Nancy Pelosi was the Host Committee Chairwoman of the Democratic National Convention in 1984 that nominated Walter Mondale. He would lose California on the way to losing 49 states. Charles Schumer was a Congressman from New York who watched Reagan carry his home state in 1984 by almost 10 points. Joe Biden was a veteran Senator from the solidly Democratic state of Delaware. Reagan won there in ’84 with almost 60% of the vote.
Legendary Democratic campaign strategist, James Carville spent the 1984 Election guiding the campaign of Texas Senate candidate, Lloyd Doggett. Texas was still solidly Democratic at the state and local level, but the mood had been changing at the top of the ticket since passage of the Civil Rights Acts. Doggett, an unapologetic liberal, would lose by nearly 20 points, becoming only the second Democrat to lose a Senate race in Texas since Reconstruction. Carville explained his own thoughts on the loss in terms many Democrats at the time would share, “I was scared to death, I was 40 years old, and didn’t have any health insurance, I didn’t have any money, I was mortified.”
Modern Democratic leaders have a favorite word: “backlash.” They relentlessly lecture young Democrats not to promote the party’s agenda too openly because people will reject it. Polling shows broad public support, even across party lines, for every element of the Democratic Party’s agenda from abortion rights to clean energy and even immigration, but Democratic leaders refuse to lean into these issues. Instead, Democrats continue to run on the cautious, almost apologetic stances perfected by Carville and Clinton in the post-Reagan years.
Misunderstood lessons from the Reagan Era still hobble the left, granting undeserved license to a Fascist movement in the US. Refusal by Democratic leaders and donors to challenge the right is creating a dangerous opening for a desperate, dangerous political movement. It needs to end.
Reagan Era Democrats reached the conclusion that their policies, though intelligent, morally right and in the best interest of everyone, were too unpopular to pursue openly. They settled on becoming the “adults in the room,” promoting conservative policies paired with relatively sane administrative know-how. Strategists like Carville, working through the Democratic Leadership Council, responded to the country’s perceived rightward shift by becoming “New Democrats,” which was essentially just Republicans who’ve read a book.
Clinton would ride this “New Democrat” label back to power by promoting policies too conservative to even be proposed by Reagan, from gutting welfare to a draconian new crackdown on crime. The Clinton campaign used the phrase “a new kind of Democrat” till our ears bled, which simply meant Democrats who will promote Republican policies. These are the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Democrats, a generation of educated, white collar Democratic leaders who lost faith in the Democratic rank and file on the way to losing faith in their own faith.
For decades, leading Democrats have been satisfied to be Marge Simpson, the sober voice people only heed in moments of disaster. Democrats have become the most authentically conservative force in US politics, the party committed to maintenance of the status quo, punctuated by halting, incremental steps toward progress. Modern Democrats often devote an entire election season to a laundry list of things they promise not to do. They won’t attempt a universal health plan. They won’t take your guns. They won’t raise taxes. Like a true conservative party, their pitch is that their opponent is a radical, not that they themselves have anything valuable to offer.
Beneath the Democrats’ frustration is a core misunderstanding of what happened in 1984, and the years that followed. Reagan’s win in 1984, along with the shift toward the GOP in Dixie, had nothing to do with changing policy preferences. Southern states didn’t flip from single party politics under Democrats to single party politics under Republicans because voters changed their minds about some issue or another. In fact, all across the South the new Republican leaders from Phil Gramm and Rick Perry in Texas to Trent Lott in Mississippi and Fob James in Alabama were the exactly the same people who’d been leading previously as Democrats and they continued to back exactly the same policies they’d endorsed as Democrats. In the Reagan Era, Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Roy Moore and David Duke were all Democrats. Elizabeth Warren was a Republican. None of these people changed their political stances when they changed parties. It wasn’t about policy.
The pivot in American politics from the Reagan Era to the present consisted of Dixiecrats and their allies elsewhere in the country leaving the Democratic Party over race. Sure, lots of other things have happened in half a century, but the great megatrend in US politics, and the politics of many European nations, is the declining power of a unifying mythology based on race or ethnicity. Democrats struggle with their agenda because progressive, collectivist policies which make life better for everyone depend on a sense of “us-ness,” a belief that “we” are “in it together,” worthy of sharing and sacrifice. Slice away any unifying narrative and there is no “we” around which to build public capital.
Once we began dismantling Jim Crow in the 1960’s, previously popular policies began to fall out of favor. Instead of celebrating achievements like public health advances, the triumph of public education, and a growing social safety net, we’ve begun to hear that these essential elements of public capital are being abused by the “undeserving.” Once the foundations of public life in the US were opened up to the black “other” defined by our white supremacist narrative, support for every form of public capital collapsed.
Want to include everyone in a comprehensive national healthcare system? Start by tearing down Confederate Monuments. You cannot build shared prosperity across groups unwilling to share.
That said, steps toward cultural transformation aren’t enough. Symbolic, myth-building activities have to be paired with materially-meaningful policies or they lose their punch. Democrats have become addicted to the emotional high of replacing a racist monument or nominating the first Indigenous trans-person to some public office because it’s easier than tackling policy issues. Democrats have to be bold if our democratic experiment will survive. Democrats have to forget the trauma of 1984.
In the near term while a new unifying narrative is taking shape, a hybrid policy is available to Democrats, a bridge to broader power. Go big on policy without apology. It may not be possible to build a stable new order without the adoption of a broad new national mythology, but you can start down that road with bribes. Abandon any concern about price tags, backlash, or “what will Republicans say” and offer Americans everything they want, including higher taxes on the wealthy. There is math behind this plan.
Yes, the overwhelming bulk of Republicans are political zombies who cannot be moved, but you don’t need to move them. You just need to defeat them. If Democrats only won 5% of former Trump voters, just one out of every 20, they could govern for a generation. Offer to free Americans from the need to hold their job in exchange for access to essentials like health care and education and Democrats can swing just enough middle income whites to triumph.
To skirt the near-term objection that these new benefits were flowing to some “unworthy” corner of the population, make the entire agenda universal. A new national policy that doesn’t materially benefit families earning $100,000 a year isn’t bold enough to win. Throw Medicare open for paid enrollment to everyone. Provide a basic income for everyone. From college to healthcare, eliminate the concept of “need” from the public safety net, instead using the public safety net as the foundation of a new “us.” Invite the backlash, and overwhelm it with bold political bribery.
Perhaps most of all, Democrats need to be conscious of the distorted new unifying mythology of merit they are creating in the absence of a deliberate plan. A false meritocracy is diverting almost all of the material gains from any Democratic wins toward educated white liberals who don’t need help. Merit does not create a new us, but rather invents a cruel justification for financial apartheid.
White liberals are setting themselves up for a potential catastrophe through blindness to their own power as a class. If Republicans are the party of angry yokels and wealthy oligarchs, Democrats are becoming the party of urban professionals with high SAT scores paired with economically frustrated minorities. In every internal political conflict, affluent white Democrats sweep all the material benefits while everyone else has to settle for gender-neutral pronouns and a new MLK Boulevard. Yes, tearing down Confederate Monuments is a crucial step toward progress, but you have to keep stepping. If progress isn’t costing anything, it isn’t progress. Go big.
Reagan is dead. White Southerners’ flight into the Republican Party is over. While mourning lost power Democrats have failed to recognize that despite shedding a third of their former political base they retain majority electoral support. In other words, all Democrats have really lost is their faith in their own agenda.
Summon the spirit of Roosevelt. Build a new story. Back that story confidently and (enough) Americans will respond.