By Ruth Conniff
The November elections are upon us, and a great deal hangs in the balance.
If the Republicans succeed in taking over the Senate, they will effectively end President Obama’s ability to get through his nominees for federal agencies and the federal bench—including, potentially, the U.S. Supreme Court.
Even without Senate control, the Republicans have already blocked nominations and stalled the enforcement of labor laws and financial reform by holding up appointments to head the National Labor Relations Board and the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
If Ruth Bader Ginsburg or another Supreme Court justice retires, and the Republicans are in control, the party that once vowed to make Obama’s Presidency a failure might just leave the seat vacant until after the Presidential election in 2016.
Just wait until the next debt ceiling showdown next March.
Mitch McConnell has already pledged to extract concessions from the President as the price for preventing the United States from going into default.
And then there are the investigations—Obamacare, impeachment, and, of course, Benghazi, in the run-up to the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign.
Fox News will script the next two years.
As for debating issues that actually matter to a majority of Americans, like bank regulation or raising the minimum wage, with McConnell in charge of the calendar, you can bet there will be no hearings, let alone floor votes on such matters.
We’ve already had a good preview of the Republican legislative agenda in the states.
“If you want to know what a wholly Republican Congress would do, the thing to do is to look at what they’ve done in state capitals where they can,” Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, told Mike Tomasky of The Daily Beast earlier this year. “In Ohio, they’ve gone after voters’ rights, workers’ rights, women’s rights. They’d bring that to Washington.”
The stakes are high alright. But voter turnout, in this non-Presidential year, is projected to be low.
That gap—between the urgency of the moment from the insider political and policy point of view, and the rampant alienation out in America’s voting precincts—has set off a familiar cycle of hand-wringing and argument.
On a recent public affairs call-in show on Wisconsin Public Radio, callers all over the state registered their frustration and alienation from the Democratic Party. One caller asserted that this year, he might not even vote. A series of outraged NPR listeners rushed to the phones to scold him, and express outrage at nonvoters everywhere, who allow our elections and our democracy to be taken over by the big-money interests so they can suppress wages, export jobs, destroy public schools, and tear up what’s left of regulatory protections and the safety net.
The host joined the chorus: voting is a sacred obligation, and not voting is not just irresponsible, it’s immoral.
It’s an understandable emotional response. But threatening, scolding, even pleading, does not actually motivate people to go to the polls.
Voter turnout in the United States lags all other established democracies.
Our turnout hovers around 40 percent in Congressional midterm years, and reached a thirty-year high of 63 percent in 2008. We are suffering from a more serious problem than can be addressed with appeals to individual morality.
As Mike McCabe, the executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, puts it, “We have one party that’s scary and another that’s scared.”
In his new book, Blue Jeans in High Places: The Coming Makeover of American Politics, McCabe does his best to explain the condition of “politically homeless” voters like the people in the poor, rural Wisconsin county where he grew up. These farmers and small-town workers, to the everlasting consternation of far-away political analysts, either don’t vote or vote against their own interests.
McCabe’s dad, a struggling farmer with an eighth-grade education, never forgot the New Deal. In his view, McCabe says, “the Democrats were the party of the poor and the Republicans were the party of the rich.”
But today’s political landscape is utterly different.
Two generations ago, McCabe observes, rural Clark County sent fiery progressive populist Frank Nikolay to the state legislature. A generation later, the county was still represented by a Democrat. More recently, Clark County elected rabid rightwing tea partier Scott Suder, who went on to become majority leader in the state senate.
In McCabe’s analysis, it’s not disaffected voters who lost their way. It’s the Democratic party that used to earn their support.
“When Democrats won the hearts of a majority of people in the past, it was because the party had a big hand in creating things that tangibly benefited everyone or at least directly touched every American family in a major way,” McCabe writes. “Social Security and Medicare. Rural electrification. The GI Bill. The interstate highway system.”
Today, McCabe writes, a much bigger problem for the Democrats than God Guns and Gays is their own party’s lack of ambition to help people who are not rich.
Republicans like Scott Walker have built a winning “rich-poor alliance,” by exploiting the anxiety and resentment of strapped, non-union private sector workers by talking about government workers’ pensions and health-care benefits, and by reinforcing their suspicions that government doesn’t work for them and politicians are corrupt.
Until that changes, it’s going to be hard to get poor farmers and small-town waitresses to rush out and vote for the next bland, good-looking, corporate Democrat.
McCabe talks about one young Democraic candidate who was coached to be “present and pleasant” and avoid taking controversial stands. She lost.
But there are signs that the situation McCabe describes may be improving. Progressive Senator Tammy Baldwin won in Wisconsin by taking a strong stand against job-killing trade agreements and for expanding access to health care.
Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown and Bernie Sanders won their campaigns with cross-over appeal to socially conservative voters who responded to their progressive, populist message.
As John Nichols reports in the October issue of The Progressive, Mitch McConnell himself may be toppled by a progressive populist with deep roots in rural Kentucky.
In the Wisconsin governor’s race, the not-so-populist Mary Burke seems to be turning Scott Walker’s cynical politics against him, as the depths of his administration’s corruption and its fecklessness in producing jobs emerges.
Burke was the first gubernatorial candidate in the nation to grab onto an issue that harkens back to the Democrats’ New Deal heritage: freeing a generation of students from the burden of crushing college debt.
Scolding people to vote is not enough. They need something to vote for.
Besides which, people resent being told they have to vote for a corporate Democrat because of the long list of horrible things that will happen if they don’t.
Democrats found that out, to their lasting anger, in 2000, when Ralph Nader tilted the election to George W. Bush, despite the pleas, cajoling and threats by high-profile Dems deployed to lecture voters in swing states.
Nader was a rock star on the campaign trail in 2000, expressing people’s pent-up frustration with the bank-deregulating, job-exporting, corporate-coddling, welfare-slashing Democrats.
But by 2004 it was clear to most of his supporters that his campaign was not actually building a bigger movement. And the consequences of the Bush presidency were, in fact, catastrophic.
To a handful of students who were still turned on by Nader enough to support his 2004 presidential run, a vote for Kerry still sounded like capitulation.
Unless we break with the corporate Democratic party, we will never get truly progressive policies again, they argued passionately. And they quoted Howard Zinn: “It doesn’t matter who’s sitting in the White House. What matters is who’s sitting in.”
But Zinn himself took a gentler, and more complex view of the situation, in his characteristic kindly, softpoken way.
“That quote is a little misleading, because it suggests I don’t care who’s in the White House,” he told me when I called him on the phone back in 2004.
Sometimes it’s really important to elect the right candidate, Zinn said (which is why he voted for Kerry, not Nader, in 2004.)
But, he hastened to add, “It’s more important to have a social movement.”
“I can understand their feeling,” he said of the students for Nader. “The Democratic Party is a pitiful example of an opposition, and when you look at what Kerry stands for and what Nader stands for, I understand perfectly why people might find it repugnant to vote for Kerry and not for Nader,” he said. “So I’m in great sympathy with these young people who maybe are not thinking in terms of tactics as much as some of us are. I’m sort of with them emotionally.”
But in the end, the point is not emotion, or ideological purity in the voting booth, Zinn said.
Of Nader, he said, “he’s been seduced by the last thing he should be seduced by, which is electoral politics, He’s not about that, he’s about movement politics.
Forseeing the outcome of the election, Zinn added, “I believe a majority of people in this country believe in the things Nader believes in. And therefore for Nader to put himself on a ballot and get 2 or 3 or 4 percent of the vote misleads everybody as to how much support he has.”
This year, if the progressive populist campaigns like Grimes’s succeed, we might be in different territory.
At the end of his book, Mike McCabe lays out a plan to build a savvy, innovative populist movement, that can coalesce behind a “blue-jean candidate”—someone who genuinely represents our interests.
Now is the time, he writes. We have one party trying to take us back to the Nineteenth Century, and another one that’s stuck in the Twentieth.
This could be the year we being to move the clock ahead.