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Saturday, May 26, 2012
Politics ... Society ...

There’s an interesting article by political analyst Jay Cost on Real Clear Politics about how Barack Obama and other prominent Democratic leaders have “ruined” the Democratic Party through patronage. In a nutshell, Mr. Cost and his recent book (“Spoiled Rotten”) contend that the Democrats were founded in the 1820s by Andrew Jackson as the “party of the common person”. Over the years, the Democratic Party has wandered far from this mission, especially in the years leading up to the Civil War, when the Democrats allied themselves strongly with the industrial interests, plantation owners and social groups who wanted to preserve and expand the institution of slavery. However, in the 20th Century, Woodrow Wilson started a trend to move the Democrats back towards the interests of the average Jane and Joe. This trend was put on hold in the “Roaring 20’s”, but came into full flower in the 1930s with Franklin D. Roosevelt and his efforts to fight the Great Depression.

Mr. Cost explains that FDR’s successors did a pretty good job of keeping the Dems centered on what we today call “the 99 percent” –all 99 of it, not certain segments. However, after Lyndon Johnson “lost the South” to the GOP by (rightly) pushing rights laws into being, the Democrats had to start specializing. Many of the “average Joe and Janes” that were once its main constituency were won over by Nixon and then Ronald Reagan. This happened for a variety of reasons, including distaste for forced minority integration and protections, and the perception that the Dems were sympathetic to the hippies and draft dodgers from the Vietnam war days. The Democrats could no longer win just by defending the economic interests of the masses; as Thomas Frank pointed out in “What’s The Matter With Kansas“, a lot of common men and women have been voting against their material well-being by supporting conservative GOP candidates.

Thus, in order to keep itself in contention, the Dems increasingly had to pander to (or “serve the needs of”, depending on your viewpoint) certain interests that were not embraced by a majority of Americans. These include gay rights, feminism, environmental activism, academia, and increasingly, labor unions. Once upon a time, being allied with big labor was easy for the Democrats, as a whole lot of Americans worked in factories and were represented by unions. Unions once represented a full one-third of all wage and salary workers, but given the “de-industrialization” of the American labor market over the past 50 years, unions are now are down to around 12% of workers. But, the Democrats still depend on union dollars for their campaigns, so . . .

So, according to Mr. Cost, the Democratic Party has gone from winning elections by promoting the most good for the most people, to focusing on the interests of several core groups (while still enunciating the populist slogans of the past). The previous two Democratic presidents, Carter and Clinton, supposedly did their best to keep these interests under control and to stay focused on “the average guy and gal”, even when those average people held views that weren’t very progressive (e.g., deregulation programs started under Carter, and Clinton’s ditching universal health care and embracing welfare reform). However, Mr. Obama has moved closer and closer to “the progressives”, despite his early campaign idealism about moving beyond partisan politics and bringing people together. You don’t hear much of that from him these days; the hard-knuckled Chicago side is now coming out as Obama fires continual verbal shots at Mr. Romney and the GOP in general. Mr. Obama will either succeed or fail as a political warrior, not as the guy who once said “there is not a liberal and conservative America, but a United States of America . . . we are one people”.

I generally agree with Mr. Cost’s thesis on the fall of the Democrats, despite some weak points in his reasoning. I don’t think that Mr. Obama has the national-level political skills of Mr. Clinton (thus the new book about him called “The Amateur”), and is thus reverting to old-fashioned Chicago partisanship. I.e., you sweeten the pot for some group of people, your opponent sweetens the pot for some others, and you hope that your group is bigger than theirs (or is more likely to go out and vote). Mr. Cost basically implies that the Republicans were always partisan-based, with their traditional focus on rich people and big business. The GOP expanded its “tent” in the past 50 years to include religious and “family values” activists, and now the “anti-government” sentiments of the Tea Party — and in the process has thrown out the moderately progressive wing once espoused by Nelson Rockefeller. Even the moderately moderate Republicans are endangered now, e.g. Richard Lugar and Robert Bennett. The ones who worked with Democrats to actually help improve our country.

[And that’s a shame, given that the GOP was the progressive party during the Civil War; old Abe must be rolling in his grave.]

Thus, the coming presidential election is shaping up to be a battle between two highly partisan coalitions. It’s no longer a matter of arguing over which candidate would do a better job of providing for the good of the collective, of providing the most for the most people overall. (Even though the Obama and Romney forces will still go through the motions of arguing in terms of such idealistic notions; the spin doctors and word-twisters will be working overtime for this one!)

And I myself feel bad about that. I will confess right now: if Barack Obama is elected, my own particular economic and security concerns will be better served, given that I am a government worker trying to get a few more years in and then have a comfortable retirement. So I’m voting Obama. But to be honest, I’m not at all sure that the policies that benefit me will be in the best interest of young people who have just entered or are preparing to enter the workforce. Mr. Romney’s policies would cut back on government spending (and thus possibly threaten my job and my pension), and reduce the Social Security and Medicare benefits (which I hope to soon receive) so as to control the deficit; these might well create better economic conditions in the long run. At my age, I am not focused so much on what career and earning prospects will be in the 2030’s and 2040’s. I’d like to see a cleaner environment, universal healthcare, more protections for gays and women, and labor union concerns addressed right now; but these things may not help someone who is today in grammar school and will want to buy a house and earn enough to raise a family twenty-five years hence.

But then again, a lot of GOP proposals are pretty crazy too. It has become a political ship of fools, hasn’t it. And that’s usually what happens towards the end of many great empires (Rome included). I think that Mr. Cost is right in identifying such trends and how they have “spoiled” the Democratic Party. But I disagree that Mr. Obama is mostly to blame. There seem to be a lot of inevitable forces at work in our national political scene today, forces that throughout history have worked against any powerful nation or empire from staying on top (or even staying in existence) for more than a handful of centuries.

It is unfortunate, though, that Mr. Obama, despite his stellar intellect and Ivy League academic experience, seems to be ignoring these forces despite his former idealism about transcending them. Oh well, power corrupts, and Mr. Obama seems to have given in to the powerful forces that may well eventually bring American down.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:35 pm      

  1. Jim, I don’t think I can agree that “Mr. Obama seems to have givin in to the powerful forces that may well eventually bring America down”. That seems a little strong to me. I do think that he has changed and gotten a little more realistic, having been president for 4 years now, so perhaps he has taken on some of the characteristics of the die-hard politicians.

    I have to say that the last speech I heard him give, when NATO concluded, made me proud that our president could actually put not only sentences together but paragraphs! And he did not say only catchy phrases that meant very little, that Reagan was so good at.

    I tend to think that the voting may be closer than it was in the last election, but I am hoping that Obama wins again. (The whole coming election is enough to make one say, as someone I know says: If he loses, I’m moving to Canada.)

    And a couple of points that I think are important: There is a very large voting bloc that will likely favor Obama–that is, the baby boomers, who are worried about their social security and Medicare benefits, as you mention. Then too, Obama has, for the most part, Chicago behind him–a force not to be dismissed or discounted.

    I’m not sure what you refer to as a “ship of fools”. The GOP? I say definitely! All the “good” Republicans, as you mention, are being voted out–what a sad thing to see. The GOP–and I should say that I come from a family of very staunch Republicans so I have a part of my heart that likes good Republicans, altho I have been a Black Sheep in the family in that regard–…The GOP used to have some very good people in it. People who were willing to work together with others who may not have 100% agreed with them. But then how many people are there in the world who 100% agree with each other. Few, if any, I say. The problem with the GOP today is that it seems that they are completely negative, saying what they do NOT want, yet proposing no positive answers either. As you say (and I repeat), it’s enough to have old Abe turning in his grave.

    Yet, I can’t quite go for the ending idea that our country is just a couple of steps from its downfall. I’ve been watching Henry Louis Gates’ program on genealogy, tracing various roots of some well known people of various ethinic groups. What impresses me as a result of watching this program is how the people, no matter what their ethinic origins, think of themselves as AMRICANS. All the various groups seem to do this. Admitedly, it’s a small and chosen group and not representative of a random selection. Yet, I find that point interesting: So many of the various groups–Blacks, the various Latino/a groups, Greek, English, Italian, French, Irish, etc.,–all basically consider themselves Americans, not any “hyphenated” group (e.g., Mexican-American, English-American, etc.).

    I find myself wondering if our country may just start to be coming into its own as a nation. If that’s the case, perhaps we have a whole new and important role to play as a nation in this world of nations that may be slowly evolving into one planet. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — May 27, 2012 @ 1:38 pm

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