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Thomas Frank: What's The Matter With The Democratic Party?

'Strikingly unoriginal thinking' explains why the Democratic Party looks to be headed for another disaster this fall, he says.
Thomas Frank: What's The Matter With The Democratic Party?
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Thomas "What's The Matter With Kansas?" Frank takes political data journalism to the woodshed:

Back to the main point. It is true that some of the hottest deck chairs on the sinking ocean liner known as the press are number-crunching divisions like The New York Times’s “Upshot” section and Ezra Klein’s own former department, the Washington Post’s “Wonkblog.” In these corners of the trade, journalists today are no longer content merely to quote political scientists; they aspire instead to be political scientists. Where they once gave us words, they now deal in charts. Graphs! Diagrams!

This approach has had a number of successes. But its limitations are far more striking. I offer, as Exhibit A, last Sunday’s big Upshot piece in the New York Times, “Why Democrats Can’t Win the House” by Nate Cohn, another journalist known for his data-shuffling skills. Cohn asks why Democrats, who are the majority party, have so little chance of re-taking the House of Representatives from the Republicans this fall, despite the Republicans’ extreme misbehavior over the last few years. It’s a good question, and Cohn downplays the usual answer, that it’s all because of partisan gerrymandering. Instead, he points to the concentration of Democratic voters in a small number of urban Congressional districts, which has the effect of leaving the remaining House seats of a given state to the GOP.

Even so, these House Republicans are really, truly awful. Isn’t there a way for Democrats to beat them regardless of the geographic hurdles? According to Cohn, not really. Either Democrats have to appeal to lost voters (like “the conservative Democrats of the South and Appalachia”) by moving rightward, or they will have to “wait for demographic and generational change” to win the seats for them. And maybe that makes sense, given the assumptions of the lame school of political science that D.C. types always gravitate to—the kind in which there are but two poles in political life and politicians of the left party can only win if they move rightward.

It is this kind of strikingly unoriginal thinking, which I am sure is shared by the blue team’s high command, that explains why the Democratic Party looks to be headed for another disaster this fall.


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Allow me to drop a single, disturbing data point on this march of science. You might recall that Democrats controlled the House of Representatives from the early 1930s until 1994 with only two brief Republican interludes. What ended all that was not an ill-advised swerve to the left, but the opposite: A long succession of moves toward what is called the “center,” culminating in the administration of New Democrat Bill Clinton, who (among other things) signed the Republicans’ NAFTA treaty into law. Taking economic matters off the table was thought to be the path of wisdom among expert-worshipping Washingtonians, but it had the unforeseen consequence of making culture that much more important for a large part of the population. Democrats were eventually swamped by all the crazy grievance campaigns of the right, which has splashed back and forth in the mud of the culture wars ever since.

In 2010, the two parties repeated the act, with D’s embracing the extremely unpopular Republican bailout strategy (and a more modestly unpopular Republican healthcare program) and R’s pretending to be some kind of ’30s-style protest movement waving signs in the street.

Not getting this is standard in the comfortable and well-educated precincts of Washington, D.C. All political contests are battles over the center, everyone here knows that, and so Democrats who wish to win must always move to the center, meaning to the right. That the noble pursuit of the median voter might somehow bring defeat is beyond comprehension.

So a data-minded commentator like Nate Cohn is able to look out over the blasted moonscape of Appalachia and conclude that a party of the left has nothing it might conceivably offer the people there. If Democrats wish to win back the seats that Republicans have taken away from them in such stricken areas, the Dems must either become more conservative themselves or sit audaciously on their butts for a couple of decades while some new generation is born and grows up to populate the boarded-up towns and collapsing houses of the deindustrialized hinterland. Those are the only choices.

The fatalism here may be science-driven, but still it boggles the mind. Today, the right is out there organizing and proselytizing and signing people up for yet another grievance-hyping mass movement. Over the last 40 years they have completely remade the world, and at no point did they play by the centrist rules.

But the Democrats chase nobly on after grand Washington bargains and sign more free-trade deals and make endless compromises with Wall Street—and then can’t figure out why such achievements don’t win them the adoration of the people in the hard-bitten countryside. No matter. They’ll simply wait for a new generation to come along, a new public that is more enlightened, better able to appreciate the fine distinctions between the parties, that is capable, at long last, of making the rational choice.

Democrats still can't seem to grasp that voters want them to stand for something -- something other than their own reelections, I mean. Believe it or not, most voters don't have a problem when their congressperson votes for something they don't agree with -- as long as the elected takes ownership and speaks forthrightly about it. It's all this equivocating, focus-group-tested blather that really pisses off voters. Naturally, the DCCC's Steve Israel leans heavily on such tactics, and spends most of his time trying to kneecap progressive candidates in favor of Blue Dogs.

Yeah, that's worked out so well.

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