With Hillary Clinton’s defeat the Obama era ended abruptly. This was not the outcome the polls and the media had predicted. There was conjecture that when Trump inevitably lost the election, the Republican Party would unravel and perhaps cease to exist. But now it is the Democrats who are in disarray after losing the Presidency and control of the Senate. How did this happen?
Twenty years ago, I wrote a book titled Divided They Fell: The Demise of the Democratic Party: 1964-1996. The book traced how the Democrats shifted from a mainstream centrist party to one of the left, adopting policies that eventually alienated many Americans, causing them to move over to the Republican column. The 2016 election is the result of that process.
The seeds of Trump’s victory were planted in the first “progressive” reforms instituted during and after the campaign of George McGovern in 1972, marking the beginning of the Democrats’ decline. At the Chicago convention, the McGovern Democrats pushed out the old party bosses and trade union leaders, and put in their place self-proclaimed progressives chosen by the identity group to which they belonged; i.e., African-Americans, students, women, etc.
In carrying this out, the Chicago delegation that had been put together by the union leaders was literally kicked out of the convention. Attacking organized labor as a “conservative” group made many union Democrats slowly move into the ranks of the Republican Party. That trend culminated during the Ronald Reagan campaign, producing the large group dubbed “Reagan Democrats.”
The Democrats had begun their long march to the left by choosing to appeal to liberal constituency groups rather than the traditional electorate that made up the old New Deal-Fair Deal coalition. They also instituted quotas to make sure that future delegates would consist of a solid representation of members of these identity groups through institution of a quota system. As McGovern explained: “The way we got the quota thing through was by not using the word ‘quotas.’”
The Democratic Party was, in effect, captured by the left. There was an interregnum when Bill Clinton won the election as a “New Democrat,” arguing for a centrist path. Even so, during his first two years in office, Clinton had tried and failed to institute policies of a leftist nature like instituting a universal health care system to be run by his wife, supporting affirmative action, and cutting the defense budget. In the end, he found he found that to get anything done, he would have to work with Republicans, adopting a policy that was then called “triangulation.”
Now we have come full circle. The Trump victory this month was a wake-up call to the Democratic Party—a group whose main support came from elites in Hollywood and Silicon Valley, and East Coast backers in or close to Wall Street, professionals, minority groups, and many members of the public service trade unions. This year, women were supposed to be all in, but failed to come through. Missing above all was the white working class, once the heart of the Democratic Party during the years of F.D.R. and Harry S Truman.
What happened in this election is explained well by John B. Judis in the Sunday Washington Post:
For Clinton, the adversary was Trump, but it was also, as the campaign developed, the “basket of deplorables” who backed him. While Clinton claimed she meant only a subset of Trump’s white working-class supporters, her charge was taken—with some justice—as applying to the group in its entirety. So instead of creating a majority that included her base plus a significant slice of potential Republican voters, Clinton defined her coalition against them. (Many liberal pundits reinforced this perception by repeatedly characterizing Trump’s voters as poorly informed and racist, even though in 2008 and 2012 many of these voters backed Obama.)
Now Democrats are searching for answers about their shellacking and what they should do about it if the party is to have a future. Fingers are being pointed. To find answers, Politico reports that George Soros and other liberal-left big money people met in a private three-day event in the nation’s capital with what reporter Kenneth P. Vogel calls “the darlings of the left” including Nancy Pelosi, Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), who is the Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairman. The Conference, sponsored by the Democracy Alliance (DA) donor club—who, according to Vogel, “have had a major hand in shaping the institutions of the left”—is assessing what went wrong. One thing they agree on is to wage “full-on trench warfare” against President-elect Trump’s 100-day plan.
Some urge rebuilding the Clinton/Obama coalition, but many question whether that will be sufficient to win national elections in the future. Others, including Ellison, argue that winning the working-class vote is necessary. The way to do that, he believes, is by arguing for “a form of economic populism.”
Today, the old guard, represented by Hillary Clinton and the DNC, is in a fight for its life, pitted against the socialist far left represented by the campaign of Bernie Sanders. Their favorite for chairman of the Democratic National Committee—-previously run by Clinton stalwarts like Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Donna Brazile—-is Ellison, who took a parting shot at Clinton:“You can’t tell working people you’re on their side while at the same time you’re raising money from Wall Street and the billionaire class. The Democratic Party has to be focused on grass-roots America and not wealthy people attending cocktail parties.”
Ellison recently received the endorsement of Sen. Chuck Schumer, although his main backers include Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Competing for the job, with a visible lack of support, are the more “moderate” figures Howard Dean and Martin O’Malley.
The Democrats, while ranting about the racism of Steve Bannon, are seemingly uninterested in exploring Ellison’s past and finding out what he stands for. Some answers can be found in an article written by Dennis MacEoin six years ago, which appeared in Middle East Quarterly, where he is the editor. MacEoin notes that despite a predictably liberal voting record, Ellison “consorts with groups and individuals that represent a threat to democracy and America.” In Ellison’s sympathy for Islamists, MacEoin accuses him “of being at best naïve in his associations, and at worst a fifth columnist,” who provides cover in the House “for anti-American discourse, and possibly, anti-American actions.”
Ellison’s record includes association with Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam during his law school days and again in 1995 when he endorsed the Million Man March, which has been extensively documented. In his nuanced article, MacEoin points out that Ellison has in fact taken positions at odds with Islamic doctrine, for example, denouncing the views of Sayyid Qutb, who he said was “responsible for what we would regard today as violent extremism with what I call a Muslim veneer.” Ellison has, however, received funding for his campaigns from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, including thousands of dollars from Nihad Awad, its executive director. He is a man who has openly supported Hamas and other violent Islamist groups. Ellison was also keynote speaker in 2002 for the Muslim American Society, the American chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is pledged to wage Jihad in America and work toward “destroying the Western civilization from within and ‘sabotaging’ their miserable house so that…Allah’s religion is made victorious over all religions,” writes MacEoin.
In the end, MacEion concludes that Ellison is a bundle of contradictions. While his legislative record was within the mainstream of American life, at the same time he also did fundraising “for groups whose leadership would replace the Constitution with the laws of Islam.”
After 9/11, Ellison said the attack was like the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on the Communists and used as the excuse to assume total power in Germany. Rep. Eric Cantor replied: “Even if Ellison asserts that he was not implying that 9/11 was orchestrated by the administration, the comparison he draws between Hitler and the President of United States is disgraceful. These comments inflame hatred and division at a time when we should be promoting our unity and reconciliation.”
If Ellison wins his post, as it seems he will, given Senator Chuck Schumer’s support, it will be a sign that the Sanders wing of the party has won control of the DNC. They believe left-wing populism will appeal to the same voters who just voted for Trump and that in the next election, a socialist or progressive candidate will be able to win. Of course, this assumes that the national electorate will vote for the destruction of America’s democratic capitalism and put a self-proclaimed socialist or far left radical into office.
The Democrats lost the election because they lost the support of the white working and middle class. The arguments of the progressive wing of the party that they should appeal to them by using Trump’s playbook, only with left wing solutions, will be hard to resist. But they should think twice about solving their problems by once again by moving further to the left, instead of choosing to be a responsible centrist and mainstream opposition political party.