Writer argues for Democrats to emulate the New Democrats of the 1990’s.
BY GEORGE BERNARD ’23
As the midterm elections approach, politics are beginning to return to the forefront of many people’s minds. However, something feels different about this compared to the last few elections. Compared to the 2016, 2018 and 2020 elections, there seems to be a stunning level of apathy, particularly on the left. After four years of fighting former President Trump tooth and nail, Democratic voters are sorely disappointed at how little President Biden has been able to deliver on. Meanwhile, the right has been busy pointing and laughing at Biden’s gaffes, but have neglected to propose any vision or plans to voters, hoping that they will gain voters simply by appealing to disaffected voters and culture war issues. This leaves a large number of disaffected moderate voters up for grabs.
In 1989, political scholars Bill Galston and Elaine Kamarck published “The Politics of Evasion,” a call for reform to the Democratic party by dispelling the myths that prevented them from winning. Their main thesis was that Democrats were in denial over the reasons they kept losing. In the prior 20 years, Democrats had only won one presidential election, Jimmy Carter in 1976. They stated that “too many Americans have come to see the party as inattentive to their economic interests, indifferent if not hostile to their moral sentiments, and ineffective in defense of their national security.” But many Democrats were either oblivious or in denial to this reality, and instead of changing their image, blamed low voter turnout for their losses. In response, a group of Democrats heeded Galston and Kamarck’s call for change and were called “New Democrats.” The most well-known New Democrat was Bill Clinton, who appealed to the middle by supporting the working class, being tough on crime, supporting our national interests, balancing the budget and overseeing a booming economy while remaining supportive of government spending and welfare programs. Also important to his electoral success was the fact that he was young, charismatic and from Hope, Arkansas.
In February of this year, Galston and Kamarck published an updated version of their original paper, reiterating their thesis and calling for Democrats to reign in the far left wing of their party and improve outreach to moderates. Despite losing in 2020, Donald Trump increased his share of the popular vote by 1% and gained 8 million votes from 2016. Even more troubling for Democrats was their declining support across almost every minority group. In particular, Biden’s support from Hispanic voters, who once were considered safely Democratic voters, shrank in seven of nine swing states. This is at least in part due to Democrats being perceived as too liberal on social issues and not doing enough to fight the rise in crime. It isn’t a great look to be calling for (or perceived as supporting) defunding the police while violent crime is hitting 20 year highs.
When they say that “too many Americans have come to see the party as inattentive to their economic interests,” they point to sky-high inflation, caused in part by excessive government spending, and the fact that many people will vote against the party in power when their wallet is being stretched thin. When they say that Democrats are “indifferent if not hostile to their moral sentiments,” they point to Democrats over-zealous embrace of LGBT issues well before a majority of the country is ready for it and perceived support for critical race theory. Democrats being “ineffective in defense of [the country’s] national security” is visible in the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan although our assistance to Ukraine has helped to change this perception.
They also rightly argue that reaching out to swing voters is more important now than ever, with the last six presidential elections having less than 5% margins. Moderation is the key to doing that. Rather than focusing on divisive issues, they should promote their ideas on universal pre-k, public transit, a public healthcare option, infrastructure projects and other things that have wide public support.
Long term, Democrats need to develop a talent pool of candidates that are from working class backgrounds that can resonate with people outside of the cities. They need to moderate on social issues and more importantly, improve their communications with the public, keeping in mind that many of their individual policy proposals enjoy over 60% public support. In conjunction with more moderate messaging, they should fight the PC culture that is associated with them that is incredibly toxic to a large number of voters.