A Better Third Way
The stalemate in the 2000 election is the latest evidence that the New Democrat "Third Way" vision for American politics is fundamentally flawed. It doesn't galvanize voters, it doesn't effectively unite the Democratic Party and it's easily co-opted by the Republicans (think George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism"). Consider these important election results.
§ Gore won only 48 percent of the popular vote, giving the Democrats an average of just 47 percent over the past three elections.
§ Democrats failed to retake the House once again. The Republicans now control it by nine seats, while before the 1992 election the Democrats controlled the House by 100 seats. At that point, the Democrats also controlled the Senate by fourteen seats, while the Senate is now evenly split.
§ Outside their base (blacks, Hispanics, union households), the Democrats continue to lose badly among mid- to downscale voters. For example, Gore lost white voters with incomes under $75,000 by thirteen points and non-college-educated whites by seventeen points.
§ The Democrats have had some success with certain upscale voters--for example, Gore carried white women with a postgraduate education by twenty-two points. But that's no more than 5 percent of voters.
These results are striking because the New Democrats' original political plan was to gain a clear electoral majority by appealing to Reagan Democrats--white working-class voters who had soured on the Democratic Party. Now they lionize soccer moms, wired workers and other upscale voters and seem to ignore the less affluent voters they expressed such interest in in the 1980s. This shift is well documented in their own writings. For example, in 1989 the Democratic Leadership Council published the seminal New Democrat study, The Politics of Evasion. This treatise was replete with respectful references to the "white working class," the "lower middle class" and "middle income voters." In contrast, the DLC's 1998 document, Blueprint: The Next Politics, is rife with laudatory references to a rising, affluent "learning class" and an expanding "upper middle class." This mantra about affluent learning-class voters was repeated by DLC chief Al From at a January 24 forum in Washington that sparked clashes between Democratic centrists and progressives over the direction the party should take. Considering that the income distribution, according to the Census Bureau, has improved only modestly since The Politics of Evasion came out, it's hard not to read a fair amount of significance into this shift in emphasis.
There's also been a big shift in the kinds of policies favored by New Democrats. Ideas endorsed in the early 1990s--reflecting their heavy involvement in Clinton's successful presidential candidacy--included promoting economic security, providing universal health coverage, increasing public investment and fighting inequality. Current DLC documents call for privatizing Social Security, introducing Medicare vouchers, eliminating the national debt (greatly reducing funds available for public investment) and unleashing a new economy that has, so far, shown itself more capable of enriching a new crop of Internet billionaires than of substantially reducing inequality.
In adopting this stance, New Democrats seem oddly similar to New Politics activists of the early 1970s, who were likewise unconcerned with white working-class voters and solicitous toward liberal elements of the upper middle class. The big difference is that this segment of the upper middle class is no longer economically liberal and appears mostly interested in fending off socially intolerant conservatism. For example, data from a postelection poll conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Research for the Campaign for America's Future indicate that affluent white liberals in the 2000 election were motivated more by the desire to safeguard a woman's right to choose and to receive middle-class tax cuts than by investing in education and protecting Social Security. In 1989 New Democrats expressed concerns about the "shrinking influence of lower-middle-class Democrats and the concomitant rise of higher socioeconomic-status Democrats who hold liberal views on social issues" but shunned issues of economic inequality. Over the past decade, those New Democrats have not only failed to find solutions to the problems posed by the party's wealth gap, they have, ironically, adopted many positions they earlier lamented.
Clearly, it's time to rethink the Third Way. While many of President Clinton's political accommodations were probably necessary, he is fundamentally a transitional figure. It is time for a New Liberal philosophy to supersede not only Old Liberal approaches but those of New Democrats as well. This New Liberal approach would share the orthodox Third Way premise--that traditional liberal and conservative approaches are wanting--but would offer a dramatically different program aimed at seriously addressing fundamental problems of social justice and economic inequality. Such is the payoff, after all, that the Third Way movement was meant to make possible.