The Fall of the Democratic Party: What Happened and What’s Next?

Written by Ralph E. Stone. Posted in Opinion, Politics

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Published on November 18, 2016 with 8 Comments

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By Ralph E. Stone

November 18, 2016

Much has been written about the disaffection of likely Democratic voters in the just-held presidential election.  But this disaffection began long ago. Consider that in the middle of the Twentieth Century, the working class – once the core of the Democratic coalition – began abandoning the Democratic Party.  In 1948, 66% of manual laborers voted for Democrats, as did 60% of farmers.  In 1964, it was 55% of working-class voters.  By 1980, it was 35%.

The white working class in particular saw even sharper declines.  In 2008, Democrats had a 15-point advantage among poor, white voters, but in 2012 this had slipped to a 2-point advantage.  In 2012, among white voters making between $30,000 and $75,000 per year, the GOP had taken a 17-point lead.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt set up his New Deal in 1933 and forged a coalition of labor unions, liberals, religious, ethnic and racial minorities.  Unfortunately for the Democrats, the twin forces of the Civil Rights Movement and the counterculture — civil rights, the Vietnam War, affirmative action — caused a fracture in the party in the northern states.

Then came the GOP’s “Southern Strategy“, popularized by Richard Nixon, whereby the Republican Party consciously appealed to white southerners’ racial resentments in order to gain their support. Under this strategy, the GOP didn’t need or actively seek the African-American vote. From 1948 to 1984, the Southern states, once a Democrat stronghold, became key swing states, providing the popular vote margins in the 1960, 1968, and 1976 elections.  Note that Trump won every state except Virginia below the Mason-Dixon line while Barack Obama won only Virginia and Florida.

In 1965, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson.  The Act’s aim was to overcome legal barriers at the state and local levels that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote.  However, in 2013, the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder, essentially gutted the Voting Rights Act where the Court argued, “it wasn’t necessary anymore.”  The Shelby decision led to sweeping changes in voting rules across states that had historically discriminated against minorities. These changes included new voter ID requirements as well as closing or changing locations of possibly thousands of polling sites, that used to require federal approval.  Studies and some court rulings have said that ID laws have disproportionately impacted racial minorities, a group that tends to vote Democratic.

In 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of wage and salary workers who were members of a union was 11.1 percent, down from 20.1 percent in 1983. Consider that union membership peaked in 1954 at 28.3 percent.  Union membership is down partly due to the enactment of right-to-work laws. The 1947 Taft-Hartley amendments to the National Labor Relations Act permitted a state to pass laws that prohibit unions from requiring a worker to pay dues, even when the worker is covered by a union-negotiated collective bargaining agreement.  Twenty-five states have right-to-work laws. Thus, workers in right-to-work states have less incentive to join and pay dues to a union.  And unions have been a bulwark of the Democratic Party.

Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, had for decades voted for Democrat presidential candidates and pre-election polling pegged them for Hillary Clinton in 2016. The last time a Republican carried Michigan and Pennsylvania was in 1988, and Wisconsin in 1984.  But on Tuesday, the three “blue firewall” states went to Trump.  In the Democratic primaries, Bernie Sanders won Michigan and Wisconsin. Clinton did not even visit Wisconsin during the general election.

Today, some eight years after the worst financial collapse since the Great Depression, the nation’s economy was once again central to both parties’ appeal to voters.  Under Obama, the economy continues to slowly expand.  As of the first quarter of this year, the U.S. economy is nearly 15 percent bigger than when Obama took office in 2008, adjusted for inflation. The Obama administration, which began in the midst of massive layoffs from the Great Recession, has presided over a job market turnaround. Overall employment is about 7% higher than when he took office.  Yet voters forgot that the George W. Bush and the Republicans were responsible for the recession and failed to connect Clinton to the economic recovery under Obama.

There is now a definite urban-rural divide in this country. Rural and small-town workers voted for Trump while in urban areas, where black and Hispanic voters are concentrated along with college-educated voters, already leaned toward the Democrats.  Clinton, however, did not get the turnout from these groups that she needed. African American voters did not show up in the same numbers they did for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

People tend to forget, however, the closeness of this past election.  While the final vote counts are not in, it appears that Hillary Clinton is on course to receive more popular votes than any other U.S. presidential candidate in history except Barack Obama – despite losing the Electoral College vote to Donald Trump 306 to 232.  Alas, close only counts in horseshoes and hand-grenades.

This is the fifth time the popular vote winner did not win in the Electoral College.  Thus, calls for eliminating the Electoral College altogether and instead electing a president on the popular vote, is on the rise.  The Electoral College is set forth in our Constitution and getting rid of it would require a constitutional amendment with a two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate and the ratification of three-fourths (38) of the 50 states.  Consider that Republicans have been the beneficiary of winning the Electoral College vote but not the popular vote in 2000 and 2016 and would be less likely to want to eliminate the Electoral College.  It is unlikely that a Republican-controlled House and Senate would vote to eliminate the Electoral College.  Republicans now control governorships and legislatures in 24 states, 70 of the 99 state legislative chambers, both chambers in 30 states, plus Nebraska’s single chamber, and 31 governor mansions and you can see how difficult it would be to get ratification by 38 states.

How did Trump get elected president?  In a few words, it was Clinton’s real and perceived baggage coupled with  Trump’s successful appeal to Americans’ emotions and prejudices rather than their rational side.  In defeat, Clinton blamed the FBI Director’s October 28, 2016 letter to Congress “in connection with the Secretary Clinton email investigation.”  This letter and the FBI’s election-eve absolvement came too late.

What should the Democratic Party do now?  It is time for the Democratic Party to undergo a fundamental reassessment.  The Democrats will shortly choose a new Democratic National Committee chairman, which could be a fight between the establishment wing of the party, embodied by Clinton, and the party’s more liberal members, many of them aligned with Bernie Sanders.  Hopefully, the DNC will choose the latter as the DNC needs to be re-imagined as less of an insider’s club focused on raising money and more of an advocate for the working-class.  With a new, reinvigorated DNC and a new nominee, the Democrats can begin working to take back the White House in four years.

Ralph E. Stone

Ralph E. Stone

I was born in Massachusetts; graduated from Middlebury College and Suffolk Law School; served as an officer in the Vietnam war; retired from the Federal Trade Commission (consumer and antitrust law); travel extensively with my wife Judi; and since retirement involved in domestic violence prevention and consumer issues.

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  • Christina Stone

    I don’t believe Trump voters are prejudice. Racism seems to be the new buzz word for anything liberals don’t like. Call the republicans uneducated and racist. The democrats had un unelectable candidate. Typically a democratic voter, I voted for Trump because Clinton was talking war with Russia and Trump is already working on smoothing over that relation. I think we dodged a bullet of immense proportions.

    • Flubert

      Clinton is a warmonger and an unattractive personality, agreed, but Sanders would have been painted as a “Commie” and therefore would have lost even more badly

      The reality is simple. The WH swings back and forth every 8 years between the left and the right, and the right were due a turn. There is no more to it than that. The Dems will probably win back the House or the Senate in 2018 and then we will have the usual lame-duck presidency for 6 years before the Dems win the WH in 2024.

      No big deal. Just sit back and enjoy the show.

  • Ralph E. Stone

    I for one would like to see Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison appointed DNC chairman. Ellison is the co-chair of the Progressive Caucus and the first Muslim elected to Congress. He has already been endorsed by Sens. Bernie Sanders, Chuck Schumer, Elizabeth Warren, and a dozen more members of Congress, including Rep. Elijah Cummings, Rep. Maxine Waters, Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Sen.-elect Tammy Duckworth. He also has support from the United Steelworkers and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers

  • Jerry Jarvis

    It would be a lot easier to change how the Electoral’s are divided up. Proportionate to the vote.

    And you are right about there is a urban-rural divide. I have seen that right here where I am living now. Where once we had lots of factories. And now coal is under attack. The factories where lost to other countries via the bad trade pack’s which is associated with the name Clinton. But while getting rid of coal will help the environment there was no green jobs to replace the well paying mining jobs. Those coal jobs are what keeps this area afloat. It didn’t help Obama around here when he was establishing green jobs all in California. Most of the components are made in China.

    Then there is Obama trying to get the TPP rammed through and Hillary was all for that. Maybe rural America is a less of a sheeple type people. We still talk to our neighbors through the back yard.

    • Flubert

      The Electoral College confers balance by ensuring that a handful of cities cannot dominate elections. The better question is why Clinton did not see the tragedy of relying on cities, elites and celebrities, ignoring real people.

      As such, she deserves everything she got.

  • Flubert

    I’m sure there are some unreconstructed communists and anti-Israel agitators who would have cheered Sanders or Clinton, had they won.

    Every leader has his or her extremist fringe but it doesn’t define them.

  • FriscoSF

    Maybe wee just had a Lousy candidate
    Hillary Clinton was a bit shady. Keeping those emails on her own server wasn’t a ‘mistake’. It was done deliberately to keep her shady communications secret. I voted for her because she was the Democrat. But, she was an crooked elitist. She openly said that Wall Street was one of her constituencies. If we can’t do better than the Clinton’s, we don’t deserve election victories.

  • Turk B.

    …democrats just quit the pretentions …die already