How Did Democrats Become the Party of Elites?

In order to win back statehouses and Congress, Democrats must rewrite the political narrative that now has them on the side of the establishment and Republicans on the side of sticking it to the man.

“For four decades now, Republicans have succeeded in framing Democrats as the party that uses government to bigfoot rather than aid the American people,” writes Leonard Steinhorn. (Photo by Georgia Democrats/ flickr CC 2.0)

How did it come to pass that of the two political parties, the Democrats — who have long fought for the underdog, civil rights, consumer protections, universal health care, the minimum wage and for unions against powerful interests that try to crush them — have now been branded in large swaths of the country as the party of the establishment and the elites?

And how did it come to pass that Republicans — whose policies, regardless of stated intent, benefit polluters, entrenched interests and the upper brackets of American wealth — are now seen by many as the anti-establishment populist party which delights in flipping off elites on behalf of the Everyman?

For the moment, keep Donald Trump out of this conversation — after all, Democrats have been hemorrhaging seats in statehouses and Congress for decades. Also set aside any talking points about which party’s policies truly benefit forgotten Americans or which short-term trends show up in the polls.

More important for Democrats is whether they can rewrite the political narrative that now has them on the side of the establishment and Republicans on the side of sticking it to the man.

If Democrats want to regain their electoral stride and recapture defiant voters who once saw the party as their advocate and voice — the same voters they need to establish a sustained governing majority throughout the land — they must think less about policies per se than about how those policies translate to messaging and brand.

Just as consumers purchase products not merely for what they do but for what they say about the people who buy them, voters are drawn to narratives, brands and identities as much as the policies that affect their lives. These narratives give voters meaning, define who they are, and become an essential part of their identity and self-image.

What’s most toxic in American politics today — as it has been throughout our history — is to become the party associated with domineering overlords and supercilious elites who seem to enjoy wielding power over the rest of us.

To some extent, the Democrats have only themselves to blame for their elite, establishment image.

Few question the party’s need to build its campaign coffers in what is now an arms race for political dollars. But by cozying up to Wall Street and the privileged — and appearing more at ease hobnobbing among them than among those who work in factories, small businesses and call centers — Democrats have sent a subtle message about the people they prefer to associate with and seek out for advice. To many Americans, it reeks of hypocrisy at best.

Republicans, who unapologetically celebrate wealth as a symbol of American dynamism, face no such messaging dissonance.

But perhaps more important is the jujitsu maneuver that Republicans have used to turn one of the Democratic Party’s strengths — its good faith use of government to level the playing field and help the little people — into a weakness.

From the New Deal through the ’60s, the Democrats were able to show that government was an essential tool to correct market inequities, protect the little people from unchecked power and special interests and ensure that the American birthright included safeguards against crippling poverty and misfortune.

Government, most Americans believed, was their defender and their voice. In 1964, according the the American National Election Studies, more than three-fourths of Americans said they trusted government most of the time or just about always. It was the Democrats that stood for grass-roots change and the Republicans who represented the powerful and resistant establishment.

Democrats then expanded their vision of a righteous government by exercising its power to fight segregation, discrimination, environmental blight, corporate malfeasance and consumer hazards — and to advance health care as a right and not a privilege. All of that seemed to follow the New Deal script of government as a force for good.

But with Richard Nixon channeling George Wallace’s racialized anger at the federal government and Ronald Reagan saying that the only way to christen our shining city on a hill is to free up aggrieved entrepreneurs and ordinary citizens stifled by burdensome red tape and regulations, the Democratic association with government began to turn noxious.

As Reagan put it in his 1981 inaugural address, we should not allow “government by an elite group” to “ride on our back.”

For four decades now, Republicans have succeeded in framing Democrats as the party that uses government to bigfoot rather than aid the American people. Democrats may celebrate public servants for keeping our food safe and our lakes healthy, but Republicans have successfully portrayed them as a humorless bureaucrats who salivate at the urge to exert power and control over taxpaying Americans.

And Republicans have very artfully created a counternarrative, turning the market into a synonym for liberty and defining it as an authentic expression of American grass-roots energy in which small businesses and entrepreneurs simply need freedom from government to shower benefits on us all.

Of course the market’s magic may be more mythical than real — given that powerful corporations and interests dominate and exploit it often at the expense of workers — but that inconvenient fact is immaterial to the brilliant messaging advantages Republicans have derived from it.

Indeed, in the Republican playbook it’s the teachers, unions, environmental groups, professors and civil rights organizations that constitute the establishment whereas Koch and other industry-funded astroturf groups are the real gladiators fighting the status quo.

But it’s not just the Democratic association with government that Republicans have used to brand it as the party of the establishment and elites. Republicans have also turned the table on the liberal values that Democrats embrace.

Beginning in the 1960s, liberals have sought to flush prejudice, bigotry and discriminatory attitudes from society by turning diversity into a moral value and creating a public culture intolerant of misogyny and intolerance. On the surface, that should be a sign of national progress.

But conservatives — with help from an unwitting or overly zealous slice of the left that too often overreaches — took these healthy normative changes and cleverly depicted them as an attempt by condescending and high-handed elites to police our language and impose a politically correct finger-pointing culture.

In effect, conservatives have rather successfully portrayed liberals and Democrats as willing to use cultural and political power against ordinary Americans. They want to take my guns, regulate my business, dictate who I can hire, and tell me what I can buy, which doctors I see, how I live, when I pray and even what I say — so goes the conservative narrative.

That their definition of “ordinary Americans” is quite narrow — meaning whites and particularly men — is beside the point because it’s the political branding that matters, not the fact that liberal economic policies and efforts against bigotry and discrimination have helped millions of ordinary Americans.

Our nation was founded on resistance to power, and it’s part of our political and cultural DNA to resent anyone who exercises or lords that power over others.

Taken together, Republicans have successfully defined Democrats as a party of bureaucrats, power brokers, media elites, special interests and snobs who have created a client state for those they favor, aim to control what everyone else does and look down their noses at the people who pay the taxes to fund the same government that Democrats use to control their lives.

And why is this so damning for Democrats? Because our nation was founded on resistance to power, and it’s part of our political and cultural DNA to resent anyone who exercises or lords that power over others.

Read past the first paragraphs of our Declaration of Independence and it’s all about King George III and his abuses of power. Our Constitution encodes checks and balances and a separation of powers. Our economic system rests on antitrust law, which is designed to keep monopolies from crushing smaller competitors and accumulating too much power.

So if large numbers of Americans see Democrats as the party of entrenched elites who exert power over the little people, then Democrats have lost the messaging battle that ultimately determines who prevails and who doesn’t in our elections.

And let’s be clear: Donald Trump didn’t originate this message in his 2016 campaign; he simply exploited, amplified and exemplified it better than almost any Republican since Ronald Reagan.

The Bernie Sanders answer, of course, is to train the party’s fire at banks, corporations and moneyed interests. After all, they are the ones exerting unchecked power, soaking up the nation’s wealth and distributing it to the investor class and not the rest of us.

And to some extent that has potential and appeal.

But remember, most Americans depend on corporations for their jobs, livelihoods, health care, mortgages and economic security. So it’s much more difficult today to frame big business as the elite and powerful establishment than it was when when workers manned the union ramparts against monopoly power. Working Americans today have a far more ambivalent relationship with corporate America than they did in the New Deal days.

Somehow Democrats have to come up with their own jujitsu maneuver to once again show that theirs is the party that fights entrenched power on behalf of the little people. Liberals have to figure out how to merge their diversity voice with the larger imperative of representing all of America’s underdogs. These are not mutually exclusive messages.

Democrats can preach all they want on health care and Trump and the environment. But if they don’t correct the larger narrative about who holds power in America — and who’s fighting to equalize that power on behalf of us all — then whatever small and intermittent victories they earn may still leave them short in the larger battle for the hearts and souls of American voters.

Leonard Steinhorn is a professor of communication and affiliate professor of history at American University, a CBS News political analyst, author of The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy (2007) and co-author of By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race (2000).

http://billmoyers.com/story/how-did-democrats-become-the-party-of-elites/

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The Endgame of 2016′s Anti-Establishment Politics

Anyone who assumes a wholesale transfer of loyalty from Sanders’s supporters to Clinton, or from Trump’s to another Republican standard-bearer, may be in for a surprise.

The Endgame of 2016′s […]

This combination of file photos shows Democratic presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders(L) and Hillary Clinton in March 2016.(PHOTO DESK/AFP/Getty Images)

This post originally appeared at RobertReich.org.

Will Bernie Sanders’s supporters rally behind Hillary Clinton if she gets the nomination? Likewise, if Donald Trump is denied the Republican nomination, will his supporters back whoever gets the Republican nod?

If 2008 is any guide, the answer is unambiguously yes to both. About 90 percent of people who backed Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries that year ended up supporting Barack Obama in the general election. About the same percent of Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney backers came around to supporting John McCain.  But 2008 may not be a good guide to the 2016 election, whose most conspicuous feature is furious antipathy to the political establishment.

Outsiders and mavericks are often attractive to an American electorate chronically suspicious of political insiders, but the anti-establishment sentiments unleashed this election year are of a different magnitude. The Trump and Sanders candidacies are both dramatic repudiations of politics as usual.

If Hillary Clinton is perceived to have won the Democratic primary because of insider “superdelegates” and contests closed to independents, it may confirm for hardcore Bernie supporters the systemic political corruption Sanders has been railing against.

Similarly, if the Republican Party ends up nominating someone other than Trump who hasn’t attracted nearly the votes that he has, it may be viewed as proof of Trump’s argument that the Republican Party is corrupt.

Many Sanders supporters will gravitate to Hillary Clinton nonetheless out of repulsion toward the Republican candidate, especially if it’s Donald Trump. Likewise, if Trump loses his bid for the nomination, many of his supporters will vote Republican in any event, particularly if the Democratic nominee is Hillary Clinton.

But, unlike previous elections, a good number may simply decide to sit out the election because of their even greater repulsion toward politics as usual – and the conviction it’s rigged by the establishment for its own benefit.

That conviction wasn’t present in the 2008 election. It emerged later, starting in the 2008 financial crisis, when the government bailed out the biggest Wall Street banks while letting underwater homeowners drown.

Both the tea party movement and Occupy were angry responses – tea partiers apoplectic about government’s role, Occupiers furious with Wall Street – two sides of the same coin.

Then came the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission, releasing a torrent of big money into American politics. By the 2012 election cycle, 40 percent of all campaign contributions came from the richest 0.01 percent of American households.

That was followed by a lopsided economic recovery, most of whose gains have gone to the top. Median family income is still below 2008, adjusted for inflation. And although the official rate of unemployment has fallen dramatically, a smaller percentage of working-age people now have jobs than before the recession.

As a result of all this, many Americans have connected the dots in ways they didn’t in 2008.

They see “crony capitalism” (now a term of opprobrium on both left and the right) in special tax loopholes for the rich, government subsidies and loan guarantees for favored corporations, bankruptcy relief for the wealthy but not for distressed homeowners or student debtors, leniency toward corporations amassing market power but not for workers seeking to increase their bargaining power through unions, and trade deals protecting the intellectual property and assets of American corporations abroad but not the jobs or incomes of American workers.

Last fall, when on book tour in the nation’s heartland, I kept finding people trying to make up their minds in the upcoming election between Sanders and Trump.

They saw one or the other as their champion: Sanders the “political revolutionary” who’d reclaim power from the privileged few; Trump, the authoritarian strongman who’d wrest power back from an establishment that has usurped it.

The people I encountered told me the moneyed interests couldn’t buy off Sanders because he wouldn’t take their money, and they couldn’t buy off Trump because he didn’t need their money.

Now, six months later, the political establishment has fought back, and Sanders’s prospects for taking the Democratic nomination are dimming. Trump may well win the Republican mantle but not without a brawl.

As I said, I expect most Sanders backers will still support Hillary Clinton if she’s the nominee. And even if Trump doesn’t get the Republican nod, most of his backers will go with whoever the Republican candidate turns out to be.

But anyone who assumes a wholesale transfer of loyalty from Sanders’s supporters to Clinton, or from Trump’s to another Republican standard-bearer, may be in for a surprise.

The anti-establishment fury in the election of 2016 may prove greater than supposed.

 

 

http://billmoyers.com/story/the-endgame-of-2016%E2%80%B2s-anti-establishment-politics/

Capitalism or Socialism? There’s an Even Better Option

Bernie Sanders’ popular campaign suggests that many Americans aren’t afraid of socialism anymore. But real democracy is an even better alternative to capitalism.

(Photo: flickr / CC 2.0)

This post originally appeared at Yes! Magazine.

Politics and polling data reveal a remarkable shift in American attitudes toward socialism. More Democrats now view socialism favorably (42 percent) than unfavorably (34 percent). Among young adults, socialism does even better with a 43 percent favorable view vs. only 26 percent unfavorable. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, has surprised the establishment with the strength of his campaign. He is especially popular among millennials, the generation positioned to define America’s future.

Proponents of capitalism assure us we have only two choices: capitalism (big business) or socialism (big government). As we see the self-proclaimed capitalist regime’s incapacity to address growing economic desperation and accelerating social breakdown and environmental collapse, socialism, for all its own evident faults, becomes the only option.

I grew up in a prosperous small town in Washington state. Our main street was populated by thriving, mostly local, businesses. My dad owned and managed a successful retail music and appliance store located in the heart of the business district in the heart of a vibrant community. He loved making money but often said, “If you are not in business to serve your customers and community, you have no business being in business.”

I assumed that my life growing up was the result of the happy confluence of capitalism, democracy and a market economy. Given that socialism was represented as the antithesis of these things, I accepted the view that socialism is anti-American and a threat to freedom and democracy.

Of course, my early hometown experience bears little relationship to the capitalism we know today. Over time, I realized that it’s not so simple.

Debating the relative merits of two failed and ill-defined ideologies is a diversion from the real issues. In the United States, we face the inherent disabilities of both big government and big business. And the unholy alliance between the two that renders democracy — the voice of the people — mute.

There is no political democracy without economic democracy.

Assuming that capitalism is about the economy and democracy is about governance, we fail to recognize an essential truth: There is no political democracy without economic democracy.

In any economic system, power resides with the owners of the means by which people make their living. The power of kings resided in their ownership of the lands and waters from which their subjects harvested their food and quenched their thirst. Under socialism, government owns these assets in the name, but not necessarily the interest, of the people.

Under contemporary capitalism, the rights and powers of ownership reside with global corporations that control jobs, resources and markets. They own land, water, intellectual property, mining concessions, manufacturing, banks, schools, prisons, health care facilities, media — and politicians. They lavishly reward their board members and top executives for maximizing short-term profit without regard to social and environmental consequences — and replace them if they don’t.

Capitalism cultivates an illusion of freedom while consigning all but the few at the top to lives of wage and debt slavery. It is a far cry from either democracy or Adam Smith’s vision of local markets governed by a shared moral code and populated by local farmers, artisans and merchants who own their own land and tools, care about their neighbors, and come to the market to exchange goods and services. Thomas Jefferson recognized Smith’s economic vision as an essential foundation of democracy.

Democracy is a governance system in which power resides in the people. That power cannot be limited to voting for political representatives every few years. It must be rooted in economic structures that distribute power equitably and link it to the interests ofcommunities of place. Such structures can come in many forms: Individual and family enterprises, community-owned enterprises, cooperatives – large and small — and even governmental and quasi-governmental bodies.

Democracy is the life-serving alternative we seek to the life-destroying capitalist tyranny under which we now live. Democracy, not the false dichotomy of capitalism or socialism,should be the election’s framing issue.

David Korten is co-founder and board chair of YES! Magazine, president of the Living Economies Forum, co-chair of the New Economy Working Group, and the author of several influential books, including When Corporations Rule the World and Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth. Follow David on Twitter: @dkorten.

 

http://billmoyers.com/story/capitalism-or-socialism-theres-an-even-better-option/