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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