By James Kwak
Today is the day of the New Hampshire primary, and, perhaps more importantly, lots of people in California are getting their ballots around now. Before you cast your vote in the Democratic presidential primary, I wish you would read Take Back Our Party, either online (for free) or in print. But I know most of you won’t, so this is what I want to say.
As a preamble, if you are a moderate Democrat—if you think welfare reform and financial deregulation were good ideas; if you think, along with Barack Obama, that more oil production is a good thing; if you think that America’s health care problems can be solved by private health insurance companies—what I am going to say is not for you. Go ahead and vote for Joe Biden, or Pete Buttigieg, or Amy Klobuchar.
The key message of Take Back Our Party is that the national Democratic Party of the past thirty years has been a failure, both as policy and as politics. What victories there were happened despite the party establishment (gay marriage, for example) or were actually moderate Republican policies (Obamacare). Both Presidents Clinton and Obama turned their backs on redistribution and social solidarity, preferring the soaring rhetoric of growth and opportunity: maximizing overall economic growth while giving everyone the “opportunity” to participate in prosperity. But what we got was modest growth whose benefits were monopolized by the 1%, soaring inequality, and widespread economic insecurity. (For the numbers, see Chapter 2 of Take Back Our Party.) As a society, we have to recognize that growth is not the answer. What we should care about is the actual welfare of ordinary families: whether they can afford health care, whether they can afford a place to live, whether they can go to college, whether they can retire, and so on. Those are the things our economic platform should focus on—not the myth that a rising tide lifts all boats.
Now, the issue on everyone’s minds is electability. Sure, we may want Medicare for All—but what most people want more than anything else is to defeat President Trump. And many people think that the most electable candidate is the most right-wing candidate. This is based on the theory of the median voter. The idea is that you can line up all voters on an ideological spectrum, and they will vote for the candidate who is closest to them—which means that we want to nominate someone in the middle (or, more accurately, someone just to the left of Trump).
The median voter theory is nonsense. If it were true, Donald Trump would not be president today. Nor would the Republicans have a majority of the Senate, and a majority of governorships, and a majority of state legislatures. They have achieved this electoral success despite running far to the right of where most Americans stand on just about every issue—immigration, abortion, gay rights, taxes, you name it.
We have to give people a reason to vote for us. The problem is, for decades, Democrats have not given people a reason to vote for them. Once upon a time, we were the party of the people—of workers, the New Deal, and the social safety net. Then (for reasons discussed in Chapter 1) we became the party of finance, technology, innovation, and economic growth—the party of the 1%, claiming that we were also the party of the 99%. Our talking points became economic growth, fiscal responsibility, and technocratic expertise—things that the Republicans claimed, too. And eventually, people forgot why they should vote for us.
The central problem of our time is inequality. The central political problem is that too many people feel left behind by our economic and political system. Those are the conditions that lead people to vote for a charlatan like Donald Trump. We are not going to win them back by saying that we will return to the “good old days” of the Obama administration, or that we are going to bring America together, or that we have impeccable educational and professional credentials, or that we are not as ridiculous as Trump. We tried that in 2016, and we lost.
I think it was one of Bill Clinton’s advisors who said that every election is ultimately about change versus more of the same. Right now, many people are hurting—because of stagnant wages, falling life expectancy, increasing out-of-pocket health care costs, the opioid epidemic, student debt, rising rents, insufficient retirement savings, and so on. And yet the Democratic establishment continues promising more of the same: incrementalism wrapped in phony post-partisan rhetoric, along with a healthy dose of “Isn’t Trump stupid?” That’s why we do well with well-educated professionals living in thriving urban centers—with people who are already doing pretty well. But this is not a recipe for victory.
Donald Trump offers change—xenophobia, white supremacism, and misogyny—even if many of his actual policies are standard conservative fare. We need to offer change as well: universal health care, free college, and Social Security. Our vision is more compelling than his. But we have to have the courage to offer that vision to the American people. Otherwise we will remain, as we were in 2016, the party of an increasingly bankrupt status quo.
That is all.