Since 1968 American liberals have been terrified of losing. Bobby Kennedy was gunned down at the Ambassador Hotel, and riots tore through the Democratic National Convention, which are now largely credited with bringing Nixon to the White House. In 1972 the Democrats nominated George McGovern, who many Americans viewed as wildly liberal, and Nixon won one of the most one-sided elections in American history.
Democrats learned a lesson from that election, don’t let the kids drag you to the left. It’s a lesson they need to unlearn, because American culture has changed, American politics has changed, and we don’t have time for this milquetoast politics of compromise that kicked the can down the road until Donald Trump decided to ruin the game for everybody.
For 12 years, from Jimmy Carter’s defeat in 1980 to Bill Clinton’s election in 1992, Democrats were listless and in search of a path to the White House. Clinton found a way, but it came at a cost. The hallmark of the Reagan years was the beginning of the deconstruction of the New Deal and Great Society welfare state, which at this point has largely been dismantled or at least molded into a shell of its former self.
This process truly began with Barry Goldwater in the 1960’s but it would take a while for conservatives to really convince people who depend on social security and medicare the government is out to get them. But they found a way, and the landscape of the American welfare state as it stands today is largely a product of the early work these conservatives did. Imagine living through the 1960’s and deciding to become a proto-Paul Ryan Vietnam supporting zombie instead of a hippie or civil rights activist.
But I digress, dismantling the American welfare state became a bipartisan project when Bill Clinton decided appealing to the middle was the only way to break Democrats out of the electoral slump they’d been in since 1968. And Bill did all he could to let Republicans know he took their debt busting, tax cutting, “welfare reforming” ideals seriously. He even tried to revive the long history of Southern Democrats and confederate symbols were featured prominently in his 1992 campaign. But that’s okay, he was a Democrat, and from Arkansas afterall, right?
Bill Clinton won the election and he won another in 1996, the 12 year drought was over (really a 24 year drought if we ignore Jimmy Carter) but it came at a cost. In order to appeal to the debt and deficit apprehension in the electorate he threw millions of people off of welfare to do it. He furthered Reagan’s racist legacy in the name of being “tough on crime” and passed “criminal justice reform” which has helped fill America’s already full prisons, for decades. He passed the blatantly homophobic Defense of Marriage Act and backed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. His administration really set the stage for our current tough on immigration approach, policies which echoed through American politics on both sides of the aisle throughout the early 2000’s.
Clinton broke with the New Deal Democrat status quo. Decades of policy consensus just lead to defat, so he had to do what he had to do in order to win, because he’s better than Republicans, right? Those pesky activist kids and lefty die hard McGovern ceded the White House for generations, that’s a disaster worth avoiding, right? Bill Clinton isn’t perfect, but he’s better than George Bush or Bob Dole, right? Millions of people off welfare, anti-immigrant rhetoric, homophobia, and mass incarceration are just embedded parts of the system, and we still have to win, right?
Maybe that is just the hopeless cesspool that is American politics. Trying for two steps forward and getting half a step back has been the status quo for decades. The fear might be that trying for two steps forward actually leads to a whole step back, so take the person that offers one step forward and be glad we only ended up half a step back, instead of two steps back if you overreached and the other guys won. Half a step back, two steps back, you end up in the same place eventually either way.
With Donald Trump in office it’s easy to fall back into that same rut the Democrats have been stuck in since 1968. It’s easy to think because someone so far to the right was able to win, someone who literally flirts with fascism and winks at the alt-right, that someone closer to the center is the only logical way forward. But that is completely wrongheaded for two reasons. American politics is more polarized than ever and people don’t defect from their chosen political tribe. The polarization that enabled Barry Goldwater’s project to become the Reagan Revolution also ensured Newt Gingrich would go on to impeach Bill Clinton and Mitch McConnell would do everything he can to tank the Obama administration at every turn.
McGovern might have lost some Democrats, Clinton may have won in a drought, but in modern American politics McGovern and the more radical Democratic Party of 1968 or 1972 is the model to look to. The Democrats before they purged the New Deal influence to survive a post-Reagan world is the model. A party that champions Civil Rights even when it means losing half the party to longstanding prejudice is the history the Democrats need to draw upon. A party that built the base of the American welfare state and then had the audacity to go even further and create Medicaid and Medicare to ensure healthcare for large swaths of the country.
That is the history the Democrats should channel, taking bold stances in the face of unrelenting historical tides. Not selling out working mothers, locking up millions of people, and giving into the homophobia of the day, all in the name of political expediency.
People voting in the Democratic primary in 2019 will have a choice. There will be politicians who offer a Clintonian vision of the world. People willing to triangulate and shift their policy stance to try and peel off some center right or independent voter who doesn’t exist outside their misguided, out of touch perception of the electorate. That’s the Democrats legacy and there are candidates who clearly do not see the role that legacy has played in bringing Donald Trump to power. They’ll give you more of the same as long as you’ll stand for it.
The insecurity caused by turning away from the New Deal ideals is a poison pill infecting American political culture. Bill Clinton helped America swallow that pill and now we need an antidote before we see just how corrosive this shit show can get. I think my ideas on what that antidote entails are pretty clear, we need to massively expand the role of government in the American economy. Healthcare for all, school for all, and some guarantee of a baseline material life. The best institutions America has mustered have come from uncompromising political moments. Dismantling them has taken just the opposite. Independent voters are increasingly more ideological than their counterparts who identify with one party or the other. They aren’t centrists. They are progressives and socialists, or tea party members and nationalists. And if “centrists” won’t vote for a Democratic Party that supports medicare for all or a Green New Deal, we don’t need them. Just like the Republican Party didn’t need Republicans who won’t support a wall, but most of them came along regardless. Centrist Democrats will come along, or they won’t, but either way, that’s their problem.
Compromise is fine in some moments, and on some issues, but when it comes to the social crisis the country is facing today. Be it climate change, massive wealth and income inequality, the resurgence of racism and nationalism, we are living in uncharted territory. These forces are coming to a head and we need to figure out how to deal with them before things fall apart. Compromise hasn’t worked yet, somehow I doubt it’ll work as things get more chaotic. The warning signs are there and if we ignore them again, just because of some misguided notions of what it takes to win, we deserve everything we get.