The recipe of Reagan and both Bushes has been to weaken government, undermine the regulation of market excesses, attack core social insurance programs, tilt the tax system away from the wealthy and towards the middle class, gut the safeguards that protect workers on the job, make college ever more unaffordable, and appoint judges who undermine democracy itself.
That stuff is not exactly popular. Yet Democrats seem largely unable to convert Republican elitism to their advantage. And despite some phony populist trappings, every conceivable Republican candidate for 2016 is even further to the right than Reagan and the Bushes.
If the Republican formula had improved the economy, voters might say that, well, maybe the rich got richer but other folks did okay too; and you could understand why Republicans gained ground among working people. But that's not what happened.
Between the Reagan presidency and 2008, average economic performance was only so-so and the rich got nearly all the gains, the exception being the middle and late 1990s under Bill Clinton. The economy, you'll recall, crashed on the watch of George W. Bush, as the result of conservative policies that liberated Wall Street to have its way with the rest of the economy.
So, why is there not a groundswell of support for Democrats? Why don't people grasp their own economic interests?
The usual answers include the fact that the recovery under Obama has been weak; that the Affordable Care Act backfired; that there is a backlash among socially conservative white voters who resent everything from Obama's race to the sense that he is too indulgent of immigrants; the usual litany of complaints against Democrats on such social issues as guns, God and gays; and the fact that the Tea Parties have devised a kind of rightwing populism.
But it seems to me that the Democrats' problems run deeper.
Ever since Franklin Roosevelt, the core Democratic proposition has been that regular people need government to offset the power of business elites and the injustices and inefficiencies of a capitalist economy. But that premise has been tarnished -- perhaps fatally weakened -- in three mutually reinforcing respects.
First, Republicans have succeeded in blocking Democrats from pursuing the sort of policies and programs that make a positive difference in the lives of working Americans. New programs that have made it through Congress despite Republican stonewalling, such as the Affordable Care Act, are typically so burdened with fatal compromises -- diversion of funds from Medicare, excess subsidies to drug and insurance companies, cumbersome bureaucratic compliance requirements -- that they give government (and Democrats) a bad name. Other rare successes are mostly token measures that don't change very much.
By contrast, the Democrats' Greatest Hits -- Social Security, Medicare, the G. I. Bill, the Wagner Act (and a strong labor movement backed by federal enforcement); college aid in the era when a Pell Grant covered most of tuition costs -- made a genuine difference in people's lives.
Secondly, as economic conditions have worsened for most working people and government hasn't provided much help, voters begin internalizing the Republican idea that we're all on our own anyway. Though people support affirmative government and progressive policies in principle, today's voters are increasingly skeptical that government can make much of a constructive difference. What the hell, better just to vote for the party of lower taxes.
Third, the Democratic Party is less of a counterweight to economic royalists that it once was because many of those royalists are inside the Democratic Party. How can the Democrats offset the malevolent power of concentrated finance when Goldman Sachs provides their top economic policy officials? In addition to counseling against breaking up the big banks, the Obama economic team persuaded the president to support austerity at a time when the economy needed oxygen.
All of this reinforces the media mantra that both parties are equally culpable in the gridlock that passes for today's political democracy -- and that Democrats as well as Republicans care more about insiders than about ordinary Americans.
You have to get to the left edge of the Democratic Party before you find leaders and policy ideas that challenge the dominance of finance and that would make a real difference in the lives of working people. As my colleague Harold Meyerson writes in the new issue of the American Prospect, it's time for Democrats once again to earn the hatred of the rich, FDR-style.
Could that happen? The most likely nominee in 2016 is of course Hillary Clinton. If elected, she would be the third basically centrist Democratic president in a row, four counting Jimmy Carter. And let's be more precise -- centrist as in center-left on social issues and center-right on Wall Street.
She is certainly preferable to any Republican on the horizon. And with several Republican senators who squeaked through in 2010 up for re-election, a landslide Hillary victory might even sweep in a Democratic Congress.
Even so, it would be a long road back to the sort of Democratic Party that contained the abuses of financial elites and used activist government to better the lives of ordinary Americans -- or that could reasonably expect voters to reciprocate.
Robert Kuttner's new book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior Fellow at Demos, and teaches at Brandeis University's Heller School.
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