On Halloween night, 1936, incumbent Democratic president Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave a riveting speech at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The United States was in the eighth year of the Great Depression, and FDR was fixin’ to tout his smorgasbord of government programs known collectively as the New Deal.
FDR acknowledged that Americans “wanted peace of mind instead of gnawing fear.” To offer this piece of mind, he promised to protect currency, ensure fair wages, reduce working hours, end child labor, and crush financial speculation. Moreover, The president directly addressed the business and financial interests and their Republican allies who opposed his administration: “Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.” Democrats used to talk like that. They ought to again.
But you don’t have to go back to FDR to catch a glimpse of the economic populism that used to be the Democrats’ bread and butter on bread-and-butter issues. Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1964. Lyndon Baines Johnson, fresh off his electoral annihilation of Barry “Daisy Bomb” Goldwater, outlined his vision for the “Great Society” domestic programs.
“The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice,” Johnson stated (no one could ever accuse LBJ of aiming too low). And boy-oh-boy did the cantankerous Texan cast a wide social justice net: the Great Society would revitalize cities, end housing discrimination, rebuild the highways, promote agriculture, clean up and protect the environment, improve the education system, facilitate full employment, and guarantee universal health care. LBJ possessed some famously gargantuan balls, and the Great Society was as ballsy as American liberalism ever got.
The programs that constituted the New Deal and the Great Society were a mix of rousing successes (Social Security, the Wagner Act, Medicare, Medicaid) and dismal failures (Court-packing plan, National Industrial Recovery Act, Open Housing), but they embodied the kind of populist stances that the Democratic Party used to take. Once upon a not-too-distant time, the Democrats were explicitly pro-worker (in rhetoric and even quite often in practice), and the party held itself up as the alternative to a pro-business, anti-worker Republican Party.
Then the Sixties came. That decade brought the Civil Rights movement, urban race riots, the counterculture, and Vietnam. Then the Seventies came. That decade brought stagflation, deindustrialization, and the rising political clout of organized big-business. Then the Eighties came. That decade hacked up the self-righteous loogie known as the Religious Right and stuck Ronald Reagan in the White House.
By now the narrative is familiar: cultural liberalism combined with globalization to render a pro-worker American political party a non-starter. If Democrats wanted to win, they needed to ditch the cultural pluralism that scared off lunch-pale whites; they needed to embrace neoliberalism; they needed to court the same Big Money donors that greased GOP hinges. Where FDR once welcomed the plutocrats’ hatred, where LBJ once envisioned an economically just Great Society, modern Democrats now grovel at the plutocrats’ thrones for campaign cash.
Yet despite the Democrats’ shift to the right on economic issues, they never quite gave up on the cultural pluralism. Thus, we come to the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
The Dems stuck to a tight, straightforward message at their four-day donkey-fest: the Republicans just nominated an unhinged, Velveeta-colored gargoyle as their standard-bearer, and Hillary Clinton is the only thing standing between America and the coming Trumpocalypse. In other words, the 2016 Democratic National Convention spent more time explaining why you should vote against Donald Trump instead of for Hillary Clinton.
Beyond Trump, the ghost of Republicans past — most notably the Gipper — made their presence known at this convention of the opposition party. President Barack Obama invoked Ronald Reagan’s old “Shining City on a Hill” schtick, and former Reagan staffer Doug Elmets barked out, “Donald Trump, you are no Ronald Reagan,” paraphrasing the line made famous by the guy whose Democratic ticket got crushed by Reagan’s vice-president.
But the astonishing diversity stuck out the most. It highlighted all that was simultaneously right and wrong with the Democratic Party today.
In stark contrast to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland — which predominantly featured a bunch of pissed-off white guys yelling at a teleprompter — the DNC featured speakers who were Black, Latino, white, and more. It featured speakers who were Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and agnostic. It featured current and former Republicans. In an age of fear-based “bathroom bills,” the DNC featured a brief speech by Sarah McBride, the first transgender person to ever address a national party convention. The Democratic Party platform also fully embraced LGBT rights. And, of course, the Democrats made history by becoming the first major party to nominate a woman as their presidential candidate. The first black president was a modern Democrat. Now the first female president will (potentially) be a Democrat. This is no coincidence.
Make no mistake: the Democratic Party’s platform of inclusion is awesome. It reflects the reality of America’s demographic shifts in the 21st-century, and morally, it’s just the right way to go.
The emphasis on diversity and identity politics reflects the extent to which the Democratic Party has become the party of the well-off professional class. For party leaders, it’s easier to target voters on pure identity than it is on class, because the former doesn’t impede the neoliberal economic order to which Democrats have been utterly complacent. Of course, this isn’t really a problem for people who are well-off, because people who are well-off have the luxury of focusing solely on identity politics. Meanwhile, the vast majority who aren’t well-off must resort to identity politics (see: God and guns) because their economic concerns are of ZERO concern to the professional political classes in both parties.
Now, it wasn’t that the Democrats totally ignored bread-and-butter issues, but there were no FDR or LBJ-style jeremiads against the dangers of concentrated wealth and financial speculation. Moreover, there were precious few policy prescriptions for putting more agency back into the hands of working and middle-class Americans. The Rev. William Barber, a progressive leader behind North Carolina’s “Moral Mondays,” gave a rousing sermon in which he urged America to “pay people what they deserve” and to “share your food with the hungry.” Barber’s moral message, however, like the overall convention itself, favored generalities over specifics.
There was scant mention of the grassroots “Fight for 15” minimum wage movement, for example, although the $15 minimum wage did make it into the party’s platform, thanks to agitation from Bernie Sanders and what’s left of the labor movement. Speaking of labor, you didn’t hear much about unions at the DNC. In her acceptance speech, Hillary Clinton offhandedly remarked that the Dems were the party of “working people,” and she thanked Bernie Sanders: “you’ve put economic and social justice issues front and center, where they belong.” Of course those issues belong “front and center,” but it took a grumpy, self-proclaimed socialist from Vermont who isn’t even a registered Democrat to remind the Democratic Party that economic justice is what the party is supposed to stand for.
The Democrats’ occasional populist rhetoric can’t hide their party’s neoliberal turn. This was the party that, under President Bill Clinton, repealed the New Deal-era Glass-Steagall Act, which separated investment from commercial banks and stopped bankers from gambling with citizens’ investments. It was the Democratic Party that has consistently towed the Republican line in its support for imbalanced free-trade deals such as NAFTA (which Clinton also signed into law) that have been devastating to working-class and middle-class Americans. It was the Democratic Party that has done little to promote private-sector unionization. It was the Democratic Party that, even after the 2008 crash, still refused to break up the big Wall Street banks and issue tighter regulations on financial industry shenanigans. Instead, the Democrats gave us the financial industry-friendly Dodd-Frank Bill. And while Obamacare is a (problematic) step in the right direction, a single-payer health system still eludes the United States.
This is the legacy with which the Democratic Party needs to reconcile. Instead of harking back to Ronald Reagan, they ought to hark back to what Democrats like FDR and LBJ (for all their faults) said about entrenched wealth: it kills democracy. Diversity is a wonderful thing, but as Robert Kuttner writes in the American Prospect, “being culturally avant-garde and economically status quo doesn’t do it.”
The Democratic Party should continue to be the party of diversity. After all, inclusion is one of the key elements that makes democracy work. But touting cultural liberalism while flouting economic and social justice isn’t a path forward, it’s a steady retreat.
Ignoring the damage wrought by neoliberal global capitalism cedes the grounds of economic discontent to any orange demagogue who’s willing to exploit those grievances. This stance also ignores constituencies like the white working-class, who have a legitimate right to dismiss the Democratic Party even if the GOP only offers this group rotten cultural red meat. Diversity won’t pay for the mortgage on your house, identity won’t cover the cost of your kids’ college tuition, and no revolution ever started because the rich didn’t have enough money.