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Arthur Camins reviews recent political history as a way to understand how Democrats lost their principles and values.
Democrats became the party identified with both civil rights and labor, if tepidly on both counts. However, they never fully embraced a multiracial movement for social and economic justice. Neither movement overcame mutual distrust. Segments of working- and middle-class Americans who found economic success in the post-war period began to experience social and economic insecurity. They responded positively to Republicans’ full-frontal law and order, anti-government racist appeals. In response, a group of Democrats identified as the Democratic Leadership Council offered a counter-strategy to gain or maintain diminishing influence. In essence, it amounted to acting more like Republicans in language and policy. They welcomed corporate campaign contributions and deregulation, backed away from integration, became less pro-union, embraced the conservative rhetoric of personal responsibility, public-private partnerships, and individual choice and competition in both education and healthcare.
At the same time, disparate movements for women’s, LGTBQ, and marriage rights, and protecting the environment met with some success and shifted predominant values but did not coalesce into a broader unifying movement for change.
While Democrats did elect Clinton and Obama as two-term presidents, they lost control of the majority of statehouses. Even the momentous election of the first Black president did not fundamentally alter Republican political or ideological hegemony. The Democratic strategy amounted to concessions on big ideas and values. Their compromises on the core idea that government is responsible for the well-being of all failed. They continually repeated, “Chance to climb the latter of success if you work hard and play by the rules,” rhetoric. As the saying goes, you can’t be a little bit pregnant. Either a political party represents full support for equity and democracy or not. Republicans controlled the terms of the debate. The result of the Democrats’ a little-bit progressive and a little-bit conservative strategy was a loss of credibility with great swaths of Americans.
Centrism and neoliberalism left the Democrats as an empty vessel, offering nothing substantially different from Republicans. Then came Trumpism, with its full-throated embrace of the worst, most hateful strains in American political life.
The only Democratic answer to the lived precariousness with which too many struggle is to fight for and establish security for all with no exceptions. Programs pitched to help some but not all, such as the Affordable Care Act or charter schools, divide and alienate rather than unify.
The enabling ideas of racist appeals are that inequity is inevitable, whites and the wealthy are more worthy than people of color and the poor, and that their gain must come at the expense of white people. Ensuring a decent life for all and the unified struggle required to attain it cannot happen without a direct reckoning with the divisive role of white supremacy. Acting to challenge this explicitly in ideas and deed is the only answer to Trumpism.