that the movers and shakers of he Democratic Party have come to this realization already.

They seem to have decided that beyond fielding a winning candidate for the White House, they will also need to challenge Republicans on “the issues.”

They seem to have settled on two that can work to their advantage.

One is immigration; the other global warming.

*      *     *

The Southern Strategy was designed to appeal to anti-black racism, but it also catered to nativist prejudices aimed at Hispanics and other immigrants.

In the early seventies, Hispanics were few and far between — outside parts of California and the Southwest, southern Florida, and Chicago and New York, they were barely even present. Even in locales where they were numerous, their political influence was nil.

No longer. According to the last census, Hispanics comprise more than 17% of the entire U.S. population, and their numbers are growing.

There are already more Hispanics in the United States than African Americans, and it is estimated that by 2043, thanks in part to the growth of the Hispanic population, the United States will no longer be majority white.

Many American cities have been “majority minority” for years. Hawaii, California, New Mexico and Texas now have non-white majorities too, as does the District of Columbia.

“Minorities” seldom vote in proportion to their numbers, especially in elections that only bland, like-minded white candidates contest.   However, as their numbers increase, it is inevitable that the complexion of the electorate will catch up with emerging demographic realities.

Hispanics are therefore a constituency that Republicans cannot afford to drive away. Yet, this is precisely what they are doing.

The Southern Strategy demands it. It calls on Republicans to pander to the anxieties of the most retrograde strata of the white majority.

There is no way to square the circle, and even if there were, Republicans these days, unlike forty or fifty years ago, would not be smart enough to figure out how.

Therefore, even if they wanted to get Hispanics on board, as some of them — George W. Bush, for example, and his brother Jeb – do, they can’t. Years ago, the GOP cast its lot with the losing side. Now it must reap the consequences.

Democrats have known this for a long time. But they have refrained from doing much about it because they too have, or had, a right wing to placate.

For as long as the Southern Strategy had unfinished business to complete, Democrats have had to struggle to keep Southern Democrats and their counterparts in other parts of the country on board.

Until recently, they were still a force to be reckoned with. In the South, as the decades wore on, they survived mainly at the state and local levels. Sometimes, though, even in the “reddest” of states, a few of them would reach the House of Representatives or even the Senate.

Had the GOP not gone totally daft, these “Blue Dog Democrats” would fit nicely into the Republican fold. Because the Democratic Party, once the Clintons had their way with it, moved far to the right, they now fit comfortably there.

Rahm Emanuel and other Obama strategists worked diligently to enlist promising Blue Dogs to run for House seats in 2008. When Obama won handily, many of them got elected. Bill Clinton was not the only Democratic President in recent years to fortify his party’s right wing.

But as Obama’s popularity went south, Congressional Blue Dogs began to go extinct. For all but a remnant, the last election delivered them their coup de grace.

Obama would have done well never to have shaped his policies around their electoral needs.

But this was not his way.

He is like Charlie Brown, the Peanuts character who just can’t get it into his head that Lucy will never stop being mean to him, no matter how many times she fools him into thinking she will.

Obama plays Charlie Brown to the Republicans’ Lucy. Hoping for a bipartisan consensus, he repeatedly caves into Republican demands — and into the Republican-like demands of his own party’s right wing. Indeed, he goes out of his way to anticipate Republicans’ and Blue dogs’ wishes.

If he has to alienate his supporters in the process, he seems fine with that. It is the Lucys and near-Lucys of the world that he aims to please.

And, of course, they never reciprocate or concede.

Because Obama never then takes the lead himself, Republicans end up setting the agenda.

Obama then does their dirty work for them. This is how he became so villainous on immigration issues – not in words, but in deeds.

Our President is hardly a stickler when it comes to following the letter or the spirit of the law. And since no one holds him to account, he could easily have deported far fewer undocumented Mexicans and Central Americans than he did.

He could have just continued along the lines established by George W. Bush. Having followed Bush’s lead in so many other ways, why not also on deportations? Surely not because Obama is more mean-spirited than his predecessor or more hostile towards Hispanics.

Obama became the most prodigious Deporter-in-Chief in American history for one reason only: to help Democrats who compete with Republicans for the votes of anti-Hispanic, anti-immigrant yahoos.

Those Democrats lost anyway – big time.

Will the shock of defeat cause Obama finally to see the light; to realize that Blue Dogs are a lost cause, and that he’ll never get anywhere by letting them or, worse still, bona fide Republicans call the shots?

There is reason to hope that he is beginning to draw this conclusion – at least on immigration.

For the Democrats, it is a wedge issue made in heaven — an opportunity to force their electoral rivals to demonstrate conclusively to Hispanics and others just how malicious, nativist and racist they are.

If they play it right, Democrats can put themselves on the right side of demography, and pin the Republican brand on the side that is bound to lose.

Moreover, they can do all this at almost no cost to themselves — because the corporate paymasters they serve have no material interest in the outcome.

Insofar as they are rational and self-interested, it hardly matters to them in general whether undocumented aliens stay or leave or whether the Mexican border is porous or closed.

There are no doubt special cases where the details of immigration policies matter to some capitalists in ways that lead them to support or oppose one measure or another. But there is no unified class view, and it would be fair to suppose that intra-class differences cancel each other out – insofar as they affect campaign contributions and therefore the Democratic Party’s coffers.

It is therefore remarkable how timid Obama’s long delayed, extravagantly praised executive actions are. All they do is defer some, not all, deportations for three years.

Fewer than five million people will gain the temporary reprieve Obama is offering. This is less – some estimate far less — than half the number who would be covered under a more generous dispensation.

It is like with Obamacare; the result is, on balance, better than the status quo, but far worse than need be.

The difference is that with Obamacare, Obama’s timidity was conditioned by politically influential “stakeholders” in the private insurance and for-profit health care industries.

On immigration, it is conditioned only by Obama’s disabling bipartisan aspirations.

*   *   *

It is different with global warming.

We have been hearing for years that there is money to be made in green energy and related fields.   No doubt, there is.

Before the financial crisis of 2008-9 accelerated capitalism’s’ slow but steady decline, there were voices on the left that claimed that, for the foreseeable future, the economy would appear to thrive by stumbling along from one bubble to another.

The smart money had it that green energy would be the next big thing – much as real estate and before that dot-com startups had been.

It was a reasonable speculation: the world cannot keep on inviting environmental catastrophes by recklessly burning fossil fuels indefinitely; and, in overripe capitalist economies like ours, profitable investment opportunities are always welcome.

Not long ago, with the industrial infrastructure of developed countries overbuilt, and with labor cheaper elsewhere, capitalists with money to invest sought out bizarre financial concoctions that bore almost no relation to the real economy where goods and services are actually produced. Some of them are still at it, even though everyone now knows how that folly worked out.

It doesn’t have to be that way. In a precarious world economy, with environmental catastrophes looming, investing in industries that promote renewable energy – something both real and environmentally sound – can work, provided governments offer suitable inducements.

It doesn’t have to result in a bubble either. Sound investment strategies are still conceivable.

This is why if Obama decides to back off from his deleterious “all of the above” energy policy – at least to the extent of insisting on meaningful regulations of the fossil fuel industry – he should be able to find capitalists who will back him up.

Needless to say, there are other capitalists who would oppose him tooth and nail. Environmentally friendly public policies can also work against the interests of powerful sectors of the capitalist class.

This reality registers politically. The Koch brothers and others of their ilk haven’t been buying politicians like crazy for nothing; they know on which side their bread is buttered. But even they and the politicians they own cannot keep on destroying the earth indefinitely.

It was the same with the tobacco industry decades ago, when the scientific case against smoking was already overwhelming, but not yet so conclusive that denial was no longer an option.

Those who deny that climate change is real, and that human activity is an important cause of it, are in a similar situation today.

Their problem isn’t just that the science is winning out over willful ignorance; it is also that severe weather events and other meteorological anomalies are occurring with enough frequency that everybody is becoming alarmed.

Fossil fuel capitalists are still hunkering down, and they are still able to get most of the people who depend on their paychecks to go along.

But this too shall pass; change is happening already. It was the same with tobacco farmers and workers in the tobacco processing industry; they made adjustments and survived.

Meanwhile, the GOP is becoming the last refuge of climate change deniers.

There are Democrats who are deniers too; coal and oil producing states used to send them to Congress with enough frequency to force their party to remain steadfastly on the wrong side.

But with the final triumph of the Southern Strategy, these Democrats are becoming a vanishing breed. The problem now – most of it, anyway — is the GOP.

For Democrats, therefore, the way forward is a no-brainer: to get back on top in Congress and in state governments, all they need do is ride the wave of public discontent with the status quo.

But this too is not Obama’s way; not as long as there are plutocrats out there for him to court in vain.

For his first six years in office, Obama’s policy was to kick the can down the road, trying at all costs not to rattle the cages of fossil fuel industry executives or their publicists.

Now, even he is beginning to realize how wrong-headed this was. Lately, he has been testing the waters.

The clearest indication of a change brewing came barely a week after the Democrats’ latest shellacking. On November 12, Obama and President Xi Jinping of China announced that they have agreed to commit to targets for cutting U.S. and Chinese carbon emissions.

It was not exactly a breakthrough; the stated goals are too modest and too vague. But it does mark a change of course that is not to be despised.

We can only hope that Obama and his fellow Democrats continue along this path, and that, in the future, they will advance along it more boldly.

They have nothing to lose; the Koch brothers et. al. are not about to switch party brands. And Democrats have a great deal to gain, inasmuch as public opinion is already heartily in favor of slowing down global warming or, to the greatest extent possible, stopping it in its tracks.

Ironically, the Southern Strategy worked so well for Republicans that it leaves Democrats with little choice but to do the right thing — at least in areas where public opinion and GOP politics are glaringly and irreconcilably at odds.

Nothing is certain: Hillary Clinton could still steer the Democratic Party back onto a more retrograde course.

But on immigration at least, it would be foolish for her to alienate potential Democratic voters in order to please a segment of the public that would never vote for her in any case. Clinton’s inveterate opportunism may therefore triumph over her rightist inclinations.

On energy policy, the situation is more uncertain. The Clintons are not above helping out even the worst polluters when they think there might be some percentage in it for themselves.

But with each new weather-related disaster, public opinion will make it harder for Hillary Clinton not to do the right thing.

The Democratic Party may be distinguished only for its fecklessness, and the Clintons have always brought out the worst in it.   But while there is weather, there is hope.

Hope that on this at least, the Democrats will have no choice but to get on the right side.

The irony is remarkable. Who would have guessed back in the Nixon days that, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, the Southern Strategy might actually do some good!

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).


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