Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...

Friday, October 31, 2003  

With positive economic numbers starting to appear, the Democratic Party finds itself at a crossroads. The 7.2% growth rate will be a number the White House can tout for weeks. Even more important will be the moment the Dow passes 10,000 and the NASDAQ 2,000--psychological mileposts that will signal the reverse of the burst bubble (or at least be hailed that way). Whether the economy is actually stronger or not--and there's a lot of evidence it's not (Krugman, Newman, Sawicky)--these numbers will change the political discourse. It's a very dangerous time, because what the Dems do next will determine their relevance in the coming year and set the stage for whatever come back--or failure to comeback--they'll mount in coming years.

Thanks to the work of Judis and Teixeira, we know that the Democratic base has shifted from the blue collar (particularly rural voters) to educated professionals in "ideopolises"--tech and education centers like Boston, Madison, and San Francisco. Republicans, seizing on this change, have carefully identified Democrats as "elites," pointing to the tattooed, vegan, multicultural, irreligious city dwellers as evidence of a party that doesn't fit with traditional American values. Democrats still do well among unionized urban blue collar workers, but they've failed to flip the rural, religious, and red-meat poor.

Those differences were obscured in the Bush recession. Urban professionals were losing their jobs, just like wage-earners in blue collar jobs. Both were offended by the tax cuts that benefited the only group in America who didn't need the money--corporations and the rich. But if the economic numbers pick up, the Democrats will be confronted with a fracturing constituency.

At least, this is how I read it. The urban professionals--those amenable to the DLC "new Democrat" argument--will be most profoundly affected by the economic change. They'll benefit most from an improved economy. But then there's that 50% of voters who don't vote. A lot of them are the poor and disenfranchised who were for the first time starting to hear politicians speak to their needs. These are the folks in Boise, Idaho and Portsmouth, New Hampshire and Tucson, Arizona who work low-paying jobs (maybe two or three) who are trying to keep food on the table and a roof over their head. They have no access to the halls of power, no time or money to devote to politics, and essentially no voice in the political process. (Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed is a powerful report on this vast group of Americans.)

But they're the hope and future of the Democratic Party.

If this is the moment when Democrats turn away from their populist message, turn away from talking about class, and turn back toward the pro-business, pro-trade platform of the middle 90s, they'll lose every one of those workers. And losing those workers is tantamount to death. In the absence of any message that suggests there might be change for them, they'll slide back into political apathy or worse--they'll be susceptible to the most cynical arguments from Republicans about God, guns, and country.

The Democrats have hard work in front of them. Capturing those voters means going door-to-door to ask for votes. It means listening to needs and crafting solutions that may not appeal to those who control the coffers. It's old-time organization; getting people engaged, registered, and out to vote. So far, the Democrats have done a bang-up job creating those networks and putting people on the streets. The major influence behind that effort has been the flagging economy. But as these positive numbers come out, the Dems need to keep their eye on the ball: for the Wal-Mart worker making $7.75, the Dow's performance means squat. Their economy is going to take a lot more work.

posted by Jeff | 8:55 AM |
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