The blowout election of 2014 demonstrates that the Democratic Party is utterly out of touch with ordinary people and their adverse circumstances. Working people have known this for some time now, but this year, the president made the disconnection more obvious. Barack Obama kept telling folks to brighten up: the economy is coming back, he said, and prosperity is just around the corner.
A party truly connected to the people would never have dared to make such a claim. In the real world of voters, human experience trumps macroeconomics and the slowly declining official unemployment rate. An official at the AFL-CIO culled the following insights from what voters said about themselves on Election Day: 54 percent suffered a decline in household income during the past year. Sixty-three percent feel the economy is fundamentally unfair. Fifty-five percent agree strongly (and another 25 percent agree somewhat) that both political parties are too focused on helping Wall Street and not enough on helping ordinary people.
Instead of addressing this reality and proposing remedies, the Democrats ran on a cowardly, uninspiring platform: the Republicans are worse than we are. Undoubtedly, that’s true—but so what? The president and his party have no credible solutions to offer. To get serious about inequality and the deteriorating middle class, Democrats would have to undo a lot of the damage their own party has done to the economy over the past thirty years.
Postelection diagnosis on the left found lots of reasons to rationalize the dismal results and to cheer small victories. Critical analysis focused mainly on the mechanics of this failed election cycle, but the trouble with Democrats goes much deeper than one botched election. It’s systemic, and it started in the Reagan era.
Long ago, the party abandoned its working-class base (of all colors) and steadily distanced itself from the unglamorous conditions that matter most in people’s lives. Traditional party bulwarks like organized labor and racial minorities became second-string players in the hierarchy that influences party policy. But the Dems didn’t just lose touch with the people they claimed to speak for; they betrayed core constituencies and adopted pro-business, pro-finance policies that actively injure working people.
The shift away from the people was embraced most dramatically when Bill Clinton’s New Democrats came to power in the 1990s. Clinton double-crossed labor with NAFTA and subsequent trade agreements, which encouraged the great migration of manufacturing jobs to low-wage economies. Clinton’s bank deregulation shifted the economic rewards to finance and set the stage for the calamity that struck in 2008. Wall Street won; working people lost. Clinton presided over the financialization of the Democratic Party. Obama merely inherited his playbook and has governed accordingly, often with the same policy-makers.