As democratic socialists, we have a long-term vision and, by necessity, a long-term strategy. At the same time, we must understand the current terrain in order to get us from here to there. Last month’s election results were disastrous for the Democratic Party and, by extension, the progressive movement. Not just because who holds state power has real implications (should we hold our breath about a national right-to-work law or more governors enacting policies from the ALEC playbook?), but also because, for many people, elections are their only engagement with the political process, and they engage in elections around one of the two major parties.
This year’s turnout was about 36%, lower than the last midterm election and the lowest in more than 70 years. As socialists whose vision includes a democratically run political system and economy, the apparent apathy should be a major concern to us. It also extends to movement work. The disinterest stems from cynicism about the role of government and the ability of ordinary people to have a voice and help enact laws to their benefit. And although we’d all like to think that at least disaffected voters are getting active in various movements for justice, it’s not nearly as widespread as we need.
So why the low turnout, why the Republican wave, and what can we do to re-invigorate our own movement outside the formal political arena?
Yes, midterm elections always have lower turnout than in presidential election years and angry voters usually target the majority party for removal. Yes, big money had an outsized influence. At $4 billion spent, this was the most expensive midterm in U.S. history, and $200 million of that was from just 42 ultra-wealthy individuals. And yes, this was the first election since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, so legal voter suppression policies were enacted alongside more traditional (and illegal) ones in many states.
But these reasons alone don’t explain the results. The truth is that the Democratic Party made critical, and predictable, mistakes.
The Democrats’ message was that the economy has improved and they would continue those improvements. But most voters clearly are not feeling that their lives are better, and they know that economic growth since the recovery has primarily benefited those already rich. Some 63% of voters said in exit polls that the U.S. economic system generally favors the wealthy, despite being, as usual, whiter, older, and wealthier than the usual electorate during presidential election years (and certainly than the general population of the country).
Structural unemployment; low wages even with rising productivity; foreclosures; and continued pressures such as the high cost of child care, health care, and elder care have not gone away. When people could vote directly to improve their condition, they did, enacting minimum-wage increases in several states. Poll after poll showed that the economy was a top issue for potential voters, but faced with the contradiction between message and reality, the Democratic base stayed home. Whereas the Democratic candidates lacked credibility, the Republicans had a simple solution to individual and household economic problems: cut taxes. Given that low- and middle-income people bear a much higher proportion of taxes than they did in the pre-Reagan era, when corporate and upper-income tax rates were higher, this has a certain logic. If nothing else, struggling folks want a way to take care of themselves and their families, and they can’t count on the old 20th-century social contract.
Could more Democrats have run on a fiery, progressive populist message? This would have energized the traditional Democratic base and appealed to non-union, non-wealthy white voters who know they are being screwed economically. This message worked in few places, when coupled with a multi-racial coalition of organized progressive groups. But channeling this anger requires pointing fingers at Wall Street and other major donors to the party, demanding an end to the class warfare of the last 40 years and a reversal of the wealth redistribution from workers’ pockets to the rich, ending corporate welfare, and investing in infrastructure and safety net programs. Instead, we got moderate, “We’re-not-the-Tea Party” technocrats who prefer social issues to economic ones (or in some cases, viciously neoliberal Democrats such as New York’s Andrew Cuomo). Given the choice between Republican-lite and Republican candidates, voters either voted their cultural and gender identity or stayed home.
Candidates (and their consultants) may also have been concerned about raising economic issues because of the link in the minds of many white voters (of all classes) between a “culture of poverty” and black people, including President Barack Obama. Republicans employed coded racial language and tied the economic distress of individual (white) voters to mythical parasitic public employees, immigrants, poor mothers, and young “thugs,” effectively using smoke and mirrors to deflect voter anger about economic insecurity onto traditional scapegoats. Democrats gave halfhearted defenses and shied away from a decidedly un-fiery Obama, addressed neither mass incarceration nor immigration reform with real solutions, and couldn’t bring themselves to talk about the real moochers, those at the top. The dominant racial and economic paradigm continues unchallenged, and those same professional consultants are now urging a return to the middle (or should I say, the center-right?).
These are problems we all see, but the question remains: what to do. In the next two years, Obama will be pushed into a corner by congressional Republicans wielding budget bills, and on too many issues he will be only too happy to use “bipartisanship” as cover to enact more austerity measures, including cuts to Social Security and a fast track for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to say nothing of what the GOP can force through on its own. We have to fight tooth and nail, and use this as an opportunity to build. The Republicans were elected by less than 20% of the U.S. voting eligible population, and they do not have the mandate for destruction that they claim. We have time to organize for Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), urging him to run for president in the primaries and build a grassroots movement that is outside formal politics and in which DSA could play a major role as an openly democratic socialist organization. We have to build a movement that both understands the importance of elections as a tool but realizes that it is but one part of our toolkit.
The good news is that the demographic changes could make the 2016 election terrain better for progressives, if voter suppression can be stopped. But the same demographic changes that favor progressives could strengthen the white backlash against economic justice (particularly in the absence of a national populist narrative), so we must use the conversation created by Ferguson to expand or initiate work around racial justice and build more commitment to it in white communities. Whites are currently the largest slice of the electorate, and studies show that they will support stringent voting rules that target people of color. Absent a strong movement that ties workplace rights, economic rights, and racial justice together in one narrative, they could hold on to that majority, and our progress outside of formal politics will be stunted as well.
But most important, we need to think big. Elections are but one tool for liberation, and we can expect no one but ourselves to build independent, democratic socialist institutions with a longer range vision than that of the next two years and a more transformative goal than incremental reforms. Yes, that means I need YOU to donate more time or money to DSA. Democratic politicians refuse to admit the structural problems of the capitalist system. Consequently, when they are in the White House or in the majority in Congress, the failures of capitalism become their failures. It’s our job to point out that the basic problem is capitalism itself. The GOP is strong precisely because it has ideological institutions that plan and organize for the long game. We must do the same.
|Maria Svart is national director of the Democratic Socialists of America.|
This article originally appeared in the fall 2014 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.
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