The Party of the Middle Class

Christopher Hayes

My friend Reihan Salam has a very thoughtful post over at Dan Drezner's blog about the possible future of the Democratic Party. His basic argument is that as the party becomes the party of suburban professionals, a demographic shift explained in long detail in The Emerging Democratic Majority, it will abandon any real attempts to better the lives of the poor and powerless, and basically serve the interests of its new upper-middle class base. This is a frightening possibility, and not so implausible. In fact, ever since returning from Boston, I've been thinking about what, exactly, the Democratic Party currently stands for, what worldview it embodies, and what it means to represent the "middle class, and those struggling to get into the middle class." The fact of the matter is that the long political dominance of the Democratic party, which began with FDR and ended with Reagan, was born largely of the fact that the party created and administered social programs, so-called middle-class entitlements, that benefitted a substantial majority of the population. The Right's attack on these programs isn't just philosophical, it's a political strategy to take away reasons for voters to vote Democratic. The response by New Democrats like Clinton has been carefully "targeted" initiatives, tax credits for community college for example, that appeal to key electoral demographics. But when these programs become designed to benefit increasingly affluent constituents, they lose their moral rationale, act as a means of regressive wealth distribution, and also become easier to dislodge politically, since only a minority of voters benefit from any one program. And herein lies the political and moral genius of "universal" programs like Social Security. They appeal to a fundamental sense of equality by including every citizen, and yet their benefits are of the most import to the poorest and most socially vulnerable. This, to me, is the strongest political argument for the Democratic party becoming the party of Universal Healthcare. So I think there are two routes for the party to go: we can be the party of "targeted" programs and tax cuts meant to stich together a narrow electoral majority, or the party of bold, innovative, universal programs that have a just impact on the distribution of wealth, health, and opportunity in our society and also lay the groundwork for a lasting progressive majority. At this point, the Kerry/Edwards ticket seems to be taking the former route, but that's not surprising. Their job is to win in November, and as an immediate electoral strategy it probably makes the most sense to maintain the Clinton approach. However, as a long-term agenda, it's pretty incoherent and unsustainable. The responsibility then falls to us, the grassroots of the party, to build the local infrastructure to move the party in the latter direction.

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Christopher Hayes is the host of MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes. He is an editor at large at the Nation and a former senior editor of In These Times.
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