It hasn’t happened since 1928. That’s the last time Republicans had a House majority this large.
Since the drubbing of November 4, 2014, there’s been a lot of discussion about why the Democrats lost. This discussion takes for granted that Republicans don’t deserve to win. On the federal and state level, they’ve offered nothing but austerity and punishment for the people who’ve been most hurt by the recession we generously inherited from George W. Bush. So Democrats must have faceplanted, big time.
I get this. But when you get more votes in America — regardless if you had to spread panic, use voter suppression or have your brother in charge of the “voting mechanisms” in the crucial swing state — you win. You didn’t lose less.
Republicans got more of their voters out and elected a senator in Colorado, a state that had done everything possible to make voting easy. They outspent Democrats in down-ballot races throughout the country and enjoy control of three-fifths of governorships, 70/99 state legislatures and every known Duggar. The white working class chose Republicans by a nearly insurmountable margin of 30 percent.
Dreams of a permanent Democratic majority, which were always dependent on Republicans being as dim in 2012 forever, have faded into worries about 2016.
Democrats have accepted that their agenda of 2014 — a minimum wage hike, equal pay, student load interest reduction — wasn’t enough to inspire young people to get out an vote. And it certainly wasn’t enough to sway independent and moderates from embracing the guys who are still pushing the same holy trinity that’s led to record inequality — tax cuts for the rich, deregulation and shrinking government services.
So why did the GOP win, even though they’re offering noting but failed ideas and fierce opposition to Obama. Was it just Obama’s lack of popularity among the midterm electorate, a group of voters that has twice offered the opposite verdict on his presidency that he’s received in presidential years? Or is there larger problem with the party’s brand that will outlast this president and typical doldrums of a president’s sixth year.
The most widely accepted argument for why Democrats lost is wage growth — or a lack of wage growth. This makes it feels as if there is no recovery, even if there are close to 10 million more people working now than at the worst of the recession. And no reason to vote for Democrats.
But that that doesn’t explain the strange phenomenon of people voting Republican. So here’s a look at three reasons why they do.
1. They hate helping “them.”
Mother Jones‘ Kevin Drum diagnosed the white working class’ hatred of Democrats as a hatred of the way welfare helps “the undeserving poor.”
Bill Clinton seemed to have tame this issue by passing welfare reform in a time of relentless economic and job growth. Then came the Great Recession:
But when the economy stagnates and life gets harder, people get meaner. That’s just human nature. And the economy has been stagnating for the working class for well over a decade—and then practically collapsing ever since 2008.
So who does the WWC take out its anger on? Largely, the answer is the poor. In particular, the undeserving poor. Liberals may hate this distinction, but it doesn’t matter if we hate it. Lots of ordinary people make this distinction as a matter of simple common sense, and the WWC makes it more than any. That’s because they’re closer to it. For them, the poor aren’t merely a set of statistics or a cause to be championed. They’re the folks next door who don’t do a lick of work but somehow keep getting government checks paid for by their tax dollars.
Demos‘ Matt Bruenig dissects this argument and points out that polls don’t show this anger, only a tiny percentage of Americans — maybe 1.3 percent — of people on welfare don’t work and the white working class are very intimate with being poor, as they tend to move in and out of being poor year-by-year.
Slate‘s Jamelle Bouie connects the resentment that resulted from the War on Poverty to a persistent culture of grievance, especially in the south. This leaves Democrats too identified with African-Americans and too allied with the the economic mainstream to push policies that might appeal to working class whites nationwide.
White people enjoy the majority of the benefits of government assistance, but that doesn’t erase the gut level reaction people have to Democrats being led by a black president who are helping “them.” As much as I love Obamacare, the benefits to the middle class are mostly subtle unless you’re directly getting subsidies. What isn’t subtle is the new requirement that you have to have insurance, which can be expensive, especially if you have a family. Understanding that millions have gained insurance and rates are rising at a slower pace doesn’t feel as if it helps you. It helps “them.”
These are gut level things. Primal. Democrats haven’t made people feel free enough to feel unburdened by “them.” And being lectured about why they should feel unburdened only activates the next winning factor for Republicans.
2. They think we’re stupid.
What does the Jonathan Gruber saga have to do with Ebola and Climate Change? They all can be experienced as experts insulting your intelligence.
Global warning? It’s fucking snowing. The government can handle Ebola? They told a nurse and a doctor to run around town spreading Ebola. The Obamacare guy said we’re dumb. Who cares if the law replicated the reforms of the 2012 GOP nominee and was the most publicly debated law in modern American history. HE THINKS WE’RE DUMB.
Rick Santotum’s 2012 stump speech included a line calling Obama a snob for wanting everyone to have a college education. I watched a very diverse crowd of white people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s eat it up. We cannot underestimate the resentment of people who feel they’ve been undermined by their children, by technology, by demographics.
Being defensive makes us all feel small and venomous. It’s a surefire formula to convince you to vote against your own interests.
3. A bad deal.
If you want to be depressed, read Richard Yeselson’s excellent breakdown of the midterm elections.
He illuminates a central theme of this election that has undermined the middle class’ security for generations now — the power of the anti-tax movement: “They, [the middle class], don’t trust the government to use the money in socially useful ways. Or the ways in which the government does use the money, e.g., environmental projects, are too abstract and indirect for voters to concretely apprehend how it might benefit them.”
The tax revolt began in the early 70s, right around the time that demise of the American labor movement, rampant deregulation and the fixation on corporate profits began. By starving government of its ability to buoy the working and give basalt to workers negotiating with fully empowered corporations, the right has created a vicious cycle. Government is the problem so elect the people who hate government to make it worse. As a result, the middle class becomes increasingly desperate and frustrated at the government. So they stay home — or elect the guys who make it worse.
The subtle income transfers of Obamacare and many of the president’s economic policies have helped our recovery shine compared to most of the world. But it’s not being experienced on a visceral level. People feel more burdened by debt, obligations and others.
Republicans promise to alleviate all that — even as their policies make them worse.
So how to you combat all this?
A broader message of “shared prosperity” that adopts progressive ideas capable of recapturing the middle class’ imagination are needed, of course.
Whatever we do needs to be shrouded in the theme of freedom.
“Imagine if Americans understood instinctively that Democrats stand for the most basic of freedoms, that those freedoms arise from public resources provided by citizens like themselves who care about their fellow Americans as well as themselves,” neuroscientist George Lakoff writes. “In my experience, that is overwhelmingly true. Why not say it? Proudly. Over and over.”
Bouie points out a serious challenge. Democrats have to offer a shared prosperity in a way that doesn’t drive all of the party’s funders into the arms of Republicans. But the crisis of inequality makes populism less toxic and more common sense. Millionaires support higher taxes and an increased minimum wages. There are far more policies that make sense given the unsustainable transfers of wealth to the rich since 1979.
Also, the right conflict is good for the soul. Fighting for something not only gives you a chance to establish a narrative, it lessens the power of the Borg known as the conservative media to control the dialogue. Did delaying executive action hurt Democrats in 2014? I understand why the president didn’t do it. If he had and Democrats were crushed this badly, it would be read as a verdict on the policy. However, we would have been fighting about actual policy differences and not quibbling over the latest Fox News’ News Alert.
I cannot say that the short-term politics of executive action on immigration reform will work well for Democrats. I’ve been wrong about a lot lately. But it’s the right thing to do and it reminds people that Republicans refuse to offer any solution beyond deportation.
The optimism of 2012 seems out of place on 2014. But we shouldn’t forget that the coalition that elected President Obama has proven that midterm elections don’t have to predict presidential elections. And there’s a hope of creating a liberal movement that doesn’t go dormant every two years. And that optimism comes from looking back at the last time things were this bad for the American left.
You know what else hasn’t been this bad since 1928? Income inequality.
And do you know what followed the election of 1928? A near collapse of the Republican Party.
Josh Seitz explains that this reversal of fortune may not have simply been about the Great Depression:
But what if the Republicans of 1928 owed their demise to a more fundamental force? What if it was demography, not economics, that truly killed the elephant?
In fact, the Great Depression was just one factor in the GOP’s stunning reversal of fortune, and in the 1930 cycle that saw Republicans lose their commanding House majority it was probably a minor factor. To be sure, the Republicans of yesteryear were victims of historical contingency (the Great Depression), but they also failed to appreciate and prepare for a long-building trend—the rise of a new urban majority comprised of over 14 million immigrants, and many millions more of their children. Democrats did see the trend, and they built a majority that lasted half a century.
The lesson for President Obama and the Democrats is to go big—very, very big—on immigration reform. Like the New Dealers, today’s Democrats have a unique opportunity to build a majority coalition that dominates American politics well into the century.
[Image by Anne Savage]