Features » September 29, 2014
Failing the Midterms (cont’d)
‘Dialing for dollars’
Still, even the savviest ground game won’t jumpstart (if you’ll pardon the expression) a party leadership structure systematically hollowed out by bigmoney prerogatives. Minority Leader Pelosi owes her House seat and her leadership clout to her prodigious fundraising, and the class-bound mindset of former House fundraising maestro Emanuel was on brutal display during his failed efforts as mayor of Chicago to break the city’s teachers’ union in 2012. Likewise, a steady run of former Obama White House hands, from former policy adviser David Plouffe to erstwhile press flak Robert Gibbs, are now in the private-sector employ of avid union-busting clients.
“The Republicans used to be the only party that had this problem,” notes Marc Landy, a Boston College political scientist. “But the question now is who can be credible on economic populism. There’s always been a Republican and Democratic form of populism, but neither party can now get a grip on it. It’s not just the exigencies of finance—it’s the greed.”
Indeed, the revolving door between Capitol Hill and the big-money lobbying preserves of K Street is now more of a gilded escalator—or more aptly still, a permanent skyway permitting its lucky client base to hover above the scramble that assails most American voters on a daily basis. For the first time in our history, a majority of the people’s representatives in Congress boast a net worth north of $1 million at a time when the economic fortunes of ordinary Americans have been plunging.
“I can tell you a true story: A friend of mine who works in the House, he was begging guys to show up and vote on an amendment,” Ferguson recalls. “Then he talks to one member, who says, ‘Why should I show up and vote? That would take away from my [time] dialing for dollars.’ ”
The party’s rank-and-file is “responding to an economic populist message,” says polling analyst Ruy Teixeira, who is affiliated with the Century Fund, the Center for American Progress and the Brookings Institution. But “the elites of the party are trailing behind,” he notes, “which prevents them from having a message that might be attractive to the median voter.”
Teixeira stresses that the main structural obstacles facing the Democrats— the legacy of GOP statehouse gerrymandering and the tendency of Democratic voters to be overrepresented in dense urban districts—mean that it’s all but impossible for the party to gain ground in this year’s midterms. Even if Democrats were to offer a robust platform of economic populism, Teixeira is skeptical that they could be persuasive. “What about the possibility that … what they say wouldn’t sound convincing? Do people really believe that Democrats have the solution to what may be long-term secular stagnation in the economy, and growing inequality? Part of the problem is that no matter what emotional pitch you use with this message, there may be difficulties getting people to buy into it.”
Or as Ferguson says, more simply: “You want a happy ending, go see a Disney movie.”
Chris Lehmann, a contributing editor of In These Times, is editor-in-chief at Baffler and the author of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).
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