The Jewish academic that could hold the key to keeping the Democrats in power

A pair of political scientists that helped Clinton get elected could come in useful again


PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - SEPTEMBER 01: U.S. President Joe Biden delivers a primetime speech at Independence National Historical Park September 1, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. President Biden spoke on “the continued battle for the Soul of the Nation.” (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

September 07, 2022 12:38

30 years ago this month, the then little-known governor of Arkansas was riding high in the opinion polls as he sought to eject George HW Bush from the White House.

Bill Clinton, then just a charismatic newcomer to the national stage, maintained his lead all the way to November, unpicking the “lock” on the presidency which had seen the Republicans win three landslide consecutive victories in the 1980s and a nearly unbroken string of wins since 1968.

But the roots of Mr Clinton’s victory had been sown three years previously with the publication of a book that shaped the way he thought.

Written by Jewish academic William Galston and fellow political scientist Elaine Kamarck, The Politics of Evasion: Democrats and the Presidency provided a short but hard-headed analysis of the Democrats' seeming inability to defeat their opponents in national elections.

Now the pair, who went on to hold senior posts in the Clinton White House, is back delivering some new hard truths for the party’s resurgent left wing.

Their timing couldn’t be better. Labor Day saw the official kick-off of the two-month campaign for the mid-term elections, with the Democrats’ wafer-thin congressional majorities remaining under threat despite a slight uptick in the party's fortunes thanks to a nicely timed drop in the price of gas.

Back in 1989 Mr Galston and Ms Kamarck surveyed the Democrats’ surveyed the Democrats’ abysmal record in presidential elections and bluntly declared: “Too many Americans have come to see the party as inattentive to their economic interests, indifferent if not hostile to their moral sentiments, and ineffective in defence of their national security.”

Too many Democrats, they continued, sought to offer excuses or deny these problems, instead falling back on a “politics of evasion” that ignored electoral realities and avoided making hard choices.

In response, Mr Clinton and the New Democrats set about radically changing the Democratic party’s policies and image so that it could appeal to those who had abandoned it and repeatedly put their faith in Republican Presidents over the previous 20 years.

Mr Galston and Ms Kamarck pull few punches in their new analysis, “The New Politics of Evasion: How Ignoring Swing Voters Could Reopen the Door for Donald Trump and Threaten American Democracy” opting instead to “administer reality therapy” to their party.

According to the pair, Inflation, Afghanistan, and the Democrats’ stance on immigration, police reform and racial history – have left the party staring down the barrel of defeat in November.

And three myths are stopping them from grasping the nettle. That “people of colour” vote as a block, economics trumps culture, and a “progressive ascendancy is emerging”.

As Galston and Kamarck convincingly show, none of these claims, peddled largely by left-wing Democrats, stands up to scrutiny. Unlike African Americans, for instance, Hispanic voters appear to be drifting away from the party: their support for its presidential candidates dropped from 71 per cent in 2012 to 66 per cent in 2016 and 59 per cent in 2020. 

The authors also dismiss the idea that economic considerations are the “real” issues, and that social, cultural and religious are simply electoral chaff thrown up by the Republicans to manipulate voters from seeing their economic self-interest. In reality, however, attitudes toward issues such as abortion, guns, religion and immigration reflect voters’ “deepest convictions and shape their identity” and help explain why Democrats are struggling to rebuild their support among white working-class voters and are seeing Hispanic working-class voters beginning to desert the party.

Nor is there much evidence that a new highly liberal “progressive” majority is emerging in the country. Less than 10 per cent of voters, for instance, associate themselves with the kind of policies pushed by the tribunes of the new left, Senator Bernie Sanders and New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “Many Democrats believe that the most progressive cultural attitudes enjoy the support of a popular majority,” the authors warn. “These Democrats are living in a bubble defined by education, income, and geography.” 

Mr Galston and Ms Kamarck’s political prescription is stark. First, Democrats need to understand that moderate swing voters in swing states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and  Wisconsin – which Mr Trump won by tight margins in 2016 before Mr Biden reclaimed them for the Democrats four years later – remain key.

It’s commonplace to recognise that Americans are “deeply divided”, argue Mr Galston and Ms Kamarck, but they are also “closely divided”. Indeed, five of the past six presidential elections have seen the winner less than five percentage points ahead of their opponent. While sharp polarisation has reduced the number of swing voters, the closely fought nature of elections over the past 30 years means that winning the support of those who remain – such as centrist suburbanites who aren’t closely tied to either party – is crucial.

Second, Democrats need to reject the left’s belief that Americans want a “political revolution that transforms every aspects of their lives”. “Most Americans want evolutionary, not revolutionary, change,” they write. “They want more government in some areas but not all, and within limits.” And the party needs to abandon the sloganeering of the self-indulgent “woke warriors” who prize ideological purity over electoral success. Instead, voters want “government that respects their commonsense beliefs — for example, that defunding the police is not the path to public safety, abolishing immigration enforcement is not the cure for our southern border, and that it is wrong to exclude parents from decisions about the education of their children.”

How do the Democrats show they get it? Not by aping the Republicans but by planting their flag firmly in the political centre ground. Even on contentious cultural issues, they suggest, there’s a “honourable middle” path which commands widespread public back. So, on immigration, offer voters both action to secure the border combined with a pathway to citizenship for those who first entered the US illegally as children but have worked hard, paid their taxes and obeyed the law in the years they have been in the country. Voters want to hear no more talk of “defunding the police”; instead, they want more but better police with reforms which identify and root out the bad apples.

None of Mr Galston and Ms Kamarck’s diagnosis or prescription is rocket science and while it may be too late to save the Democrats from the voters’ wrath in November, the future of American democracy may depend on whether the party adopts their sound advice before 2024.

September 07, 2022 12:38

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