The Democrats' Problem

The Chronicle of Higher Education
Christopher Phelps
16 November 2010


When set against other liberal-reform phases in American politics—the Age of Jackson in the 1830s, the Progressive Era of the 1910s, the New Deal of the 1930s, or the last liberal heyday of the 1960s—what the Obama presidency has lacked is not centrism but a vibrant left-of-center mass movement capable of shaking up the establishment and advancing the national agenda beyond Washington's comfort zone.

Without a doubt, the 2010 election was historic. Midterm results typically confound the party of a sitting president, even more so in poor economic times. The Republicans' gain of at least 60 seats in the House is their largest since 1938—not exactly the preferred replay of the New Deal period sought by left-of-center observers.

But that outcome does not reflect a conviction of Republican conservatism. In exit polls, voters disdained both parties. Only 41 percent viewed the Republican Party favorably, while 43 percent saw the Democrats positively. How voters could marginally prefer one party while resoundingly electing the other has to do with district lines and a perceived lack of alternatives in a winner-take-all system. It also has to do with context.

The media's story line was the skillful rebranding by the Tea Party of a discredited right. But a more crucial variable was the near-total absence of countervailing left-of-center movements for social justice. The workingmen's movements of the 1830s, the women's-suffrage and socialist movements of the 1910s, the labor and unemployed organizing of the 1930s, the civil-rights and antiwar mobilizations of the 1960s: No comparable wild-card movements materialized in the past two years to demand more of the Democrats and corporate America than they were prepared to offer.

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An estimated 29 million Obama voters from 2008 did not vote in 2010. Much of the reason lies in the administration's hewing to the center, even the center-right. Labor activists supported Obama dedicatedly, only to see the Employee Free Choice Act shunted aside. Gay and lesbian voters were estranged by Obama's failure to fulfill his promise to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and "don't ask, don't tell." Environmentalists' jaws dropped as the administration announced its support for off-shore drilling a few weeks before the BP disaster and a once-in-a-generation chance to do something about carbon emissions cratered in the Senate. Civil libertarians have seen secrecy and warrantless wiretapping undiminished. The collapse of the youth vote may owe something to the 50,000 troops remaining in Iraq and the escalation in Afghanistan.


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