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Saturday, November 18, 2017
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I’m glad to hear that the Democrats had a good night last Tuesday (Election Day 2017), when they easily reclaimed the governorship of New Jersey and comfortably won what was expected to be a close governor’s race in Virginia. There were other local State and local elections where the Dems picked up seats in areas where the GOP had held sway for some time now, e.g. picking up legislative seats in Georgia and Virginia (including Danica Roem, the first openly transgender person elected to a state legislature). There were also mayoral race victories in St. Petersburg, Florida and Charlotte, North Carolina (and even Fayetteville, NC, where ever that is!!). Democratic leaders seem jubilant; the Democratic leader in the Senate (Chuck Schumer) “smell[s] a wave coming”.

But this is still the minor leagues of national politics, and a lot of this “new blue wave” might be a short-term frustration response against Trump — I think that a lot of non-ideologue, middle-of-the-road Americans had hoped that Trump, who is quite different than your usual politico, could get a lot more done than the regular party hacks have been able to do in the past 5 or 10 years (which is not much). Trump got a lot of people’s hopes up with his bold rhetoric and unconventional manners, but 10 months into his Presidency, he doesn’t have a whole lot to show. And the more that you promise, the more quickly people notice that you aren’t delivering, and thus start getting antsy and frustrated.

And yet, the Democrats need to temper their celebrations with the realty that frustration can drive an election or two, but it is usually a short-term emotion. The bigger question is whether immediate disappointment with Trump will translate into longer term disillusionment that could tip undecideds into the Democratic column in the 2018 battle for control of the House, and the 2020 fight for the White House. The GOP hopes to regain its mojo through a big federal tax reform and tax reduction bill, followed up perhaps by an infrastructure initiative. The tax proposals currently underway are encountering a lot of headwinds, but it’s not impossible that the Trump administration will get on the legislative scoreboard by mid-2018, if not by the end of 2017 as they hope. So, I would suggest that the Democrats still have a lot of work to do, a long way to go to get home.

A big part of that work is to more clearly define just what the Democratic Party and its candidates stand for. I’ve read quite a few articles written since Hillary Clinton’s disheartening defeat last November that ponder what the Democrats are really all about these days. With 20-20 hindsight, a lot of Dems say that Hillary failed to make clear what she stood for, other than “anything but that awful Donald Trump”. In a way, though, Hillary was trying to say a lot of things at once. She was trying to combine the main strains of big thought amidst the Dems these day; “all of the above” seemed to be Hillary’s message (perhaps that was what her posters meant by “better together”). She tried to be both AFL-CIO and Black Lives Matter; she tried to bridge the void between Bernie Sanders and Goldman Sachs. And too often, when you try to say everything, you are heard to say nothing.

DIGRESSION # 1 — Back to 2016 in more detail — SEE BELOW

So where do the Dems go from here? As I said, they seem to realize that they should “get a message” and do a whole lot better in delivering that message to the average voter. And they also seem to realize that they can’t do what Hillary Clinton tried to do, i.e. express several complicated messages simultaneously. They had better pick out and emphasize whatever the best component of Clinton’s melting pot of policy had been, the one theme most likely to resonate with those voters that the party will need to attract in the future.

But in that process, two competing schools of thought have evolved regarding what that message is, and which voters (or potential voters) are critical to the Democrats. In a nutshell, one school emphasizes “identity politics”, i.e. a focus on policies advancing the interests of those who have suffered historical injustices including minorities, women, gays and lesbians, trans-gender people, and Latin and Muslim immigrants. Under this overview, the national government should enforce strong legal and economic measures meant to re-distribute wealth and opportunities to members of these groups. There would be nearly open borders and encouragement of sanctuary cities for poor immigrants. This overall point of view is espoused most notably by Congressman Keith Ellerson, both a black and a Muslim.  Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey, my home state, has also been talking up identity issues in recent years (while continuing to vote against economically progressive measures, recently casting a no vote for a drug-cost lowering proposal from Bernie Sanders himself!).

DIGRESSION # 2: How does “identity politics” get along with the new progressive wealthy class that is an integral part of the modern Democratic Party? — SEE BELOW

The “other school” of Democratic big-thought focuses more on economic remedies, measures that would arguably help everyone of lesser means, regardless of color, sex, sexual orientation or creed. This group is closer in spirit to Bernie Sanders and his quixotic primary challenge against Ms. Clinton in 2015 and early 2016. It would emphasize full health care coverage, probably by a universal Medicare-like government run system. It would provide free or near-free college education to high school graduates. It would attack the abuses of big corporations, especially the risky practices of the banks and financial conglomerates which helped to trigger the 2007 financial collapse.

Open border immigration would not necessarily be a high priority in such a Democratic regime, while free trade would be intentionally limited so as to encourage more American production and job creation. (DIGRESSION # 3: Free trade, immigration, and wealthy Democrats — SEE BELOW) There would be a whole lot more government regulation and involvement in the economy, in an attempt to allow the little people to get more and the big people (recall the infamous 1%) get less. The minimum wage would go to at least $15 per hour, and up from there. Perhaps the economy wouldn’t grow as vigorously as it previously had, but the spoils would be much more fairly distributed. Perhaps the 1%, or the top 10% would lose out, but the great majority would see their lot improved (in theory, anyway).

As to which voters would go for this message — well, the obvious candidates are the Trump voters !! The general idea is to de-emphasize the focus on identity groups and social engineering, thus put working class white voters back at ease with the Democrats. This would help the Dems to regain a firm handle on the northern industrial states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. At the same time, there are a lot of lower-income Hispanics and black families that would also benefit from a Democratic version of economic populism, and educated whites would arguably remain loyal so long as identity concerns and progressive social values were still part of the platform (albeit, not front and center, as with the identity people). Under this approach, you arguably de-fuse the Democratic vulnerability that Trump opened up in the north mid-western states, while retaining enough political attractiveness in the south, the plains, and the west. And of course retaining the blue anchor states such as New York, California, Illinois, Maryland, Oregon, Massachusetts, etc.

What do I think? Well, I want to point out a vulnerability that is common to both of these “big messages”. They both rely on a continuing expansion of the federal government. They envision a lot more regulations and directives carried out by a lot more federal employees working for an expanding roster of federal agencies. But here is the problem — over the past 20 years or so, the Republicans have trained a lot of American voters to really dislike big federal government, a government that has a lot of power over everyday stuff. E.g. — NRA and gun control; vehement opposition to Obamacare and its mandate (that is only abating now that the real prospect of its demise becomes apparent); complaints about free taxpayer-funded “Obama phones” being handed out to welfare recipients; grammar school curriculum mandates; restroom rights for transsexuals; wedding cakes for gay couples from conservative religious bakers; and contraceptives paid for by Catholic nuns.

In sum, both Democratic approaches are still extremely vulnerable to the same Republican lines that have worked so well with so many voters over the past 20 or 30 years. I.e., that the Democrats want to make a federal government that has already become way too powerful and threatening to the Constitutional rights of everyday citizens into something even bigger and more powerful. And in the process, they will make government even more expensive, and will have to raise taxes. They claim that they can get away with all of this by shaking down the rich, but what happens when the rich start grabbing their fortunes and leave (or find ingenious ways to shelter their wealth off-shore)? Obviously they are going to need to go after the middle and working classes. And what happens when all of these taxes discourage the wealthier groups from investing in American enterprises, thus discouraging the creation of new jobs? This has been tried in places like Cuba and Eastern Europe and Venezuela and Zimbabwe, and it never seems to work out all that well.

The GOP instead will continue to offer the modern version of the Roman Empire’s “bread and circuses” to the masses: i.e., tax cuts. And the people who voted for Trump in 2016 will continue to be politically seduced by the promises of freedom to be traditional and non-progressive, along with a few more dollars to spend via tax cuts. Even though these tax cuts can be just as destructive to our economy as Chavez socialism was in Venezuela (Kansas tried a radical tax cut several years ago, but is now ending that experiment given that the economy did not boom as a result of it, and basic police, fire and school services were threatened by expanding deficits; unfortunately the federal government with its immense borrowing capacity can push the day of deficit reckoning off onto our children and grand-children). And even though the rich quietly benefit a whole lot more from most GOP tax cut schemes than the middle class and working class.

If my line of reasoning holds, then the Bernie Sanders / economic populism option for the Democrats, which relies on conversion of Trump voters, is extremely vulnerable to what the Republicans have learned to do so well in the past generation or so — i.e., attack big government, and promise to share with the “little people” the spoils of eliminating such government (via tax cuts). If my theory is roughly accurate, then the Democrats might just as well listen to Keith Ellison and double-down on radical progressivism, and hope that changing demographics favoring minorities and vigorous “get out the vote” efforts targeted at those minorities and at identity groups will eventually kick-in out in the provinces (i.e., purple and red states), so as to get the Dems back in the drivers seat in DC. The danger is that at some point, some of these identity groups (especially Hispanic populations) will start doing well enough economically such that they may start wondering, why do we need all of these taxes supporting so much government control of all the various social and economic activity in our nation? There is no guarantee that minorities will remain mostly Democratic.

Bottom line, I’m not at all convinced that the Democrats own the future. They need to recognize that their grand visions could be stymied by the fact that a whole lot of American voters right now do not like the idea of expanding federal government powers and resources; those voters think that it’s already too darn big, too darn expensive, too darn nosy, and too darn bossy. And that it is run by people who are very different from themselves, almost as if they were from a different country or tribe. Perhaps there are ways to get some of these voters to trust the government a little more; perhaps there are ways to reform government as to make it more accessible, understandable and accountable to the common folk.

That would be a good discussion for the Democrats to have — how can people in Iowa and Idaho get to know the big bureaucratic agencies and their leaders and workers in DC? Should federal bureaucrats from agencies like the EPA and IRS and FDA be required to spend a month or two each year having town hall meetings in places like Topeka? Should we have an on-going, voluntary selection process that would randomly gather a group of willing and able ordinary citizens from throughout the nation and allow them to spend 6 months acting as “citizen auditors” of various federal agencies? If the Democrats expect Americans to accept a big federal government that seems to become more and more remote and foreign to them, they had better find some way for that government to become more familiar and accountable to every citizen in every corner of the nation.


DIGRESSION # 1: Now for a historical diversion, back to 2016. Even when a candidate has really nothing to propose (or too much, which then defaults to nothing), at least they can get some points with voters by criticizing what their opposition proposes. They can then also claim that they at least offer superior personal qualities in terms of experience, understanding, political ability, common sense and integrity. Trump gave Ms. Clinton a whole lot to criticize, and her long record of political involvements did make an argument regarding her ability to be an effective President.

Unfortunately, a lot of the populace had become angry with the status quo behind the national political system, and Hillary Clinton certainly had become a permanent fixture of that status quo. Her last resort was in attacking what Trump had proposed to do as President. Unfortunately, she extended that strategy a little bit too far when she started attacking those who liked what Trump was saying. A lot of Democrats claim that Clinton’s famous “basket of deplorables” speech did not really mean all that much to the outcome, but I myself think it was the final straw that threw just enough of the electorate living in just the right places (yes, I’m referring to the effect of our Electoral College system) into the Trump column.

As another quick aside, you certainly can’t say that personal integrity had much to do with the 2016 outcome. Clinton certainly had a lot of problems with her “integrity baggage”; i.e., all of the scandals and dramas involving her and her husband over their long careers. Ms. Clinton was never found guilty in these situations, but also was never fully explicated either; her personal explanations about them were never completely satisfying. But Donald Trump never claimed to be a boy scout either. His long and checkered business career left a multitude of unhappy people who felt that they got the wrong end of the stick in their dealings with Mr. Trump. And then there were the sexual exploitation claims against Trump, most notably the Billy Bush “Access Hollywood” interview that came out in the final weeks of last fall’s campaign. So, the personal integrity factor turned out to be a draw between Clinton and Trump. Neither was a particularly worthy figure as far as ethics go.

DIGRESSION # 2: One of the unspoken corollaries of an identity focus in the political realm is that it takes the spotlight off of the wealthy class, those who largely own and control the big businesses that drive the internationalized American economy. Oh sure, there would be higher taxes on the rich and on corporations under an identity-focused Democratic political majority, and plenty of burdensome new regulations for them too. But for those of the wealthy class willing to cooperate (e.g., the progressive entrepreneurs in the technology, entertainment, finance and services sectors, who have become increasingly Democratic in the past few decades), there could also be a lot of quiet tax breaks and economic incentives that would help the other end of the new Democratic identity coalition, i.e. the highly educated and often wealthy suburban class, to remain comfortable and continue to thrive. That is, so long as the light of attention remains focused mainly on “the oppressed” and all the great things that the Democrats are doing to help them and protect them from the “unenlightened masses” in our midst.

The identity focus raises the question as to whether enough voters in the right places will be attracted by this message. It probably would not help the Democrats to regain a majority in the regions of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin (not to mention Ohio, North Carolina and Florida) where Trump did so well last year. No, this approach is not really meant to regain the many “swing voters” who may have voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 but went over to Trump in 2016, most of whom are white and many of whom do not have college education. This is instead a “full steam ahead” approach relative to Hillary Clinton’s popular vote victory in 2016, which is strongly related to the “new demographics” argument that some Democrats like to cite.

Basically, that argument says that minority populations are growing faster than whites are, and assumes that the adult voters of those expanding groups will remain highly loyal to the Democrats in the future. With just enough supplemental support from more educated whites and white women, these rapidly growing minorities (which at some point will no longer qualify as minorities) will put more and more states in the Democratic “blue zone”. Even within states that do not rapidly move away from more traditional demographic make-ups, this trend will give local Democratic candidates more chances in more cities and counties over time, when coupled with growing educated suburban areas. The identity people seem to believe that the time is right for the Dems to get out all of the potential black and Hispanic voters who could cement Democratic control in North Carolina and Florida, and put states like Georgia and Texas within reach for Democratic Presidential hopefuls along with potential Democratic Congress members, governors, and local legislators. The strong performance in those states of Barack Obama, especially in 2008, seems to support this notion.

The alternative, competing school of thought amidst today’s Democrats is that the identity message / identity voter theory is not ready for prime time yet, despite Obama’s brilliant achievement in 2008. For better or worse, even Obama couldn’t re-do 2008 in 2012, although he managed to beat a relatively weak Republican opponent (Mitt Romney) that year; and the terrible results that the Democrats have experienced in the off-year congressional elections since 2008 indicate that identity is not yet generally usable. Trump’s 2016 victory showed that an “anti-identity” counter-revolution amidst traditionalist white voters still has the potential to win big elections — especially if it attracts just enough Hispanic voters who might be attracted by a focus on “old school religious values” (recall that Trump won about 29% of the Hispanic vote).

DIGRESSION # 3: The wealthy Democratic business leaders and entrepreneurs favor open borders and trade agreements; and identity politics gives them cover for this.  By comparison the Bernie Sanders alternative might be bad for their businesses.  Computer and other high tech firms want the ability to bring in a lot of smart, highly educated people from China and India — this lowers the wage levels that they would pay for pure American technical talent. Also, the entertainment business profits from open trade arrangements, given that American movies and shows are in demand in growing economies like China and Vietnam.  So, rich business Dems like Jeff Bezos and Kenneth Coles have a quiet and seemingly strange though unspoken alliance with the identity firebrands, who will tolerate tax and immigration favors for “progressive” businesses so long as they get their curriculum mandates, police oversight, minority hiring targets, etc.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:29 am      

  1. Jim, As usual, you have done an excellent job of evaluating and summarizing the 2016 election, especially concerning the effects of Donald Trump’s presidency and Hillary Clinton’s loss on the country and the effect on the Dems. I hope that’s what you mean by “Don’t get too Happy Democrats”.

    I do not really think the Democrats are “too happy”; I think there’s just a lot of stress that comes from nobody being able to do much, even those in Congress with the way things are going with Trump.

    I find myself thinking, since Trump’s election that the country feels much like the times during the 1960s when there was so much chaos, disagreement among people, and protest in so many ways regarding situations. It seems to me the situations are different, but the reactions among people are very close to being the same.

    At that time I tho’t the situation would NEVER end; it kept on for about a decade or so: the 60s. This time constantly brings back to me those times when nobody really knew what was going to happen; it was anybody’s guess. Now, it’s the same: It’s anybody guess. The things that are different are that in the 1960s riots, protests, (violent and non-violent) all kinds of similar disturbances, etc., reigned. Nowadays there are all kinds of disturbances, but they are not the same as the ones in the 60s. BUT they have the same effect on people, making the nation in general stressed and tense in a lot of hidden and non-hidden ways.

    I followed some of the people notable in the 1960s. Many of them either died or simply disappeared. But two of them I’ve had easy following: Bobby Rush and Danny Davis of Chicago were very “active” in the 60s; Bubby Rush even was co-founder of the Black Panthers in those days. (The Black Panthers did a lot of stuff, some of which I agreed with and some of which I tho’t was way out in left field somewhere, never to be found.) After things quieted down then, both Bobby Rush and Danny Davis “disappeared” for a while; and I wonder what could have happened to them. In the 1980s they turned up as members of the Chicago City Council for some years, and both went on to become Representatives in Congress and are there still today. It never ceases to amaze me that they’d end up where they did. I guess they decided, each in his own way, to find a way to change the system by joining the system.

    Who knows how people, and thus times, may change? Who knows how the GOP may change with the change in “majority” as time goes on. What we never expect may be the exact thing that happens.

    The 60s finally ran their course without the country disintegrating, and I tend to think that this period of time will run its course and the country will not disintegrate now either. There may be some changes as there were from the results of the 60s; but in the end things were better than they had been. Hopefully, that will be able to be said for these times.

    I’ve read two things on present day “issues” (nobody has “problems” these days) that really captured my attention lately. One is the article by Michael Lewis “Made in the U.S.D.A.” in the December “Vanity Fair”. It astonishes me how poorly Trump is running the gov’t (and how well Obama ran it, I might say). It seems clear to me that the gov’t is being run by the “little” people, that is, the “Under Secretaries” and those large numbers of people whose names will never been known doing the grunt work. It’s about what I tho’t would happen when Trump became prez. I don’t know if this is good or bad news for either the Dems or the GOP.

    The second thing I read was an editorial in the “Chgo Tribune” that set me to wondering: The writer asked the question of whether Trump might be suffering from the beginnings of Alzheimer’s; it seems his father died of that disease. It seems, while there is question of this disease being inherited, there is some evidence it can be. One of the first symptoms is “odd behaviors”, which might be applied to Trump. Again, this is not a good thing for anybody, and specifically I’d say not either the GOP or the Dems. . But the country has survived Reagan having been prez and having had Alzheimer’s while he was prez.

    The country has survived “a drunk” for a prez too; if I’m correct, Grant was known to toss back a quantity of hard liquor.

    Our country is currently a young country, as countries go. China has survived 5000 years; the Roman Empire lasted 500 years. Our country is close to 250 years old, a youngster when it comes to countries. Countries do not always have to be the “leaders of the world”; it seems America has already lost that title with the election of Trump. Who knows if America will get the title back? But, then again, why should America have it­­perhaps we were better than say Russia or China; but another country might do as good a job as America did. I like Angela Merkel but I don’t know how much time she has left in office. Another leader in Germany might be another ball of wax, so to say. The main thing I think is that seldom is there only ONE country/individual that can be a good leader.

    This does not directly address specific points of your post, I realize; but my point is that times look bleak, true; but the country is young; The “young” are resilient and can adapt and adjust and change and grow, which I’m sure our country can and will do. Thus, while times may be difficult now (at least for certain groups in the country), wait a while (maybe as long as a decade, tho, hopefully not); the young usually adjust well and come out better in the end. And so that’s how I think of our country. In the end it may be better for what’s being/been learned than it would be without the learning. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — November 20, 2017 @ 2:35 pm

  2. Mary, good points as always. But I’ve been reading a number of articles lately indicating that U.S. Grant has gotten a bad rap and was actually a pretty good President, when you consider the circumstances that he faced (especially regarding Reconstruction and defending the rights of newly emancipated blacks). And while he did drink and sometimes drank too much, his reputation as a drunk could well have been exaggerated. As such, it may be a stretch to call him a “drunken President”. Furthermore, other more recent US Presidents have had their tastes for liquor too, including FDR and George W. Bush.

    Comment by Jim G — November 23, 2017 @ 9:54 pm

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