President Obama, Read Up: Democrats Win When They Defend the Social Safety Net
Word has it that President Obama is reading Rick Perlstein's Nixonland, an indispensable history of modern American politics. Finding that out, Perlstein writes about the lesson he hopes the president takes from the effort.
I assume Obama turned to it for insight about how he might help turn down the volume in our political conversation. But there’s also a story in Nixonland about how the Democratic Party wins, why it loses and the good things that happen when the party gets the formula right. I surely hope Obama did not miss it.
It concerns the two major axes upon which major national elections get fought. Sometimes they become battles over the cultural and social anxieties that ordinary Americans suffer. Other times they are showdowns about middle-class anxieties when the free market fails. Normally, in the former sort of election, Republicans win. In the latter, Democrats do—as we saw in 2008, when the tide turned after John McCain said “the fundamentals of the economy are strong.”
Right now, Perlstein argues, we're smack dab in the latter situation. Still. And the handful of decades since Nixon's first run for president demonstrate that Democrats win when they stand for the middle class, when steadfastly protect the social safety net that Democrats created, and Republicans have been trying to shred every election.
Here’s what LBJ knew that McGovern didn’t: There are few or no historical instances in which saying clearly what you are for and what you are against makes Americans less divided. But there is plenty of evidence that attacking the wealthy has not made them more divided. After all, the man who said of his own day's plutocrats, "I welcome their hatred," also assembled the most enduring political coalition in U.S. history.
The Republicans will call it class warfare. Let them. Done right, economic populism cools the political climate. Just knowing that the people in power are willing to lie down on the tracks for them can make the middle much less frantic. Which makes America a better place. And which, incidentally, makes Democrats win.
It's worth reading in its entirety (as is Nixonland, but this column is a lot shorter). There's one party that's always stood for the plutocrats, and one that's always been with the people. With a economic inequality in America now setting new records, it's even more important for our Democratic president to fulfill that heritage.