The Moment When Democrats Recovered Their Soul

Today on TAP: Joe Biden governs as if he were FDR

BY ROBERT KUTTNER

MARCH 31, 2021

Democrats got off track around 1967, when Lyndon Johnson, who was well on the way to becoming a second FDR, blew it all on Vietnam. He also sought to go FDR one better by getting serious about racial justice.

But that led to the infamous white backlash, as exploited by Nixon’s Southern strategy of coded racism. On both issues, Democrats splintered, and it’s been downhill ever since.

Under Carter, Clinton, and Obama, Democrats sought to recoup by becoming a Wall Street neoliberal party that was liberal-ish on social issues. That demolished any prospects of reviving a multiracial coalition based on common pocketbook interests. And so we got the Tea Parties and then Trump.

Now, something unexpected and miraculous is happening. Joe Biden, the most centrist of the 2020 Democratic field, is governing as if he were FDR.

The Democrats are Democrats again. On pocketbook help for struggling people. On public investment, big-time. On using public debt for public purposes. On taxing the rich. On backing the labor movement. Biden is taking risks to be a racial progressive. He is beginning to rein in corporate abuses. He has even defined infrastructure as not just bricks, mortar, and steel, but as caring infrastructure.

That model was there all along, waiting to be revived. But Biden’s three Democratic predecessors dismissed it and evaded it.

We can speculate on why Biden chose this path. Was it the pandemic? Was it Trump? Did the moment help him discover his inner progressive, which was hidden there all along?

The point is that he did it. And it is popular.

And Biden, unlike FDR and LBJ, is doing it with the slimmest of legislative majorities. But as Lincoln famously said, “Public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.”

And of course, public sentiment is not static. Success builds on success.

Now, we can depress ourselves with all the ways this could come off the rails.

The Democrats could lose their nerve on using budget reconciliation to pass all major economic legislation with a simple majority. Joe Manchin could continue to play the role of dog in the manger, and resist breaking the filibuster on other urgent legislation like voting rights. A Democratic senator could die, leaving Republicans to take back the Senate.

But remember, this wasn’t supposed to happen at all. Dems were not supposed to take back the Senate, and Biden was not supposed to be a progressive.

So for now, let us relish the moment and work to maximize it. I am not especially religious, but I am reminded of my favorite Jewish prayer, the Shehecheyanu, which gives thanks to the Almighty for allowing us to reach this day.

Source: The Moment When Democrats Recovered Their Soul

Author/Historian Thomas Frank: Dems needs to reclaim Populism

Author and historian Thomas Frank on the history of populism and anti-populism in America, and how Democrats can reclaim it from the GOP.

Joe Biden won the popular vote by more than five million votes, but still squeaked out a relatively narrow victory Electoral College. And he did it against one of the least popular candidates in history, in the midst of a pandemic, while his party was losing seats in congress.

Whether Democrats will come to see this as a glorious victory for the Third Way or as a belated wake-up call will determine what they do for the next four years. That even amid a steady drumbeat of “appealing to the white working class is inherently racist,” Biden’s support among minorities was less than Hillary Clinton’s in 2016 should be a big red flag.

From his first book, What’s The Matter With Kansas (2004) through Listen, Liberal (2016) to this year’s The People, No, author and historian Thomas Frank has been documenting the way the Democratic party has been increasingly shedding its New Deal, working-class coalition roots to become the party of the educated professional class: a largely non-ideological coalition of effective managers who evangelize the meritocracy. This seemed like a brilliant strategy if judged only by election victories for Bill Clinton(*) and Barack Obama(**), but, as Frank points out, it was the Democratic party’s rightward lean in the 90s that “coincided with a period of ever more conservative governance” and set the stage for Trumpism in the first place. (*Who won in 1992 with just 43% of the popular vote, thanks to Ross Perot) (**Who campaigned as a transformative progressive, at least in the beginning).

As Frank recently wrote in The Guardian, “It turns out that when the party of the left abandons its populist traditions for high-minded white-collar rectitude, the road is cleared for a particularly poisonous species of rightwing demagoguery. It is no coincidence that, as Democrats pursued their professional-class ‘third way,’ Republicans became ever bolder in their preposterous claim to be a ‘workers’ party’ representing the aspirations of ordinary people.”

In The People, NO: A Brief History Of Anti-Populism, Frank attempts to explain a few interconnected stories: the history of the populist movement in the United States, the elitist (and usually racist) language used to denigrate it, and the way racist demagogues eventually co-opted some of the original populists’ language. Finally, he connects it to the environment of today, in which Donald Trump, in unconsciously parroting the co-opted, “anti-elitist” talking points of demagogues past, has inadvertently convinced a significant swath of the media and the political class that populism is racism. When in fact it has a strong tradition of anti-racism and trans-racial solidarity.

I spoke to Frank this week about whether — with another centrist, third-way Democratic president on the way — the party can still reclaim some of its old coalition and harness some of the forces of “populism” for good, not to mention nostalgia and even religion.

What is your take on the election? Will Democrats see any impetus for improving their messaging or is this just going to be four years of arguing about whether this was or was not a massive victory?

Wow. That’s a good question. Messaging is a chronic problem for the Democrats, but it’s also a way of acknowledging that they did a bad job with messaging, which they will often do. It is a way of brushing off the deeper problem of the Democratic party, which is that they’ve abandoned their base and their identity. That’s a much bigger problem that has consequences for society. It’s like we’re running a 30-year experiment here in America in what happens to a middle-class society when the party of the left decides it doesn’t want to be a party of the left anymore, which is what they decided back in the Clinton days. That has been as consequential for the big change in our society as has the radicalization of the Republicans. The two go hand-in-hand. As Republicans push further to the right, the Democrats concede more, and sort of reimagine themselves and emerge as another party of the market, of the elite. So, there’s two parties of the elite in this country. It’s a curious situation.

In terms of the Democrats’ shift to the center, that was kind of the Clinton third-way thing, and then we sort of interpreted that as this winning strategy, but didn’t Clinton only win in the first place because Ross Perot screwed up that entire election?

Yeah, that’s right, and then screwed up the election in ’96 too. When I was writing Listen, Liberal, a lot of it is a sort of study of the Clinton years. I decided to do that part of the book by reading the pro-Clinton literature, the books that regard him as a great president, and there’s a lot of them. They admire him, they’ll tell you why they admire him, and you go down the list and it’s these five things: bank deregulation, NAFTA, the great crime crackdown, welfare reform. Every single one of them has ended in disaster. All of them were Republican agenda items that Bill Clinton got done. Continue reading