A Counterpoint: Democrats Must Restore Faith In Government

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(l to r): Hulton Archive / Getty Images, Alex Wong / Getty Images, CBS / Getty Images

United States Senator Hubert H. Humphrey, left, in 1964, US President Barack Obama, August 2, 2011, center and Senator George McGovern in 1971, right.

Michael Cohen, the author of Live From the Campaign Trail: The Greatest Presidential Campaign Speeches of the 20th Century and How They Shaped Modern America, pens this response to Rick Perlstein’s Swampland column, “How Democrats Win: Defend the Social Safety Net.”

Historian Rick Perlstein argues that the key for Democratic success is to “Defend the Social Safety Net.” According to Perlstein, the lesson that Obama should take from the battles of the 1960s is that Democrats win when they engage in economic populism and portray Republicans as enemies of the middle and working class. It’s an interesting argument and one that has become de rigeur for liberal critics of the Obama Administration. The problem, however, is that it is at best a band-aid to the larger challenges which afflict liberalism today. Perlstein claims:

[In 1968] Nixon effectively associated them with the protesters in the streets. But even then, Nixon almost lost, once his opponent Hubert Humphrey enlisted labor unions in a gargantuan last-minute push concerning which party created Social Security and Medicare and which seemed indifferent about preserving them.

. . . Then, in 1972, the Democrats ran a candidate whose speeches were more frantic than any in history. George ­McGovern, following a then fashionable theory that the middle class was prosperous enough to take care of itself and that unions were pretty much irrelevant, spoke to working-class concerns less than any Democrat had before. He lost 49 states.

Perlstein is certainly correct that Humphrey made a last-minute push as a result of union support and almost emerged victorious on Election Day. What is missing, however, from his narrative is that 57% of the country failed to cast a ballot for Hubert Humphrey, and instead chose Richard Nixon or George Wallace, who were both running on strong anti-government platforms. As Perlstein well chronicles in “Nixonland,” in the period from 1964 to 1968 the confidence of the American people in their elected leaders plummeted precipitously.

Humphrey defended the accomplishments of the New Deal, but neither Nixon nor Wallace was seriously threatening them. Rather both men were far more critical of the expansion of government policies in the mid- to the late-1960s that were seen by many Americans, in part, as the root of the nation’s ills. The electorate wasn’t necessarily fed up with the New Deal in 1968. They were unhappy with key elements of the Great Society.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, many Americans began to look at government and their elected leaders in a more cynical and negative light. They blamed Democrats and liberalism, in general, for the higher cost of living, for failing to deal with rising crime rates, for the growing crisis of authority and for contributing to the sense of national insecurity by dangerously raising expectations among the underclass. Liberalism’s declining credibility with working and middle class Americans was met head-on by an emerging conservative populist movement that had a simple rhetorical solution for the nation’s ills – get the federal government out of the way.

As for whether McGovern ran away from the working class, it is worth looking at the context. By 1972, post-war prosperity had further blunted the effectiveness of traditional class-based arguments. McGovern’s appeal to working class voters fell on deaf ears because not only was he not adequately addressing their greatest concerns, on issues like law and order and busing, but his anti-war views were often antithetical to working class Americans. If anything, what Humphrey and McGovern’s candidacies demonstrated is how out of touch the Democratic Party had become with the economic and social concerns of their traditional base of supporters.

What is glossed over in Perlstein’s re-telling of history is that the economic populism, which he claims was the root of Democratic success, has been supplanted by a conservative populism that portrays government, rather than big business, as the enemy. This of course has become the dominant political paradigm in the four decades since and is the political terrain on which President Obama and Democrats, in general, are today operating.

It’s not that Perlstein is wrong to suggest that Obama and the Democrats should defend the social safety net. They should. Considering that Republicans have foolishly passed a budget that would basically eviscerate Medicare, it’s smart, short-term politics.

But it’s hardly enough. The problem for Democrats, and liberalism in general, is that their solution for the current economic mess – more stimulus, more government focus on creating jobs are goals that voters share, but don’t actually believe to be achievable. As Stanley Greenberg wrote earlier this month in the New York Times, “voters feel ever more estranged from government — and that they associate Democrats with government. If Democrats are going to be encumbered by that link, they need to change voters’ feelings about government.” It’s not that people don’t want see government confront serious national challenges, it’s that 40 years of anti-government rhetoric have convinced them that it can’t.

Indeed, since 1968 Democrats have seen the greatest political success not when they’ve relied exclusively on paeans to the past, but when they’ve merged economic and conservative populism into a potent mix. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton ran on “Putting People First” and railing against special interests, but he also pledged that the “era of big government” was over. In 2008, Obama regularly tried to position himself as a supporter of neither “bigger government” nor “smaller government” but rather “ better government.” His post-partisan message was a recognition that until Americans had greater confidence in Washington to solve national problems it would make it that much more difficult to renew liberalism’s appeal.

Clearly this is the rationale behind Obama’s support for deficit reduction today. It’s not that he necessarily believes that deficits should be the country’s top priority, but rather that without fiscal responsibility Americans will continue to view government in an unsavory light. Relying on class warfare attacks or strident defenses of entitlements might provide a short-term political boost for Democrats. It might even win them the 2012 election. But the larger challenge for liberalism is restoring faith in government and making the case to a skeptical electorate for greater public sector activism.

Indeed, this is the fundamental challenge that confronts the left in America today, and its resolution is one must come from something other than a rhetorically-gifted President. Rather it requires a concerted effort on the part of the left to mobilize public opinion, build a policy infrastructure and develop policy ideas that support progressive values. When Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1980 he was riding rode the coattails of a powerful and effective grass-roots conservative movement. Progressives must do the same and think more strategically about how they can fundamentally shift the views of the electorate–and Democratic politicians–toward their worldview. It is not sufficient to traffic in the language of past glories or mobilize against something, as progressives have done so successfully in Wisconsin, in opposition, to legislation that would strip collective bargaining rights away from public sector unions. They also must learn to mobilize in support of something.

It’s simply not enough, as Perlstein suggests, “saying clearly what you are for and what you are against.” There’s also the question of crafting a political message that resonates with voters long inured to view government as less than a solution to the nation’s ills – while preserving the values that have long informed liberalism.

Cohen is currently writing a book on the 1968 presidential election and its legacy in American politics.