The hopes and dreams of the common man are as noble as those of any king!

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In The New York Times (reg. req.), Thomas Frank weighs in on why the Democrats lost. (Short answer: They didn't listen to Thomas Frank.)

To short-circuit the Republican appeals to blue-collar constituents, Democrats must confront the cultural populism of the wedge issues with genuine economic populism. They must dust off their own majoritarian militancy instead of suppressing it; sharpen the distinctions between the parties instead of minimizing them; emphasize the contradictions of culture-war populism instead of ignoring them; and speak forthrightly about who gains and who loses from conservative economic policy.

What is more likely, of course, is that Democratic officialdom will simply see this week's disaster as a reason to redouble their efforts to move to the right. They will give in on, say, Social Security privatization or income tax "reform" and will continue to dream their happy dreams about becoming the party of the enlightened corporate class. And they will be surprised all over again two or four years from now when the conservative populists of the Red America, poorer and angrier than ever, deal the "party of the people" yet another stunning blow.

Translation: We have to make these rubes understand that George W. Bush is just acting all down-homey. He's actually really rich!

Is it any wonder that nobody in Kansas gives a roasted fart what Tom Frank thinks? Only in the center of the blue-state echo chamber could you sell the idea that Bush voters are this naïve about or indifferent to their own economic, cultural, and political interests. Anybody who hasn't deserted the thinning* heartland by now either has decided he likes the lifestyle there and the system that maintains it or is too much of a sad sack to leave. The former doesn't want and the latter doesn't deserve an economic champion in D.C. Even the Joad family at least had the sense to come to California.

But leave aside the dubious proposition that the current administration has put forward a conservative economic policy. Frank's proposal is a straightup loser for the Democrats. The real value of this article lies in what it argues against: The Democrats can become the party of the enlightened corporate class, and that's exactly what they should be doing. Kerry's strenuous and demeaning efforts to look comfortable around union members should be the tipoff: These flirtations with the proles are getting to be as clumsy and embarrassing as the family life of a gay man in denial. The Republicans are already the party of war and welfare. Let the Democrats embrace their destiny as the party of free trade and free love. Seemingly this event would reverse the polarities of the two major parties—which would put it directly in the mainstream of American history.

* That's "thinning" in the figurative sense, of course. In reality, our country remains so rich that even Tom Frank's starving masses are getting fatter by the minute.

NEXT: Cruel and Usual

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  1. word booty!!!

  2. All I hear on most blogs and most media outlets these days are how Democrats are in an “echo chamber”. I’m sure there are those out there who are not, and who don’t talk down to Republicans and other conservatives. Who treat differing opinions with the respect they deserve.

    Do they get any press? No. This is very frustrating, because instead of trying to heal the rift, the endless repetition of the “elitist liberal” only makes it wider.

    I’d honestly like to know why this is.

  3. Megadittos. Right now the republican party is an uneasy alliance between money and fundies. At some point the fundies get so obnoxious that they start interfering with the important work of making money.

    Let’s say for the sake of argument there’s staggering amounts of money to be made from stem cells and cloning. Because people want to live forever and be in ok shape. But no we can’t have that because it will piss off the fundies because a clump of cells the size of a comma has exactly the same dignity as a human being.

    So the dems should try to cleave corporate america off from the republicans instead of trying to either 1) convince the rubes that the republicans are really the party of rich guys or 2) out-fundy the republicans.

    The old 19th century extractive industries are probably unreachable. But many of the most profitable and fastest growing industries are already rather comfortable with dems. Hollyweird, finance, tech, etc. The industries where America still has a big advantage in the global market. These people are socially liberal/libertarian.

  4. That’s a wonderful hypothesis Tim. I’d certainly like to see a free market wing to the Democratic Party. I’d be much more comfortable trying to form alliances with the misguided sanctimonious tree huggers on the left than the misguided sanctimonious bible thumpers on the right. My fear is that once they get a hold of the reigns of power, the tree huggers (like the bible thumpers) will shove aside the capitalists.

  5. By embracing their destiny as the party of free trade, the Dems would be pissing off one of their major institutional supports, the unions. Free trade, like tax cuts, is Republican issue regardless of what the Dems say.

    On the free love front, well, that’s a dandy way to ensure that the ground lost this time around on cultural/social/moral issues is never made up.

    Tim has presented an excellent recipe for the Dems to consolidate their losses.

  6. May i suggest:
    Governor Bill Richardson served for 15 years in northern New Mexico representing the 3rd Congressional District. Richardson served in 1997 as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and in 1998, he was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy. Governor Richardson was nominated four times (1995, 1997, 2000, and 2001) for the Nobel Peace Prize.

    The Wen Ho Lee fiasco bugged me but I could get behind this guy…International relations guru, popular governor of a SOUTH western state, hispanic, admired by the international community as well as both parties.

  7. Free trade, like tax cuts, is Republican issue regardless of what the Dems say.

    Yeah, just look at how the Republican named Bill Clinton got NAFTA through the Republican-controlled congress in 1993, and how the Democrat George Bush slapped tariffs on steel and bailed out the farmers (which he was only able to do because his democrats controlled both houses). I guess you’re right.

  8. I have some sympathy for Frank’s position. The Dems aren’t abandoning the farmer-labor coalition to embrace their free-market Locofoco roots; they’re turning into the party of one sort of corporate welfare and professional-class privilege, while the Republicans are the party of another sort of corporate welfare and professional-class privilege. It’s Hollywood and the professors vs. Halliburton and middle management. Yech.

    One of Murray Rothbard’s pals once divided the libertarian movement into three categories: the hippies, the rednecks, and the preppies. You want to turn one of the major parties into a group I’d support? Build a hippie-redneck coalition, and peel off enough preppies to fund the damn thing.

  9. 2 huge holes in Tim’s theory:

    If the Democrats’ economic positions are so unpopular, why do they consistently gain majority support among the public? Kerry beat Bush on managing the economy, and specific economic issues – from universal health care to minimum wage to balancing the federal budget – break for the Democrats by 10 points or more. That couldn’t happen in red state working people weren’t largely on board. “Reagan Democrats” don’t disagree with the party on pocketbook issues, they just prioritize national security and cultural issues more highly.

    Second, Bush’s economic policy IS conservative. It’s not the kind of conservatism you’d like, but in it’s support for the economic elite, its determination to tax work rather than wealth, and its selective opposition to public-good regulations, it is a creature of the right, not the left.

    When you add these together, Tim’s contention that Bush is poaching potential Democratic voters with his economic policies is insane. YOU may not be able to tell liberal Democratic policies from rightist corporatism, but the vast majority of Americans recognize the difference right away. Your ivory tower demonstrations that subsidizing drug companies and subsidizing people’s health care costs are the same thing may go over well at CATO meetings, but that’s not how most voters feel.

  10. Thomas Frank is a condescending ass. I’ve heard him speak, its maddening.

    There’s a reason nobody gives a roasted fart what he thinks.

    Right on, Tim

  11. Your ivory tower demonstrations that subsidizing drug companies and subsidizing people’s health care costs are the same thing may go over well at CATO meetings, but that’s not how most voters feel.

    You know, last week was such a long time ago, so you’ll have to remind me: Who did “most voters” vote for?

  12. joe’s right. The vast majority of Americans want a handout. They just can’t agree whether Mommy or Daddy will give them the most candy.

  13. “You know, last week was such a long time ago, so you’ll have to remind me: Who did “most voters” vote for?”

    The guy who they thought would kick more terrorist ass, despite disagreeing with him on economic issues. http://www.zogby.com, if you’re genuinely interested in data that doesn’t come from your navel.

  14. If Bush’s election demonstrates his popular superiority on every single issue, TIM, why did you write a lengthy post about how the Democrats should move to the opposite side of the Republicans on several issues?

    A little more with the thinking, a little less with the smart ass.

  15. “The real value of this article lies in what it argues against: The Democrats can become the party of the enlightened corporate class, and that’s exactly what they should be doing.”

    I hope someone takes the free trade lesson of the election to heart. Bush’s betrayal of free trade interests in the form of steel tarrifs was supposed to help him in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, but every one of those states went the same way they did before.

    Of course, there’s a difference between what the Democrats should do and what they will do. It’s hard to imagine the Democrat nominee turning his back on union support when he only needs the wind to change direction by seventy-thousand odd votes in Ohio.

  16. Ken, RC, it isn’t very useful to think of Unions as a monolithic block. The fastest growing sectors of unions are service workers and public employees. I don’t think either of those groups feels much of a personal stake in the argument over international trade, and members come down on all sides of the issue. Then you’ve got transportation workers, who are probably pro-international trade on balance. Old school industrial unions, the ones who would have a genuine selfish interest in opposing trade deals, are declining in membership and clout.

    Clinton won running as a free trade candidate, and got a lot of union support for his positions on health care, wages, workplace issues, etc. Since then, the clout of the genuinely protectionist unions has diminished even further.

  17. Is it me, or is joe the new Jean Bart in sheer obnoxiousness?

    The problem with these type of Red State/Blue State, liberal/conservative arguments is that they’re framed all wrong. TCS has done a lot of stories lately about how capturing the Jacksonian vote is the key to victory. Maybe joe should cool off a little by reading up on them.

  18. Joe, given your ability to turn last week’s results into a mandate for the Democrats, I’m afraid of your magical abilities, but let me be clear: The economic policies that you, Joe, support every day on these threads, and which once constituted a core of the Democratic program, are finished, dead, obsolete, forgotten, and deservedly reviled. The only reason the Democrats are still alive at all is that they’ve abandoned these policies too.

  19. I half-agree with joe: Economic issues are the key to winning for Democrats.

    Kerry didn’t really say much about economics. Oh, sure, he blasted the state of the economy under Bush (doesn’t every challenger?), and he said he’d do something about jobs and healthcare, but he never really said too much about what exactly he’d do. There were hints of protectionism, and something about repealing part of the tax cuts, but not a whole lot in the way of “Here’s exactly what I’ll do and here’s how it will improve your life.”

    I’m not saying that he should have gone into nauseating detail about his plans, just that he needed to put more focus on them than he did. Those on this forum could argue, of course, that we already know he supported statist economic interventions. And from our perspective that would be bad regardless of the details, but as far as winning an election goes, actually promising something specific can go a long way.

    But he didn’t focus on economics, where Democrats enjoy an edge over Republicans (face it, offering free stuff is popular). The election was decided based on national security, foreign policy, and cultural issues. And on those issues, the GOP is favored by more voters. Kerry fought this battle on his opponent’s turf, and he lost because of it. OK, he didn’t lose by much, and that may speak to his opponent’s weaknesses, but even the narrowest defeat means that the loser doesn’t become President.

    Now, I’m not sure what type of economic plan would go over best. Maybe the “old time religion” of class warfare, protectionism, and redistribution. Or maybe some sort of wonkish plan with a veneer of free markets painted on, the sort of stuff that think-tanks like (and before somebody flames me about how such plans aren’t really free markets, that’s why I used the words “veneer” and “painted on”). Whatever. Point is, you have to tell people how you’re actually going to make their lives better economically, otherwise the attention will shift to other issues.

  20. joe-

    “www.zogby.com, if you’re genuinely interested in data that doesn’t come from your navel.”

    Didn’t Zogby also call it Kerry with 311 EV? I think I’ll subscribe to Tim’s navel.

  21. “The fastest growing sectors of unions are service workers and public employees. I don’t think either of those groups feels much of a personal stake in the argument over international trade, and members come down on all sides of the issue.”

    That’s the point. I understand Tim’s suggestion to be predicated on this. I think Tim is right; I also think he’s ahead of the curve. That is, I’m not convinced that the Democratic Party leadership understands Tim’s point yet.

  22. “…given your ability to turn last week’s results into a mandate for the Democrats…”

    Huh?

    “The economic policies that you, Joe, support every day on these threads, and which once constituted a core of the Democratic program, are finished, dead, obsolete, forgotten, and deservedly reviled.”

    Economic policies joe defends on these threads: Continued existence of Social Security – supported by large majority of voters, supported by Democrats. Public health insurance – supported by large majority of voters, supported by Democrats. Minimum wage – supported by huge majorities, supported by Democrats. Progressive taxation – supported by large majorities, supported by Democrats.

    “The only reason the Democrats are still alive at all is that they’ve abandoned these policies too.” Economic policies abandoned by (at least most) Democrats: pre-welfare reform AFDC – not defended by joe. Import restrictions – not defended by joe.

    What economic policies that have been “abandoned by Democrats,” or which are “finished, dead, obsolete, forgotten, and deservedly reviled” by the public at large am I supposed to have defended?

    Many posters ignore what I argue for to take swipes at an older, cruder form of liberalism that’s easier to denounce. Et tu, Cavanaugh?

  23. pigwiggle, EVs are a tricky business. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone get them right this cycle. Zogby was pretty close on his national numbers, though. This leads me to conclude that his issue numbers are also fairly close to reality.

  24. I hope someone takes the free trade lesson of the election to heart. Bush’s betrayal of free trade interests in the form of steel tarrifs was supposed to help him in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, but every one of those states went the same way they did before.

    It never occured to Bush and Rove, neither of whom have probably come within 150 yards of an actual factory in their lives except to campaign in, that there are a lot more people in those states, well at least PA and Ohio, who make a living in steel consuming businesses than in steel manufacturing businesses, and those people were (eventually) pissed off. Free trade principle had nothing to do with the scheme’s failure. It hurt. But manufacturing state people are still often reflexively anti-free-trade, so they’ll probably have something like this happen to them again; I remember the president of the local forge praising the plan to raise the cost of his raw materials. Shortly before the company went bankrupt.

    You want to turn one of the major parties into a group I’d support? Build a hippie-redneck coalition, and peel off enough preppies to fund the damn thing.

    Amen, Jesse.

  25. thoreau, I think you’ve got it about right. There was no unifying theme to Kerry’s economic plan, just a series of specific changes that didn’t add up to a coherent philosophy. People don’t trust politicians to follow through on their specific campaign promises, but use them to get an overall sense of the candidate’s philosophy and priorities.

    One of the Slate writers identified old fashioned work values like the work ethic, being a good neighbor, generosity, and responsibility as the unifying theme Democrats should use – Clinton’s “people who work hard and play by the rules” formulation. If you work full time, you should have health insurance. Clean up your mess. Edwards did a good job presenting his economic message as a statement of values during the primaries.

  26. Isn’t the LP a hippie-redneck coalition? How’s that going?

  27. Isn’t the LP a hippie-redneck coalition?

    More of a tax-protestor/computer-geek coalition.

  28. So, Jesse, for the next election, can the LP hack all the voting machines and install itself into the White House? I’m willing to give it a test spin at the national executive level.

  29. I’d just like to say that this thread is making me laugh. I don’t know if it’s joe’s agitation, which certainly helps, or if it’s more the level of snark. Regardless, I am amused …

  30. I think the rift in the Dem coalition is that they themselves don’t know how to be Clinton without being traitors to the cause. Clintonism isn’t the set of policies folks like DeLong and joe refer to when they contrast Clinton’s record to Old Liberalism. It is just poll watching populism.

    It is not realistic to argue that most Democrats are free traders. You can’t keep labor in the coalition without stipulating ‘fair trade’, and I think that the realistic implications of fair trade might have sunk in. If people were concerned about it, they wouldn’t shop at WalMart to get low prices. The popularity of certain Dem pocketbook issues comes into question as soon as you look at what people actually do with their money. They vote down school levies, they argue for lower taxes on themselves, and they don’t want to pay 20% more for consumer goods for no real reason.

    Further, I suspect that more people than joe would prefer perceive that doing nothing about social security is not an answer. I suspect that many people see the estate tax and the tax on dividends as something that may affect them.

    In general, I would be careful if I were a Democrat that I not learn the wrong lesson from this election. I don’t think the oft taken-for-granted Democrat majority on pocketbook issues exists, and certainly not to the extent that the Dem faithful believe it does. There is more than one way to look at self interest, and the Dems need to stop pretending that the other side has no positions worth addressing.

  31. Jason-

    I agree that the Dems’ standard economic policies may no longer work. However, I still think that the 2008 Democratic nominee will have to articulate some sort of economic plan, something more than criticism of the status quo and vague promises. Incoherent criticism and vague promises are of course standard in politics, but they’re best deployed on issues where your main goal is to sound good without angering too many people. If the goal is to actually get people interested, some sort of economic plan (be it the same old stuff or something new) is needed.

    And I do think the battle will have to be fought on economic ground if the Dems hope to win in 2008. On cultural issues, well, the lines are drawn. If the Dems want to make that the focus they will lose. On national security, well, the perceptions are what they are (however accurate or inaccurate they may be is irrelevant, though I realize that some people here would argue that they are indeed accurate), and changing them will require something more than nominating a guy who fought in Vietnam.

    The only issue left for the Dems is economics. Their standard tactics may no longer work, but none of the other issues are looking any better for them, so this is where they’ll have to fight.

    My dream, of course, is that the Dems will find themselves with a caucus of economic conservatives who fled the GOP in disgust at cultural conservatism. And that these economic conservatives will find common cause with young voters who don’t want to subsidize the Boomer retirement. But that dream may very well be just a dream and nothing more.

  32. “My dream, of course, is that the Dems will find themselves with a caucus of economic conservatives who fled the GOP in disgust at cultural conservatism. And that these economic conservatives will find common cause with young voters who don’t want to subsidize the Boomer retirement. But that dream may very well be just a dream and nothing more.”

    Just remember that the left coalition now is characterized not by its love for social liberalism but by its love for redistribution. I think you dissolve the glue if you introduce economic proposals that say that direct payouts are not productive.

    Take Social Security. I would like to think that it would be possible for the left coalition to support a reform program that A) Means tests the benefit and B) raises the retirement age. This would have libertarian consequences (and is even supported by some libertarian economists like Tyler Cowen), and it would still be helping the needy. It would be nice to have a big public debate between that concept and the maintenance of forced savings through private accounts.

    The problem is, the extent to which you means test is the extent to which you are cutting middle class voters out of your coalition. Dems can’t support the reduction of spending on anyone except the very wealthy, or they lose the primary argument for their existence – that if you vote for them, you will get cash. What do we get instead? “There’s nothing wrong with Social Security!”

  33. The idea that the left is mainly interested in helping the poor is assanine. The federal government spends roughly $2 trillion a year domestically, which could work out to direct cash payments to the poorest 20% of the US population of over $30,000 dollars a year. A poor family of 4 could receive $120,000 a year for what we spend on these assanine programs. That doesn’t include state or local level spending, nor private charity.

  34. JDM

    Ed Clark pointed out something like that in his 1980 Pesidential campaign.

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