This is a talk I delivered at a campus forum at Morehead State University on Tuesday, August 29, 2017. It’s a succinct version of views I still mostly hold.
The Democratic Political Party in the U.S. is in the unique position of being both a radical reform party and a conservating party guarding fundamental structures of government against nihilistic assault. What I want to do is discuss the Democrats as a radical reform party while making some nods to the nihilistic opposition associated with white conservatism. Constituencies associated with the Democrats have transformed the dominant iconography of American history, brought the U.S. up to date with Western Europe on women’s equality and gay rights, and brought debates on economic redistribution into the core of party debate. Let me start with the Democrats and American mythology.
The Democratic Party is many things, among them, the Democratic Party organization, voting constituencies among white liberals, black people, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, and gay people, and activist groups linked to these constituencies. Over the last 50 years, Democrats have re-imagined an American history in which the Black Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s became the “founding event” and the American Revolution, Civil War, industrialization, and popular culture were all interpreted through their relation to Civil Rights. When I was growing up in the early 1960’s, the founding event was the American Revolution and the central tragedy of American history was the defeat of the slave South in the Civil War. To the contrary, the central story of American history has become the struggle of black people against white racial oppression and Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech has become even more significant than the Declaration of Independence as founding events for the American republic. This has been an “organic process” as the Civil Rights universe has expanded to incorporate feminism, LGBT rights, immigrant advocacy, and recognition of the disabled in the U.S. as well as non-violent struggles all over the world. The civil rights story of striving against racial oppression became the symbolic core of the Democratic Party well before it became the dominant narrative for the U.S. in general. This is one of the reasons why the Democrats are now much more closely identified with the symbols of American history than the conservative opposition.
As the story of Civil Rights was becoming the story of America, the Democrats became a multicultural, socially liberal party. This is partly a matter of voting constituencies. In the 2012 election, about 55% of the vote for Barack Obama was white while the rest was African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American, Jewish, Muslim, and LGBT. What I also mean by “multicultural” is that the various groups support each other politically, influence each other culturally, and identify themselves as having a common cause against “bigotry.” Loosely speaking, the Democratic coalition is a multicultural “us” in opposition to a bigoted “them.” This sense of multicultural group identity is reinforced by shared values of social liberalism that dominate most of the coalition. These include support for abortion and contraception rights, gay marriage, interracial heterosexual marriage, legal alcohol, and marijuana legalization, as well as more generalized values of diversity and difference. One largely ignored socially liberal value is “love” as sense of connection between highly individual people with diverse backgrounds. The symbolism of love is pervasive in contemporary popular culture and is an indication of the extent to which the social liberalism of Democratic constituencies is the dominant set of values in American society.
I’m going to wind up by briefly discussing the way in which the Democrats are the party of radical economic reform while being the only major political party committed to economic stability. Concerning economic redistribution, Occupy Wall Street has become the dominant frame of reference for discussion of economic policy-making. Bernie Sanders campaigned on increased taxes on the wealthy, breaking up the big banks, adding a financial transactions tax, and dramatically raising the minimum wage, but Hillary Clinton also argued for minimum wage hikes, increased taxes on the wealthy, tighter regulations on Wall Street, and redistributing the increased revenue to economic development and alternative energy. With Bernie and Hillary both proposing free college tuition schemes, the Democratic Party now has a commitment to wealth redistribution with the power of this kind of value orientation being illustrated by the developing taboo against chumminess with Wall Street among white Democrats.
Simultaneously, the Democrats have become the party that values economic stability. Beginning with the debt limit crisis of 2011, the most conservative Republicans have flirted annually with the idea of the American government refusing to make scheduled payments on the national debt and thus blowing up the American and world economies. This year, Donald Trump has already threatened a government shutdown if Congress doesn’t appropriate money for the wall Trump proposes to build between the U.S. and Mexico. Responding to the 2008 global financial crisis, the Obama administration prioritized economic stability over reform, but that really isn’t in the cards any more as Democratic activists have insisted on getting both. As I argued in a recent conference paper, the Democrats have become the party of both progress and order in American society while the Republicans have become a vehicle for nostalgia fantasies and nihilism.
Hillary got 48.2% of the popular vote in 2016, with Trump getting 46.2. There’s been much commentary on Hillary’s failures, but there’s not enough on the radical nature of her campaign. Hillary Clinton’s campaign was the first presidential campaign to explicitly organize itself around minority and feminist themes. Hillary conceded nothing to conservatives on abortion rights, transgender rights, Black Lives Matter, or a path to citizenship while still being a “center-left” or “moderate” Democrat rather than a leftist. This gets me to the core of the 2016 election. If Hillary had been elected, the Democrats would have rapidly advanced a dramatic transformation of American society and Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters were willing to blow up America’s traditional democratic political system to prevent that. In a way, American politics has become the Democratic Party vs organized political nihilism and nihilism won in 2016.