A look at the sickening mid-term election results makes one thing clear: It’s time for the Democratic Party to take some strong political medicine. The party is ill, not perhaps with the civic equivalent of Ebola, as some Republicans believe, but rather with a festering, self-inflicted wound that generates judgment-clouding fever.
Number crunchers warned that the midterms would go badly for Democrats, but even pessimists did not forecast that Republicans would seize control of both houses of Congress by the greatest margins they’ve held since World War II. There are several explanations for the Democrats’ poor showing: The president’s party almost always loses in off-year elections; many key Democratic voting blocs chronically fail to turn out for midterms; President Obama’s approval ratings are low; and there’s public frustration with the economy, Mideast wars, Ebola and other causes of mass dyspepsia. On the other hand, the party in the White House usually benefits when the economy is on the upswing — especially when unemployment rates decline, as they have, or consumers reap very noticeable benefits, as they did with the recent downtick in gas prices.
In any case, those factors do more to explain the GOP’s congressional wins than the gubernatorial outcomes, which usually hinge on more local issues. Republicans swept the country, from the old South to the vast, underpopulated West to industrial Midwestern states (Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Illinois, which elected virulently anti-union Republicans) to traditionally blue or independent-minded Eastern states (Massachusetts, Maryland and Maine). Only Democratic businessman Tom Wolf’s defeat of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett bucked the trend.
Of course, in diagnosing the Democrats’ malady, we can’t rule out poisoning. After Obama’s 2008 election, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (our soon-to-be Majority Leader) and other Republican leaders agreed to block the president at every turn, hoping to paint Democrats as hapless failures (and pacify their own insurgent right wing).
Republicans stuck to their no-compromise strategy — to the point of shutting down the government — while blaming President Barack Obama for intransigence even as many of his supporters though he was offering Republicans too much (and receiving too little). Public frustration with both Congress and the president grew, but in such a situation it sticks much more readily to the chief executive. Then, throughout the election, the Republican Party took every opportunity to tie Democratic incumbents to the president.
So the Democrats obviously fought back, right? They pointed out that Obama’s policies saved hundreds of thousands of auto-industry jobs, pulled the country out of the worst downturn since the Great Depression and reduced unemployment to 5.8 percent. They cited some telling figures: While the economy lost about 462,000 private-sector jobs during George W. Bush’s eight-year tenure, it has gained 5.6 million since Obama took office. The International Monetary Fund projects that the United States will lead the industrialized world in job growth in 2015. Inflation is low, especially in healthcare, and more people have health insurance. The budget deficit is down.
You didn’t hear that? Funny thing: Neither did most voters. Nor did they hear many attacks on the Republicans for undermining initiatives that would have boosted employment even faster, such as investment in education, infrastructure and public service jobs. Progressives can easily find shortcomings in Obama, but there have been achievements — and there has been Republican sabotage. Instead, the Democratic candidates and campaign strategists largely turned their backs on Obama.
As a result, the Republican attacks went unanswered, the president’s popularity sank, and that low rating boomeranged back to hit the Democrats. This is not to argue against progressive criticism of the party or its leaders. But we need to defend even modest Democratic efforts to improve the lives of working- and middle-class Americans. And then we need to push for more.
Rather than pull together, Democrats in this midterm election spun apart, each pursuing their own private election, as if they belonged to no party — which is almost true.
The Democrats came close to a national strategy on only one issue, a retread of the attack from the last election cycle on the Republican “war on women.” The Republican “war” is itself a byproduct of the “gender gap”: Since 1992, women have skewed Democratic by as many as 14 percentage points, and men have skewed Republican by as many as 16, for a combined gap as high as 22 points (in 1994). This time, although the combined gap remained high at 20 points, the entire electorate — women included — shifted towards the Republicans. The strategy of appealing to women on abortion seems to have been less potent in this election, perhaps because mainstream Republican operatives worked to screen out anti-abortion Tea Party extremists in the primaries.
The economy was by far the main issue for voters, especially among those who voted Republican, who tended to worry about economic conditions or to believe they were worsening. More optimistic voters favored Democrats.
Widespread frustration over stagnant or falling wages, more than joblessness, may have been the key factor in this economic frustration. In an Election Day survey of voters in Senate battleground states by Hart Research for the AFL-CIO, 54 percent of respondents said their income is falling behind the cost of living.
The popularity of raising the minimum wage — approved as binding law in four states (Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota) and the California cities of Oakland and San Francisco, and as a non-binding referendum in Illinois and parts of Wisconsin — shows the public strongly supports raising the floor for workers. Likewise, voters in Massachusetts, the New Jersey cities of Montclair and Trenton, and Oakland, California, required employers to provide paid sick days, a step that improves the work lives of people at all income levels.
The Hart survey provides several leads toward a cure for what ails the Democrats. For example, both union and non-union voters supported a range of proposals backed by organized labor, such as comprehensive immigration reform (55 percent support), raising taxes on wealthy (62 percent), and increased funding from preschool through college (75 percent). It also found scant popular support for key Republican proposals, including financial deregulation (31 percent), raising eligibility age for Medicare (18 percent) and cutting Medicaid (17 percent). Overall, the survey found little faith in Republicans, much anxiety that corporations wielded too much influence in both parties, opposition to a new Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and a preference for public investment over tax cuts.
“Everybody should have been more aggressively talking about the economy and solutions out there,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in a statement when the federation released the survey, which he saw as a “road map” for Democrats in the coming years.
The results also show, once again, how large the “union gap” is. In Senate battlegrounds, 61 percent of union members voted for the Democratic candidate, compared to 47 percent of voters overall. This reaffirms that one of the best ways to build a reliable bloc of progressive voters is to make it easier for workers to organize into unions. It’s a strategy that works not only with the youth, women and people of color who are often seen as the future of the Democrats but also with the white men who otherwise often fall prey to arguments of the Republican Right.
Democrats need to focus their attention on how Republican policies amount to a war on workers, a war on the working class and middle class, a war on the planet and a war on democracy. Then they have to make sure that they and their future candidates are fighting on the side of those workers, the planet and democracy, in both deed and word. It’s a strategy for the long run, not a quick hit for the weekend talk shows — but good medicine for a sick party.
David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.