All is not well in the Democratic Party. Its agenda is stalled and worries about its fortunes in next year’s midterms are rising. And for good reason: The prospect of a resurgent Republican Party under the leadership of Donald Trump should be a concern for everyone, from the center to the socialist left.
Ask an average political junkie why Democrats are in trouble and they’ll give you a simple answer: A party that controls the White House and Congress always loses control in the midterm elections. It’s a natural law. This is the way it has always been. It’s the way it always will be.
It might come as a surprise, then, to learn that no such natural law exists. In countries around the world, parties in power often rule for years, if not decades.
In Sweden, the Social Democratic Party ran the state without a break from 1932 to 1976 — forty-four years in power. In that time, the party built a robust welfare state that laid part of the groundwork for a transition to socialism — even if it fell short of the ultimate goal in the 1970s.
Germany has been dominated by Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union for sixteen years. The party has always ruled in coalitions, but it has set the course of policy and reshaped the country in its image.
But we don’t have to look elsewhere for such examples. There is nothing exceptional about the American system that mandates parties come in and out of power every few years.
From 1932 to 1994, Democrats held power in the House of Representatives for all but four years and the Senate for all but ten. They were the unquestionably dominant party in America’s two-party system. Congressional elections were tame and predictable affairs. Republicans held a similar lock on American politics from 1860 to 1932.
Yet pundits who assert that Democrats will lose the midterms next year are probably right, given recent patterns. Under Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Trump, the president’s party lost control of both houses of Congress in the first midterm election.
The root of this pattern is not something unique to US political institutions. The US political system is dysfunctional for many reasons, but an arbitrary rule that parties in power only have two years to make changes is not one of them. The root is political.
The basic problem is this: Since the advent of the neoliberal era in the late 1970s, neither party has been able to put together a political program that substantially changes the lives of millions of Americans and redraws the partisan balance.
That is what Abraham Lincoln did in the 1860s. By winning the Civil War and crushing slavery, Lincoln and the Republicans were rewarded with the loyalty of generations of voters. It’s also what Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats did in the 1930s. By fashioning a rescue plan for the country during the Great Depression, overseeing a massive expansion in unionized workplaces, and substantially redistributing wealth and income, Roosevelt and the Democrats built a New Deal majority that lasted for at least two generations.
Why can’t Democrats or Republicans pull off something like this again?
Both parties are fundamentally tied to the neoliberal order that dominates American politics. Their campaigns are funded by Wall Street and big business. Campaigns and offices are staffed by a generation of ne’er-do-well consultants and whiz kids who come out of elite universities and middle-class families and have drunk the neoliberal Kool-Aid. And any attempt to challenge capital — as Obama did ever so tepidly in 2009 — is beaten back by the threat of capital strikes.
This is not fertile ground for assembling the kind of program that would fundamentally restructure the economy and society and build a new majority coalition.
Some understand this. Bernie Sanders and the Squad, of course, have championed a massive new investment in the social safety net to pull off just such an era-defining and coalition-making agenda. Bernie has quite appropriately set the stakes high. In a closed-door meeting before the presidential inauguration, Bernie warned that 2021 might be the Democrats’ last chance to stave off the rise of authoritarian currents in the working class and on the Right. A massive redistribution of wealth towards working-class voters would, Bernie argued, be necessary to win a generation of workers away from the Right.
Even some in more mainstream Democratic circles seem to have begun to understand this problem. The Joe Biden administration’s commitment to passing the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package is surprising when compared to past Democratic policy. No doubt, some sense of urgency seems to have motivated Biden and his backers in the corporate world to try by any means necessary to stave off a return to power by Trump’s Republicans.
Ironically, however, just when some Democrats may have understood the bind they are in, decades of triangulation in the service of neoliberal politics will likely do them in. Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are the product of Democrats’ cynical attempts to win elections in red states by imitating Republican candidates. Now, Manchin and Sinema intend to govern as they were elected: as conservatives. That will likely be enough to defeat a bold version of the reconciliation package.
And without the reconciliation package, Democrats are right to be worried. Early enthusiasm for Biden’s administration has worn off. Biden’s approval ratings have plunged into the red. Whatever goodwill Democrats generated in the spring with their American Rescue Plan may have been completely eclipsed this month, when the party let the government’s unprecedented unemployment benefits program expire. Millions of Americans lost crucial support that was keeping them above water. Without the reconciliation package, that loss of benefits — not the American Rescue Plan, whose temporary relief has receded into the background — is what voters will remember about the Democrats’ time in office this go around.
Is there any way out of rapidly alternating Democratic and Republican majorities? Voters ought to have an option to punish Democrats from the left in 2022. In any other country, the Democrats would be at least two parties, as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez once said. Proportional representation would make that possible.
Without it, however, discontented voters will be left to vote Republican or stay home next year. And there’s every reason at this point to think there will be enough of them to tip Congress back to the wrong shade of red.