I find the echoes of Jefferson Cowie's description in Stayin' Alive of the Democratic Party's failures in the the 1970s overwhelming. Sure they faced problems, but they failed to articulate a vision for their diverse constituents. Here's Cowie:
The challenges were enormous and the inability to find viable responses seems all too contemporary too.
In my previous post about this fascinating work of history, I've passed along some of Cowie's insights in the decay and decline of working class power as embodied in the unions. In this post I'll take up the political decay that presaged our current situation.
Though labor was still apparently potent in the early part of the decade, union leaders were astonished to discover that rebellions among youth, people of color, organized women and even homosexuals were displacing their influence in the Democratic Party. All these new people wanted in; labor's traditional white male constituency wanted nothing to do with these hippies; and the labor bargaining apparatus was no longer delivering enough goodies via collective bargaining to quiet grumbling in the shop.
Party political professionals didn't help -- as electoral activists have had to learn again and again, the people who make their living in politics are always quick to produce solutions to the problems of the last cycle, to try to convince the political establishment to fight the last war. In the 1970s, that meant that Ben Wattenberg and Richard Scammon taught the party, burned in 1968 by Vietnam and social unrest, that its salvation lay in
The New Politics candidacy of Senator George McGovern, spokesman for the outsiders, rose up to take over the party machinery in 1972. The traditional barons of organized labor were simply nonplussed, though a few came to a more generous appreciation of what was happening.
Richard Nixon's successful mobilization of social resentments of all kinds and the inner incoherence of the McGovern camp popped that balloon, but the Democratic Party had become a far more complex and difficult coalition than during the New Deal.
Democrats got another chance to see whether they could govern with the election of President Jimmy Carter in 1976. The guy has had such a successful post-presidency that it almost seems mean to dwell on the incoherence of his presidency, but Cowie is unflinching. From the point of view of solidifying a Democratic coalition that brought together majorities on the basis of fairness and equity for all, Carter's time was a bust.
This posture of Carter's is all too reminiscent of a certain President whose twists and turns in tough political and economic waters we now watch anxiously.
Carter's core difficulty according to Cowie was that the economic shocks of the '70s -- "stagflation" combining high inflation and high unemployment, the beginnings of deindustrialization, globalization and financialization, and a corporate class on the offensive -- were not problems for which Democratic policy makers had viable answers. Cowie quotes Alice Rivlin, director of the Congressional Budget Office during the Ford, Carter, and early Reagan years:
It seems to me as I watch the Obama administration flail that we've never got out of this bind. Except in moments of complete economic collapse like 1932, capital fights furiously for the interests of its owners against measures meant to promote fairness and equity for most people. Democrats, having conceded the supremacy of private property rights over the needs of the wider community, have no answers though they sometimes grope for palliatives. (Maybe it would have been better to live through a complete global crash in 2008?)
Every particular economic moment is different, so some of the immediate issues look different, but once you concede the right of some people to be filthy rich and to use their wealth to buy and enforce acquiescence from everyone else, there aren't a lot of policy options that serve to promote equity and fairness. It really seems an open question whether this runaway cancer of capitalist greed can be reined in before it renders the planet uninhabitable. But so long as we have a pretense of democracy, there's nothing to do but try. Our particular democracy generates a two party system, so that means yet more rounds of trying to organize a democratic Democratic Party. The struggle is still about "stayin' alive."