Political Hay

Identity Crisis

Democrats "embrace it all" in a search for transformation.

By 8.29.08

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DENVER -- Standing in front of a 16th Street sandwich shop, "Jessica Sideways" held up a hand-lettered poster: "I am an atheist, lesbian, male-to-female transsexual and I embrace it all!"

Jessica hasn't yet gotten the Change, but the 20-year-old blonde has Hope -- working for $11 an hour, she's almost saved up enough money to make an appointment with a surgeon in Thailand who will perform the transformation.

Jessica wasn't a delegate to this week's convention, but in some ways her plight epitomizes the Democratic Party's search for identity in the post-Clinton era.

For decades, the Democrats identified primarily as the party of "the working man," especially labor union members. This organizing base formed the foundation of Democratic dominance for more than three decades after the advent of the New Deal.

Union membership peaked in the 1950s at about 35 percent of the U.S. labor force. The labor movement's subsequent steep decline -- unions now represent less than 8 percent of private-sector workers -- sent the Democrats in search of new constituencies.

Beginning with the McGovern campaign in 1972, the party sought to cobble together a new majority composed of left-leaning professionals, students, feminists and minorities. Yet this coalition has proven insufficient to re-establish the political dominance Democrats had enjoyed from the 1930s until their old majority collapsed amid the anti-war protests and urban riots of the 1960s.

The Republican ascendancy that began with Ronald Reagan's presidency eventually forced Democrats to seek a new formula, the appeal to suburban middle-class "soccer moms" that was Clintonism.

BILL CLINTON POPULARIZED a new mode of Democratic discourse, framing policy proposals in terms of their putative benefit to "working families." This language not only gave the party a means of reclaiming territory lost to Republican "family values" rhetoric, but also distanced Democrats from the welfare policies that had done so much to foster taxpayer-subsidized disorder in urban America.

The clearest expression of this new liberalism was Clinton's statement in 2000 that the American dream should guarantee "that if you work hard and play by the rules, you ought to have a decent life and a chance for your children to have a better one."

Clinton's wholesome-sounding formulation cloaked the entitlement mentality in an appeal to fairness, and made Republican opposition appear mean-spirited. Who, after all, could oppose a chance for children to have a better life?

Despite its rhetorical advantages, however, Clintonism never resulted in a Democratic majority. Clinton got 43 percent of the popular vote in 1992 and 49 percent four years later, while his successor, Al Gore, got 48 percent in 2000.

The Bush presidency has ceded much of the domestic-policy terrain claimed by Clintonism. In his 2000 State of the Union address, for example, Clinton proposed an education plan with "higher standards" that "holds states and school districts accountable for progress, and rewards them for results" -- reform proposals much like the No Child Left Behind Act that President Bush pushed through Congress in 2001.

Abandoning the limited-government agenda that had incited accusations of Republican mean-spiritedness in the 1990s, Bush instead sought to consolidate the support of social conservatives with his "faith-based initiative," funding for abstinence education, and opposition to gay marriage.

Whether that approach might have led to Karl Rove's "permanent Republican majority" in an administration focused exclusively on domestic policy, 9/11 and the Iraq war refocused the political debate. The GOP initially benefited from the wartime environment, scoring unprecedented mid-term gains in 2002 and re-electing Bush in 2004.

Scandals and war fatigue enabled Democrats to recover, demonizing Bush and portraying other Republicans as his henchmen. Whereas the limited-government conservatism of Newt Gingrich had been denounced by liberals as mean-spirited, the big-government conservatism of the Bush administration was denounced as a fascistic threat to civil liberty.

DEMOCRATS DISCOVERED a new formula for success in offering voters a new political identity: Not Republican. Many of the Democrats elected to Congress in 2006 ran on ostensibly conservative platforms -- opposing gay marriage and taking get-tough stances against illegal immigration -- but without the telltale "R" affiliation to brand them as allies of Bush.

Negative identification can be a potent force in politics, as Republican strategists have long realized. Since the 1980s, the GOP has rendered the "liberal" label toxic in the eyes of middle-class voters who learned to associate the term with the failed policies of Jimmy Carter and the tax-and-spend agenda of post-McGovern Democrats.

For two decades, Republicans succeeded when they could offer voters a clear Not Liberal alternative to Democrats. The political denouement of the Bush era is that in the eyes of many voters, Not Republican is now more popular than Not Liberal.

It is in this confused electoral environment that Barack Obama has been able to generate such enthusiasm with his vague promises of Hope and Change.

The Democrats who cheered Thursday's apotheosis of Obama at Invesco Field were celebrating the political potential of the ultimate Not Republican, the contradiction of everything that the Bush-era GOP has come to symbolize.

Many Republicans seem astonished that the Democrats would nominate Obama, an associate of outspoken radicals like Bill Ayers and Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and a creature of Chicago's notoriously corrupt machine politics.

What Obama's candidacy represents is the Democratic Party's confidence that America is ready for a president -- any president -- who is Not Republican. The fact that Obama continues to lead in most national polls shows that that confidence is not entirely unwarranted.

If Americans are ready for a Not Republican president, they will empower a Democratic Party that is just beginning an uncertain transition from the Clinton era.

Democrats are seeking to create for themselves a new identity, a transformation that begins with rejecting the past in favor of nebulous promises for the future. Like Jessica Sideways, today's Democrats are ready to "embrace it all."

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.