Saturday, June 10, 2017

Politics Is Now Generational AND Financial, Not Local

All politics is local, according to Tip O'Neill.  Well, perhaps not, in a globalized world.  Perhaps there are other benchmarks we can and should use.  Especially if by "we," we men (as I do) progressives.

Less than 48 hours ago, the British political system received the second of two major shocks in less than a year.  The voter approval of Brexit, the departure of Great Britain from the European Union, has now been followed by not simply the loss of a Conservative majority in Parliament, but an absence of a majority by any one party to replace it.  I'm prone to push against exaggeration, and yet I can't think of a point in my lifetime at which British politics has seemed so muddled.  Despite that, I think that it's possible to look at the muddle and find some signs of the future's likely direction.

Apart from the Tory loss of its parliamentary majority, the most notable feature of this election is the increase in the number of MPs elected from the Labour Party, which has shared a kind of political duopoly with the Conservatives for much of the past 70 years.  Labour is far from a majority, and could not form a government even with the help of its two likeliest coalition partners, the Scottish Nationalists and the Liberal Democrats.  But the party nevertheless enjoyed a major surge in support through this election, and it did so in spite of the fact that its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has long been regarded as a pariah by the political/economic establishment in Britain.

How did Corbyn and his party pull this off?  How,  in particular, did they manage to do so despite the fact that the weeks leading up to the election included two major terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, attacks that in theory should have played to the Conservatives' perceived advantage on law-and-order issues?

Corbyn did this in part by a response to the attacks that was as overdue on substance as it was direct in style.  He did so by connecting the dots between terrorist attacks at home and the Conservatives' foreign policy abroad, although (IMHO) he could have gone much farther by connecting the dots between that policy and the Western dependence on oil-producing, terrorist-financing nations. That, however, will have to be a subject for a future post (and it may well be).

But, mainly, he did by recognizing what was happening to the generation that will inherit nearly four decades of conservative economic policies (yes, Tony Blair, I'm including you).  That generation is broke, with many debts and few prospects.  And its members are angry at a system that they feel is rigged against them.  That anger was palpable even in their culture; now, it has been translated into votes.

Could the Democrats do something similar here, in 2018?  Or, perhaps, even sooner, since there are special elections for Congress and gubernatorial elections to be held in 2017?  There's nothing that's standing in their way--except, perhaps, their addiction to Wall Street money.

Despite the success of Howard Dean, Barack Obama, and Bernie Sanders in relying on individual donations to help build national campaigns, Democrats have not yet shown any significant willingness to abandon their corporate donor base.  That played a major role in last fall's disaster. Hillary Clinton and her campaign staff thought that they could successfully run for the White House on the strength of identity politics.  They overlooked the fact that Obama won two terms in it based not on his personal demographics (which he actually soft-pedaled), but as an apparent advocate of progressive policies.  The fact that he was not as strong an advocate of those policies as he appeared to be played a large role in the midterm losses during his Presidency, as well as last year's rise of Bernie and fall of Hillary.

In the process, it may have helped to feed the rise of Donald Trump; voters that were looking for the kinds of policies Democrats used to offer routinely, and thought they found them by listening to the self-absorbed ramblings of a New York real estate developer.  The proper way to view that is as an act of desperation, based on a despair that Democrats have inadvertently fed by running away from their natural base toward a political "center" that has largely disappeared.  European history has lessons for American politicians on the dangers of doing this; Trump is proving to be perhaps our first such lesson.

Frankly, Democrats don't need money nearly as much as they need voters.  Badly.  And not all economically-stressed voters are voting for Trump.  Many of them are just staying home, with the majority of Trump's voters coming from higher-income brackets--exactly the people most likely to vote Republican anyway.

The young and the poor:  those are the demographic benchmarks the Democrats should use to strengthen their voting base and start winning elections again, especially given the now-historic overlap between the two groups.  The British election proved it; now it is up to the Democrats to learn it and act on it.  Perhaps they already have:  take a look.  And another one.

The Democrats' future lies in the economic populism of the past, not the middle-of-the-road corporatism of the 1990s.  The country's future--especially its young people's future--lies there as well, not in the pseudo-populist white nationalism of Donald Trump and the we'll-do-anything-for-power Republicans.  Let's hope the Democrats learn all of this in time to save the nation, as well as the rest of the world.

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