Will the Progressive Majority Emerge? | The Nation


Will the Progressive Majority Emerge?

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Pew says independents are thinking like Democrats, and that fewer and fewer want much to do with the Republican Party. In 1994 independents gave the GOP a 68 percent approval rating; now only 40 percent do. And the percentage of people who call themselves Republicans has dropped from 29 percent in 2005 to 25 percent today. But these people are not signing up as Democrats. The proportion of those who call themselves Democrats has held steady, in the lower 30s.

About the Author

Rick Perlstein
Rick Perlstein
Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, winner of...

Also by the Author

How an excesses of idealism and the embrace of violence harmed the American left in the 1970s.

It sure is a bracing feeling for the chair-bound intellectual to imagine himself the drivetrain in the engine of history.

Here's a riddle: What's an "independent"? More and more, it's an American who holds positions we associate with Democrats but who refuses to call himself by the name. Why? Part of the reason is that people say to themselves, "If only there was a party that thought like me--that was for harnessing the power of government to help the needy and protect the middle class; for reining in business excess; for fighting overseas threats through soft power instead of reckless force." But they don't find today's Democrats answering to the description. A Washington Post/ABC News poll published in early June proved it on Iraq: It heralded the emergence of what might be called "antiwar independents," who'd like nothing more than to find a party determined to end the war but don't see enough difference between Congressional Republicans and Democrats for the latter to earn their loyalty. Fueled, the Post suspects, by the failure of Congress to change course in Iraq, independents gave Congressional Democrats a 49 percent approval rating in April but only 37 percent in June.

The pattern--Democrats losing because they don't look enough like Democrats--is nothing new: During the 2002 election Democrats did such a poor job of selling themselves as better protectors of middle-class interests that Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research found only 34 percent of voters saw a difference between Democrats and Republicans on prescription drug benefits to seniors. That year, when the party was handed a once-in-a-generation shot to prove itself as a protector against runaway greed (the corporate accounting scandals), DNC chair Terry McAuliffe called the swindling firm Global Crossing a "great company."

I suspect there's another reason, however, one much more easily fixed. There is a famous Washington story, perhaps apocryphal, about jovial, "all politics is local" Tip O'Neill. After his first run for local office, O'Neill was gabbing with a neighbor, perhaps someone he grew up with, with whose family his was entirely interlaced in that Boston, Irish Catholic way. He asked if she had voted for him. She answered, "No." Shocked, Tip demanded to know why. "Because you never asked," she replied.

Democrats make a similar mistake these days: They rarely ask the public to vote for them as Democrats. The trend was obvious by the 2006 season, for those who cared to see: The same Pew numbers that now show a 50-35 Democratic/Democratic-leaners advantage over Republicans had the advantage at 47-38 in 2006. Candidates would have earned a premium just slapping the label "Democrat" on their TV ads, but most didn't do it. That fall writers and readers of the website MyDD.com ran an ad watch. Some Democratic commercials failed to mention any of the issues. Bush's war was a disaster; Bush's government was a crony-infested sinkhole; under Bush, the middle class was having a hard time--these would have been immense burdens for GOP candidates. Other ads, though, were even more frustrating: They mentioned those issues--but never used the label "Democrat."

It could have been a virtuous circle, a matchless teachable moment: Voter identification with the positions articulated could have translated into a party identification that independents hadn't been inclined to feel before--a crucial party-building function. But that's just not how the Democratic consultancy class thinks. Their habits were set when they were blindsided by the Reagan presidency and the rise of popular conservatism ("It helped convince me that the national Democratic Party drag was such that good candidates were carrying an albatross around their necks with the words Democratic Party written on it when they went into elections," Will Marshall of the Democratic Leadership Council once said). Democratic leaders, scarred by the 1980s and frozen in the strategies of the 1990s, have repeatedly squandered the opportunities presented by the increasingly liberal sympathies of voters.

Of course, slapping a graphic reading "Democrat for Congress" on ads or reforming the vague shame some powerful Washington Dems feel toward their party--or even turning Democratic Congress members overnight into tough advocates for bringing the troops home from Iraq--may not be enough to bring election day tallies in line with the party's fifteen-point advantage in lean and identification. It's a problem with many moving parts. The stubborn oxen on TV and in the establishment media who tell the American people how to think are part of the problem too.

The commentariat tells itself a little fairy tale. As a new report from the Campaign for America's Future (my employer, though I'm solely responsible for the ideas in this essay) and Media Matters for America points out (The Progressive Majority: Why a Conservative America Is a Myth), when the GOP took over Congress in 1994, the New York Times front page claimed, "The country has unmistakably moved to the right." It hadn't; for an excellent study showing this wasn't so, see Ronald Rapoport and Walter Stone's Three's a Crowd, which shows how Newt Gingrich's Contract With America was tailored as an appeal to Perot voters, then retroactively spun as a mandate for conservatism. Ten years later, when Bush beat Kerry by three points, Katie Couric asked on Today, "Does this election indicate that this country has become much more socially conservative?" It was a rhetorical question, for the establishment had set the conclusion in stone long before. Three weeks before the 2006 election Candy Crowley of CNN said Democrats were "on the losing side of the values debate, the defense debate and, oh yes, the guns debate." After election day, Bob Schieffer of CBS said, "The Democrats' victory was built on the back of more centrist candidates seizing Republican-leaning districts." (Tell that to my favorite Democratic House pickup, Carol Shea-Porter, a former social worker who won a New Hampshire seat after getting kicked out of a 2005 presidential appearance for wearing a T-shirt reading Turn Your Back on Bush.) John Harris of the Washington Post, now of The Politico, said, "This is basically not a liberal country." Concludes the Media Matters/Campaign for America's Future report, "Democratic victories are understood as a product of the Democrats moving to the right, while Republican victories are the product of a conservative electorate."

The media have always been this stubborn, even when the conclusions they reached were 180 degrees reversed. In 1964, after Lyndon Johnson swamped Barry Goldwater, pundits said conservatism was dead as a force in American politics, and continued in that arrogant vein for years, ignoring plentiful evidence of the conservative upsurge. They were no less empirically impaired after they were shocked into making the pivot, and they won't turn again until they're forced, kicking and screaming, when the evidence finally becomes overwhelming and undeniable.

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