GOP Light

How the Democrats lost their way and screwed the working poor


On Dec. 12, 2003, U.S. Sen. John Edwards spoke at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club. Edwards was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, and the next year would be the party’s vice presidential nominee. He and the other Democratic candidates were being hard-pressed by Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor who said he represented the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” and faulted Democrats for not standing up to Republicans.

With his direct and candid attacks on Republican policies and Democratic docility, Dean had tapped into a rich lode in the party, voters who were tired of the timidity of the Democrats and of their enabling of George W. Bush’s policies. Edwards, noting that Franklin Roosevelt had also spoken at the Commonwealth Club in 1932, used the occasion to attack Dean’s hard-hitting politics.

“He [Roosevelt] didn’t scare people, and he didn’t feed their fears. He did not tell his fellow Democrats that Hoover’s errors were their fault, and that the Depression could have been avoided if they had just gotten in Hoover’s face. He told the country to disdain fear. He inspired hope and optimism, and he defined our party and our country.”

It appeared that Edwards had not actually read Roosevelt’s Sept. 12, 1932, speech at the club. FDR:

“The same man who tells you that he does not want to see the government interfere in business—and he means it, and has plenty of good reasons for saying so—is the first to go to Washington and ask the government for a prohibitory tariff on his product. … Recently a careful study was made of the concentration of business in the United States. It showed that our economic life was dominated by some six hundred odd corporations who controlled two-thirds of American industry. Ten million small businessmen divided the other third. … A mere builder of more industrial plants, a creator of more railroad systems, an organizer of more corporations, is as likely to be a danger as a help. The day of the great promoter or the financial Titan, to whom we granted everything if only he would build, or develop, is over. Our task now is not discovery, or exploitation of natural resources, or necessarily producing more goods. It is the soberer, less dramatic business of administering resources and plants already in hand, of seeking to reestablish foreign markets for our surplus production, of meeting the problem of under-consumption, of adjusting production to consumption, of distributing wealth and products more equitably, of adapting existing economic organizations to the service of the people.”

These two speeches separated by 71 years help explain what has happened to the Democratic Party. Democrats like to talk about how their party was founded by Thomas Jefferson, which is true. But the party was later founded again, by a more modern leader—William Jennings Bryan.

Democratic rebirth

In the years after the Civil War, the nation’s two political parties became tools of the financial community during the Gilded Age, much like today. Corruption and economic hardship were widespread. Revulsion and unrest led to the rise of the Populists, whose presidential nominee in 1892, James Weaver, received more than a million votes, winning the Colorado, Kansas, Idaho and Nevada electoral votes. The Populists believed that corporate power was predatory, corrupting elected officials and threatening the well-being of both workers and democracy. Their platform called for the progressive income tax, direct election of Senators, civil service reform, an eight-hour workday, women’s suffrage, government control of utilities, federal action against economic hardship and corporate abuses, and action to deal with poverty in farming and working families.

In 1896, fiery Democrat William Jennings Bryan won his party’s presidential nomination on a platform that adopted the populists’ economic policies. Bryan lost, but then and during two more presidential candidacies, he imprinted the Democratic Party with the economic populism that championed downtrodden workers, farmers, miners, women. Fusion of the two parties gave the Democratic Party a healthy skepticism of unaccountable corporate power and an adversarial relationship with large corporations.

When the Great Depression hit, the party’s economic populism made voters receptive at last to its worker-oriented message. Franklin Roosevelt was elected in a landslide, U.S. politics were realigned, and the party enjoyed a generation of power.

During those years the Democratic Party built a whole structure of protection for the economically vulnerable—workers, women, senior citizens. Predatory corporate behavior was curbed by law and regulation, taxation was made more progressive, work programs were provided. Economic populism defined the Democratic Party.

After Roosevelt’s death, Democratic conservatives gained ascendancy and by 1948 were in charge of the party. In 1952, populist Estes Kefauver defeated incumbent President Harry Truman in the New Hampshire Democratic primary. Truman withdrew from the race two weeks later and worked to swing the nomination away from Kefauver to Adlai Stevenson. Stevenson was a wise voice on foreign affairs but was uncomfortable with labor issues. Influential D.C. editor and former state legislator Charles Peters has written, “Too many liberals were for Stevenson not because he had proved he had more talent for governing than Eisenhower but because he was more intellectually sophisticated. … The increasing prosperity of the educated elite has removed them further from the concerns of the average man.” Stevenson’s patrician style, certainly compared to Kefauver’s folksy ways, also attracted the increasingly elite Democrats.

Bill Clinton and Al Gore: Clinton cultivated the bond market, and Gore was uneasy with populism.

As Jack Newfield wrote in 1971, it is possible to read Stevenson’s speeches without ever finding “sustained passion over raising the minimum wage, or attacking price-fixing by giant corporations, or building more low-income housing, or pushing tax reform to help families earning under $10,000 a year.”

Breaking away

Slowly the party began disconnecting from workers and their concerns, and that disconnect began manifesting itself in policy.

• The Kennedy Tax Cut: From 1952 to 1963, a period of nearly unbroken prosperity, the federal tax rate for those at the top was 91 percent. On Dec. 14, 1962, Democratic President John Kennedy proposed a supply-side tax cut to relieve “an economy hampered by restrictive tax rates.” Pulitzer economic reporters Donald Barlett and James Steele later wrote about the consequences: “But it was basically a new way of manipulating the system. Once the lawmakers, policymakers and lobbyists had seen the possibilities, they were more than eager to use it again and again. … [O]ver the next 20 years, Congress would enact tax law after tax law that gutted the progressive structure of American taxes while throwing the doors of the U.S. Treasury open to those who could pay for access.” The rate for those at the top dropped steadily; today it is 35 percent. When the rich paid fewer taxes, the burden of taxation moved lower on the economic ladder.

The Real Majority: In 1970, two Democratic conservatives, Ben Wattenberg and Richard M. Scammon, wrote a book called The Real Majority that was enormously influential in the party. The book was essentially amoral, arguing that the party should go where the votes are without regard to the impact on policy and, thus, without regard for the impact on working people. It helped lead to the creation of the Democratic Leadership Council (a.k.a. the “white boy’s caucus”), a neoconservative group formed to drive the party to the right. The DLC helped fuel Bill Clinton’s candidacy for president.

• Deregulation: During the Carter and Reagan years, Democrats became beguiled by the advice of libertarian economists who argued for a deregulated economy. Trucking, financial services, airlines were deregulated. Nevada’s Howard Cannon, who chaired the Senate Commerce Committee, tried to stop airline deregulation but was outflanked and finally reversed his position. The result nearly destroyed commercial aviation—and many jobs. The 1980 Democratic Congress imposed on the states a repeal of their usury laws. “And that was the first stroke, only the first of many, in which they stripped away the regulatory laws from the financial system and from banking,” said economic journalist William Greider in 2008. The credit card companies, banks and insurance companies—and oil companies—were unleashed on the public.

• Tony Coelho: In the 1980s, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was headed by a U.S. House member who believed the party could tap the nation’s rich and powerful for campaign money just as effectively as the Republicans. U.S. Rep. Tony Coelho was right, and soon the Democratic Party was deep in what George Washington Plunkitt called “honest graft.” Coelho was busily auctioning off access to party leaders, such as $5,000-a-year memberships in the “Speaker’s Club.” If Democrats thought this could happen without having it affect policy, reality soon proved to be a splash of water in the face. The party responded to its new masters by pitching its historic principles overboard by the metric ton with tax writing and protectionism.

• Bill Clinton: When the Democrats finally won the presidency back after 12 years, it was a disaster for working people. Clinton wrote his economic program to cultivate the bond market. The gap between rich and poor continued to widen. After seven years, populist Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone responded to a Clinton tour of low- income areas by saying, “The Clinton administration has abandoned many of the most important economic-justice concerns.” Documentarian Michael Moore called Clinton’s first term the fourth term of the Reagan administration. Political parties, such as the New Party and the Labor Party (allied with the Green Party), were formed to give workers a voice.


Process over people

The disconnect between the party and economic populism affected more than policy. As the party drifted away from workers, Democrats became less able to talk the language of workers or understand their sensibilities and needs. The party shifted its interest from the working poor to the middle class, and the middle class lost interest in workers. When Republicans accused Democrats of “class warfare,” Democrats cowered in fear, with the result that only one side was fighting the class war.

During the Vietnam War, the Democrats kept in place college draft deferments, so the sons of low-income workers carried the heaviest burden. In 1966, to avoid tapping the campuses to meet draft goals, “Project 100,000” swept through the inner cities and southern rural areas to sweep up low-income young men (IQs as low as 62), a program Adam Clayton Powell called “Hitlerish.”

Democrats sometimes treated the working poor condescendingly. When Robert Kennedy said the poor wanted jobs, not welfare, there were Democrats who disagreed. “[W]elfare payments solve nothing, for the givers or the recipients,” Kennedy said in language that offended Great Society liberals. “Free Americans deserve the chance to be fully self-supporting.” When Democrats failed to reform welfare themselves with a progressive approach, it was done in punitive fashion by Republicans and Bill Clinton.

Liberalism changed as the party disconnected from populism. New Deal programs linked relief to the jobs workers craved. Those programs were also decentralized, based in local communities. The Great Society lacked those features, and liberals in love with big government opposed notions like work requirements and local control. New Deal programs were aimed at all workers, Great Society programs at blacks, giving Republicans the ability to exploit white resentment.

Democrats became captivated by process, procedure and bureaucracy, unable to tell when those things became obstacles to progress instead of vehicles for it. Instead of building fairness into the tax system, Democrats created the Earned Income Tax Credit, requiring the working poor who had little time for more than the short form to apply for fairness. After ordinary voters across the nation gave the party a majority in both houses of Congress in 2008, Democrats in the U.S. Senate subverted the voters’ will by allowing an “imaginary filibuster” or “silent filibuster” system to continue, permitting any single senator to impose supermajority requirements on the senate.

The disconnect from economic issues affected the style of Democrats’ governing and certainly their campaigns. They left behind their tradition of adversarial stances and strong rhetoric. They became skilled at imitating Republicans. They became snobbish and disdainful of workers, their rituals, lifestyles and preferences, as when presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, during the 1968 Indiana Democratic primary, poked fun at the poetry of local favorite son James Whitcomb Riley.

William Jennings Bryan imprinted the Democratic Party with a loyalty to the working poor that it now has lost.

More important, because of the softening of their stances and rhetoric, Democrats were unable to show a willingness to fight for voters. They had become too cool and restrained for the style of FDR’s attacks on economic royalists. It was hard to convince workers that Democrats whose rhetorical style was mild and cultured were on their side. During the Florida recount battle, when Republicans were staging daily protests in the streets, Jesse Jackson traveled to Florida and organized Democratic protests. Al Gore, uncomfortable with such unseemly behavior, asked Jackson to stop. Jackson left the state, and the streets were returned to Republicans. Gore wouldn’t fight for the voters who had entrusted their votes to him, except in polite, procedural fashion.

Even when the interests of workers combined with the party’s history it did not restrain Democrats from pandering to corporations. Bankruptcy law was developed in the era of Democratic President Andrew Jackson, bringing to an end the practice of jailing debtors. It’s one of the things that defines the Democratic Party. But as corporations in the post-usury era became skilled at predatory techniques that drew people into debt and milked them until they broke, credit card companies and banks demanded a new law that would make it more difficult for people to declare bankruptcy. It was approved by Congress in 2005, with 73 Democratic House members and 15 Democratic senators, including party floor leader Harry Reid, supporting it. The Democrats did nothing to curb those companies’ practices that lure people into crippling debt until 2009—and then, they gave the credit card companies nine months to do their worst before the law took effect.

In 1993, Nevada’s Democratic Sen. Richard Bryan conditioned his vote for the Clinton economic program not on job promises or health care assurances but on preservation of the three-martini business lunch deduction. In April 1998, Nevada Democratic chair Paul Henry attacked GOP efforts to eliminate tax deductibility of gambling losses.

The corporate-friendly Democratic Party took some positions that once would have been considered unthinkable, such as repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, one of the prize accomplishments of the New Deal, a law that kept banking and investment industries separate. Clinton called for the repeal, and 151 out of 205 House Democrats and all but six out of 40 Senate Democrats voted for it, Shelley Berkley and Harry Reid of Nevada among them. Another of the concerns of the original Populist Party—the corrupting influence of corporate power—was very much in play. According to Open Secrets, Democrats who voted for the measure “received an average of $179,920 [from financial services corporations] in the two years and 10 months leading up to its passage.” After they voted for it, Democrats—including Reid—blamed the repeal for the 2008 Wall Street meltdown. But they have not alienated corporate donors by reinstating the law.


It was not as though Democrats did not have plenty of warnings and illustrations of their neglect of workers.

In 1972, Newfield and Jack Greenfield wrote A Populist Manifesto as a counter to The Real Majority. It provided a detailed program for worker power, decentralization and Democratic victory. It read in part, “In 1948, the thread of populism was cut. Twice since then—first with Estes Kefauver and then with Robert Kennedy—an effort was made to pick up the severed tradition. Both times, the middle class, bewitched by style, failed the test.”

In 2004, Howard Dean’s dynamic presidential candidacy clearly struck a chord among rank and file Democrats who wanted their party to draw clear differences between the parties. But once Dean was defeated, the lessons of his campaign were forgotten.

Any political party leader, of course, is going to be motivated to some extent by a desire for victory. But the smart ones also understand the long-term value of holding firm for good causes. William Jennings Bryan and his supporters lost more than they won in the early 20th century, but they built a party oriented to the concerns of workers, and when hard times came in the late 1920s, the party was ready with a relevant message that spoke directly to workers’ concerns. Democratic leaders of the 1980s and ’90s built a party oriented to winning for its own sake, not for the sake of causes or policies, and now that hard times are here, the party’s agenda does not serve as any kind of touchstone to the broad mass of the population. When Senate Democrats were trying to put a health plan together, they were more concerned with a plan that they could get through the sanity-challenged Senate procedures than by what would actually address the needs of people who need health care.

As Democrats disconnected from workers, they lost their ability to win and their sense of why they wanted to govern. They won only when Republicans fumbled. From 1964 to 2008, Democrats won the presidency only three times—and only once by a majority, Carter’s bare 50.1 percent in 1976. Clinton won through the flukes of two three-way races, a Democrat facing two conservatives. Even then he had to win by mere pluralities.

To younger and web-based Democrats, the timidity of party leaders is maddening. When the Tea Party movement came along, the Democratic Party that once would have held considerable appeal for discontented voters was in no position to exploit their unhappiness. Democrats had supported the bailouts that tea partiers despise, and after bewailing the fact that corporations had become “too big to fail,” Democrats have allowed them to get bigger—and have done nothing to beef up anti-trust law.

The election of Barack Obama brought hope to Democratic populists because of his comments like this: “My attitude is that if the economy’s good for folks from the bottom up, it’s going to be good for everybody.” But congressional Democrats remain an obstacle even to Obama, who had to scale back any plans he had for “trickle-up” economics.

One place where liberals have been able to tap into Tea Party sentiment is the nation’s most traditionally Democratic state, Massachusetts, where a staid, stylish Democrat was rejected in favor of a liberal Republican in the election for a successor to Ted Kennedy. Bay State liberals and Tea Partiers are making common cause, Boston Phoenix reporter David Bernstein has written, because “both are particularly galled by what they see as the sense of entitlement of those inside the halls of power.”

After the 1910 election in which Democrats scored some gains, syndicated humorist Finley Peter Dunne had his famous “Mr. Dooley” observe that “gin’rally speakin’ a Demmyrat was an ondesirbale immygrant that had got past Ellis Island. But it’s different this year, Hennessy. The Demmycrat party is no longer low an’ vulgar. Its the hite iv fashion an’ th’ home iv wealth.”

Mr. Dooley’s joke has become reality.