By James A. Kidney
Tuesday’s election results — President, Senate and House — freed liberalism from its shackles. The ransom payment is high. In the long run, it may be worth the price. The key is to put aside defeatism and start adopting new tactics now that the Democratic Party elite has been shamed and defeated by a horrible con man and his angry allies.
Liberalism — by which I mean a set of political goals recognizing and trying to contain the power of the elite, bringing genuine equality of economic opportunity to those not sharing in the top five percent, and sponsoring a strong foreign policy using force as a last resort — has been treated by the Democratic Party for years as the smelly uncle at the dinner table who talks too much but contributes too little.
Hillary Clinton embodied this party sentiment in her campaign, fully endorsed by, and assisted by, the Democratic National Committee in its war on Bernie Sanders. Hillary gave well-paid speeches to Wall Street and she, like President Obama, received record contributions from the big banks and corporations. Her main policy proposals were Pablum to many ears. “Protect children and families” (turns out many voters thought they needed protection from her), “your taxes will not go up unless you make over $250,000” (are those the very poor now?) and insinuating greater participation by U.S. forces in the sinkhole named Syria.
Sanders moved her a little “left” in the campaign. But her political friends never changed and liberals doubted she would stick to her promises in the platform.
Bill Clinton began the course of Democrats abandoning the union man of any color and gender who had
supported Democrats for 60 years. They called themselves the “New Democrats,” and were a hit for a time distancing themselves from the more extreme Democratic social and economic proposals of the time. But they kept moving to the right of center.
Barack Obama tried half-heartedly to return to working man’s concerns with the Affordable Care Act, but was stopped from doing more by an intractable opposition party his last six years in office. Only very belatedly did he desert his famous cool and get a little angry. While his popularity is over 50 percent, it is also true that he accomplished little in eight years that is concrete or lasting in domestic or foreign policy.
GOP obstructionism won.
Wall Street might have faced more regulation under Clinton, as it did under Obama, but there was little hope for tough enforcement of the laws and rules in place. There also is a complete failure by the Democratic elite (talkin’ about you Sen. Schumer) to recognize that greater complexity of our financial laws allows well-paid legal counsel to help hide much that is wrong without addressing the root causes.
Our Constitution gives the rural states a far greater role in Congress and in the Electoral College than their populations warrant. This was proved again, as in 2000, by the comparison of the popular vote to the Electoral College vote. The same defect causes the document to be impossible to correct through amendment.
There is little chance that the racist, sexist, xenophobic, gun loving Americans who gave Trump his electoral margin can be appealed to by traditional liberal ideas. Those ideas usually require tax increases, government spending on social welfare, and treating persons of all colors and genders equally under the law. This year, that electoral cohort provided Trump a small margin of electoral college victory. At the national level, there is little reason to believe the political parties will not be competing for such margins, of varying demographic characteristics, resulting in close popular votes and the electoral college majority reliant on a small handful of swing states. It is baked in by our founding documents in a divided society.
But the Constitution also provides a solution: Latitude it affords to the states. Republicans have been screaming for literally centuries that the states should be the primary source of legislation and control. But since Franklin Roosevelt, Democrats have looked almost exclusively to national legislative solutions for perceived ills.
Consistent with reliance on federal solutions, Democrats also have focused on the national political campaigns without paying sufficient attention to state legislatures, governorships and local elections.
The Republicans, recently funded by the Koch brothers, realized in this century that much power resided in the state legislatures that Democrats took for granted. Assuming control of many legislatures in 2010, Republicans gerrymandered the Congress (they learned it from Democrats), imposed restrictions on reproductive rights, denied rights to the LGBT community, portrayed themselves as defenders of religious freedom while going after Muslims, and used states as an incubator of their Darwinian economic notions. Even as Kansas seemed to be proving that conservative economics unbound is the disaster liberals believe it to be — and that most red states also prove — white fear that Democrats only wanted to impose Eastern Elite solutions provided the narrow margin necessary for the GOP and Trump to prevail.
Meanwhile, Democrats have discouraged political diversity at the top of the ticket, at least since Bill Clinton was elected. Gore, the vice president was in line after Clinton. Then Kerry, a long-sitting senator and head of the Foreign Relations Committee. Only Obama broke the mold. He is leaving office with popularity over 50 percent. But no lessons have been learned.
Instead, the party, the media, political pros and many others resumed the old primogeniture in this election — for both parties. This time, the Democrats had a history-making female, but she came from a long hereditary line. Her chief credential, in addition to her gender, was, as perceived by many, years of service to the Democratic political elite. Rightly or wrongly, she also was perceived as having fed with her husband at an elite trough resulting in millions of dollars for themselves and their charity. Bernie Sanders (who had his issues, such as age and a cantankerous temperament) was rejected and unsupported — except by many of those blue state Democrats who turned out for Trump and millennials, who were unenthusiastic for Clinton.
During the primaries, much talk began of the GOP split. Now it is united behind a crude authoritarian. It is the Democrats who need to heal.
Liberals are understandably disappointed with the election results. But suppress your anger. Change your strategies. Adopt the conservative line. Geography, not demographics, is our destiny for the foreseeable future. Thirty percent of Hispanics voted for Trump. A large minority of college-educated women and a majority of college-educated men voted for Trump. Young people did not turn out enthusiastically. The liberal focus on diversity — presently on the fewer than one million nationwide who identify themselves as transgender — is not working. Nor is the moderate tone taken on economic equality, moderate so as not to offend the economic elite who make such large campaign donations to Democrats.
As Sanders pointed out, it is inconsistent to call for repeal of Citizens United while treating corporate contributions as mother’s milk.
Liberals cannot ignore national politics, but they also should focus much more on influencing the states. While we are at it, we could call the Republicans on their own bet. Here is what I mean.
It is a given that many of the same states that routinely call for limits on federal spending and social welfare are net spenders of federal money. They receive in benefits more than they pay in taxes and fees. It also is a given that a major reason is that red state governments, intensely Republican all, have bought into the economic gibberish of the GOP, promoting low taxes and low expenditures. At least in part for that reason, most of the red states consistently have poor health, poor economies, infrastructure that is falling apart and racist social attitudes that blame minorities for all of their problems. This has been an unbroken truth since the Civil War, except that Republicans in these states used to be Democrats.
So let’s agree with them on states rights and instruct our national legislators (i.e., the Democrats), to go along with major cuts to the federal system, including cuts in taxes and social programs, while at the same time advocating with our state legislatures, city councils, mayors and the like to match federal tax cuts with state and local tax increases to fund the programs at the state level that the federal government has reduced or cut.
In this way, liberalism won’t allow its blue states to be dragged down by red state politics. Liberals can mimic Kansas as a political laboratory, only with much more reason to believe success will follow. States can choose their own road which, frankly, is pretty much what the Founders expected.
Not incidentally, empowering the states is likely to identify strong liberal candidates for national office who might otherwise not be heard from, replacing than the cookie-cutter candidates of late who rely on a kind of political inheritance as a qualification at all federal levels.
Liberal states such as Massachusetts, Maryland, New York, Oregon and Washington are generally in much better shape in all ways than Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana, and most other Republican-run red states. Liberals should build on these advantages. The additional money to do so must come, in part, from the red states through federal tax and benefit cuts because they absorb more than they pay. They shouldn’t complain. It is a result of relying on the states more than the federal government, just as conservatives want. Red states can stand by their political beliefs or change them, but they should not be subsidized by more successful states and then complain they are in chains.
At the same time, liberals must encourage the national Democratic Party to be more open, and more fair to outsiders who may be more aggressive than others in demanding policies consistent with promoting a fair and open society. Be fair to all comers and let the people decide.
This proposal is not prompted by Clinton’s loss. I have been thinking for a year about how to free ourselves from the bondage of the red states in a federal system. Nor is this plan just a result of Republicans taking over the entire federal government. We have had gridlock since 1994 when Republicans took over the House, except from 2008-10 during Obama’s first term. Despite Democratic pooh-bah hopes to the contrary, it is by no means clear that the party can become a consistent majority nationally relying on changes in demographics and identity politics. Significant minorities of those for whom Democrats claim support see the party as defending the elite rather than their interests. They are not entirely wrong.
The old saying about when you are in a hole, stop digging, applies to liberal politics. Liberal policies have not been advanced to any great degree since the 1960s. The Affordable Care Act almost certainly will come to an end. The major parties fight over a small portion of the electorate, changing unhappy majorities every two or four years in one branch of government or another. Stasis is the norm, until, as happens occasionally, one party gets complete control for a couple of years.
The Republicans have that control now. It is almost a given in the last fifty years that the party with complete political power will overreach and lose at least part of that power at the next election as the narrow winning margin grows unhappy again. Despite this, there seems to be no room in our politics for a viable third party at this time.
Democrats are now free to redefine themselves as the party lies in ruins. A first step should be to focus more on the states sympathetic to liberal ideas and advance them there, using what is now federal money if possible. If the red rural states that have an unfair constitutional advantage want to stay in their own rut, at least don’t let them drag down the rest of us.
There is much to do. Do it Democrats.