How America broke up with the Democratic Party
Many grassroots Democrats separated from their party in the 1990s, and the 2020 election may be the last chance to save the marriage.
While the GOP has been trying to establish a semi-permanent ruling majority through bigotry, gerrymandering and voter suppression, Democrats had long-term majority control of American politics pretty much continuously for more than a half-century.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected four times to the presidency and brought with him a Democratic Party sweep so complete that, with the exception of two brief two-year periods, Democrats controlled the House of Representatives from 1931 to 1995. FDR built the modern-day Democratic Party and launched it toward the 21st century.
Working-class Americans had fallen in love with Roosevelt and Democratic Party policies in the 1930s, and that love affair persisted across the better part of three generations. In the past few decades, though, they “fell out of love” with the Democratic Party and began regularly putting Republicans in charge of the country.
Back in the 1980s, sociologist Diane Vaughan did some remarkable research about how people fall in and out of love that she compiled in her book Uncoupling. Her surprising but commonsense findings, now used by psychotherapists and marriage counselors around the world, apply to politics as much as they do to intimate relationships.
At some point during most relationships, one partner will become dissatisfied with the behavior of the other. When this dissatisfaction is so fundamental that the unhappy partner might consider dissolving the relationship if it’s not changed, they will almost always say something or otherwise signal their dissatisfaction.
This signal of dissatisfaction is referred to by therapists as “the cry,” as in “the announcement” (think town crier, not sobbing). If the “offending” partner ignores or doesn’t understand the gravity of this “cry out” about how the relationship is going, it’s referred to as “the cry unheard.” The most common occurrence is that the partner “hears” the cry, but doesn’t think it’s a big deal and so ignores it; in other cases, it’s missed altogether.
When the “cry” isn’t heard or is misunderstood as a routine small disagreement, the dissatisfied partner will begin noticing other things that are offending, and, over time, compile a list of reasons to leave the relationship that outnumbers the reasons to stay.
Meanwhile, the offending partner—not having heard, or having misunderstood the “cry”—is oblivious and thinks everything is just fine.
The first turning point in the relationship comes when the dissatisfied partner, having put out the cry unheard and not seeing changes in behavior, starts to share the grievance with others, complaining (often subtly) about their partner.
After a (typically relatively short) time, having gotten feedback from others that, “Yes, that behavior would bother me, too,” the dissatisfied partner, concluding the relationship can’t be salvaged, begins an emotional separation process, moving past bargaining and anger into grieving the loss, accepting that the relationship is not salvageable, and then, finally, announcing that they are pulling the plug on the relationship.
Hearing for the first time this announcement that the relationship is dead, the clueless partner who didn’t hear the cry is blindsided, shocked, and devastated. While their partner has already gone through all the stages of unhappiness, deciding to leave, grieving the failure of the relationship, and accepting it as over, the clueless partner is forced to begin the process (similar to Kubler-Ross’ stages of dying) for themselves from a cold start.
Applying this model to the Democratic Party, the first really loud “cry unheard” from the Democratic electorate came in 1992.
Prior to 1992, the Democratic Party had been FDR’s and LBJ’s party of big government, big projects (from legalizing unions to creating Social Security and Medicare to putting a man on the moon), and the great defender of working people.
For example, many Democrats and their union allies strongly opposed Nixon’s 1974 Trade Act (ultimately signed by Gerald Ford) that gave fast-track authority to the president to encourage offshoring American jobs (we’ve lost more than 80,000 factories just since then) by cutting protective tariffs on imports.
I was living in Michigan running an advertising agency and reporting news part-time in the mid-1970s, and I remember well how dangerous it was to drive one of the cheap imported (mostly Japanese) cars that began flooding the country that decade as a result of the Nixon/Ford trade policies.
Working people were furious with the job losses, and when Jimmy Carter didn’t reverse Nixon’s trade policies, they turned to Reagan, who had promised, in the election of 1980, that he would protect workers’ jobs, even securing the endorsement of PATCO, the air controllers union he would famously betray in his first year in office. While union leaders were wary and opposed Reagan, many rank-and-file members believed the charismatic actor.
But instead of standing up for working people, in 1981 Reagan declared war on the unions (then the largest funders of the Democratic Party nationwide), and began negotiations with Mexico and Canada to speed up the rate at which American companies were moving factories and, thus, union jobs out of the U.S.
This picked up steam with the NAFTA agreement itself, which was finalized by the George H.W. Bush administration in 1992, although it was yet to be ratified by Congress.
In 1971, when Walmart was a regional retailer operating in only five states, its stores often had banners proclaiming what became the title of Sam Walton’s autobiography: “Made in America.” By the election year of 1992, four years after Sam had stepped down as CEO, it was getting hard to find anything in a Walmart that was still made in the USA.
And it wasn’t just Walmart—the 1970s trickle of foreign cars had become a flood by the end of the Reagan and Bush years in 1992, and union jobs all across America were vanishing, along with the factories that provided for them.
Thus, the “cry unheard” of America’s working people—most of them Democrats back then (even if they’d had an “affair” with Reagan)—was, “Please stop these insane ‘free trade’ deals that Nixon started and Reagan/Bush put on steroids!”
But by this time the leadership of the Democratic Party wasn’t listening, or dismissed union concerns as something that would pass. As Reagan planned, union jobs evaporated throughout the 1980s and with them went the ability of big unions to support Democratic politicians with either cash or boots-on-the-ground.
With the unions dying under Reagan’s assault, Bill Clinton, planning to run for president in the election of 1992, knew he had to find other sources of financial support (the Supreme Court had opened the floodgates to corporate money in 1976 and 1978, exploding the cost of a presidential campaign). This was before anybody knew how to raise individual contributions on the internet, so Clinton had to figure out how to finance his campaign without relying on the unions.
As Al From lays out in his book The New Democrats and the Return to Power, he and Bill Clinton worked “to rescue the party from the political wilderness, redefine its message, and, most importantly, win presidential elections.” And that would take a lot of cash.
Bank robber Willie Sutton famously said that banks were “where the money is,” and the money available for politics in 1992 had moved from the pockets of working people (wages had been flat for more than a decade) and their unions (unionization was in freefall) into the pockets of banks, insurance companies, drug companies, defense contractors, and other big corporations. And the Supreme Court had legalized taking their money in exchange for favors just before Reagan’s election in 1976 and 1978 (and tripled down on it in 2016).
“In April 1989,” From’s book notes, he “traveled to Little Rock, Arkansas, to recruit the state’s young governor, Bill Clinton, to be chairman of the DLC.” The result of their partnership was the creation of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and a new mantra for the Democratic Party: “[E]conomic centrism, national security, and entitlement reform…” that brought with it a flood of corporate and billionaire money.
The party of big government solutions had become the party of big corporate money.
As a result, that first Clinton election year, 1992, was also the year when the “cry unheard” of American working people became a primal scream.
Nearly one in five voters that year cast a ballot for an eccentric billionaire from Texas, Ross Perot, whose mantra was that the NAFTA free trade agreement negotiated by Reagan/Bush but also supported by the newly baptized DLC chair Clinton would lead to “a giant sucking sound from the South” as factories and jobs moved to Mexico.
Clinton suggested that blue-collar jobs weren’t the future of America, and his running mate, Al Gore, said that moving automotive and other factories to Mexico would actually be good for America because Mexican workers would no longer have an incentive to cross our southern border and “we [could] cut down on illegal immigration.”
The Democratic Party now led by Clinton thus embraced a behavior that most working Americans knew would be a disaster for them, and that they had cried out loudly against with their Perot vote in 1992.
Over the next eight years, as Clinton ignored them, many began considering having another affair with the GOP. After all, if Clinton was going to embrace Reagan/Bush trade policies, why not just go right to the source—the GOP itself—for policy prescriptions.
According to Bob Woodward, during a meeting in the Oval Office, Clinton said sarcastically, “Where are all the Democrats? I hope you’re all aware we’re all Eisenhower Republicans.”
He added, “We’re Eisenhower Republicans here. Here we are, and we’re standing for lower deficits and free trade and the bond market. Isn’t that great?”
Further turning his back on the FDR/LBJ Democratic Party principles, Clinton went on to heartily embrace Republican policies of cutting the social safety net. “The era of big government is over,” he proclaimed.
Putting the knife hilt-deep into the spine of LBJ’s Great Society, Clinton said, “Today we are ending welfare as we know it” as he signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. That law undid much of LBJ’s Great Society legislation, which had succeeded in cutting poverty rates in America from 22.2 percent in 1963 down to 12.6 percent in 1970.
For the first time since LBJ’s Great Society in the 1960s, families in poverty were not guaranteed a lifeline. They had to prove they were working in order to qualify for assistance, which sounded like a good idea in theory, especially during boom times like the ’90s, when there were lots of jobs available. But during recessions, when three or four people are looking for every one available job, a work requirement for welfare does a lot of harm to already struggling families.
The stats have borne this out. In the years after welfare reform, as a series of presidents and governors have followed in Clinton’s footsteps, ever more people have been kicked off benefits, while poverty has increased. Before Clinton’s “welfare reform,” roughly 70 percent of impoverished families had access to a lifeline. But after reform, by 2016, only 23 percent did, and in some states that number was below 10 percent.
Meanwhile, the Reagan Revolution’s trade policy was wiping out the industrial base of America, while its tax policies were simultaneously moving trillions of dollars in wealth from middle-class families into the pockets of the top 1 percent.
The year Reagan was sworn in, we were the richest nation in the world, and other than a few wobbles during the Civil War and two World Wars, our national debt had been relatively steady in inflation-adjusted dollars since the administration of George Washington. We were the world’s largest creditor—more countries owed us money than any other nation on earth.
Today, after nearly 40 years of neoliberal Reaganomics, we are the world’s largest debtor nation, and our national debt nearly outweighs our annual GDP.
The year Reagan was sworn into office, the United States was the largest importer of raw materials in the world, and the world’s largest exporter of finished, manufactured goods. We brought in ores for manufacturing, and shipped out everything from TVs and computers to cars and clothing.
Today, things are totally reversed: We are now the world’s mining pit, the largest exporter of raw materials, and the world’s largest importer of finished, manufactured goods. We’ve gone from trade surpluses to trade deficits, a reflection of the fact that our factory floors had moved to Asia and Mexico.
In 1960, about one in four Americans worked in manufacturing, producing things of lasting wealth for our nation. Today, after jumping headfirst into one free-trade agreement after another, fewer than one in ten Americans work in manufacturing.
Between 2000 and 2017, 5.5 million manufacturing jobs have been lost. They didn’t disappear; they just moved to low-wage factories in foreign nations.
Ironically, Republican President Eisenhower (1952-1960) knew that Americans loved FDR’s New Deal, and continued FDR’s trade policies. He had, after all, grown up with them (he was born in 1890), and fought World War II as the Supreme Allied Commander of Europe under FDR and led the invasion at Normandy.
He told his brother Edgar in a 1954 letter, “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history.”
Eisenhower added, “There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are… Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or businessman from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”
But Clinton and the “moderate” DLC Democrats embraced becoming Eisenhower Republicans, even as Eisenhower would have repudiated their policies.
“CLINTON SWIPES THE GOP’S LYRICS” read the headline of a 1996 Washington Post column by E.J. Dionne, which opened with this prescient paragraph:
“‘The good news is that we may elect a Republican president this year,’ said Republican consultant Alex Castellanos. ‘The bad news is that it may be Bill Clinton.’”
The result was the beginning of the Great Uncoupling the Democratic Party experienced in the 1990s, with formerly Democratic-voting working-class and poor people going over to the GOP, a trend we saw continued with Trump’s election.
As Harry Truman once said, “The people don’t want a phony Democrat. If it’s a choice between a genuine Republican, and a Republican in Democratic clothing, the people will choose the genuine article, every time; that is, they will take a Republican before they will a phony Democrat…”
As jobs and economic issues became the exclusive provenance of what the media calls “far-left” politicians like Sherrod Brown and Bernie Sanders, and the leadership of the Democratic Party stayed with Reaganomics, working people generally failed to show up in large enough numbers to keep George W. Bush out of the White House.
But George W. Bush didn’t repudiate Reaganomics, so the working class continued to stagnate economically. Frustrated Americans decided to take another try with the Democrats.
This set up Senator Barack Obama, who promised “hope and change,” to beat John McCain’s “steady as she goes” approach to the presidency.
But, vague rhetoric aside, Obama’s “change” was largely a continuation of Clinton’s Eisenhower-like corporate- and billionaire-friendly DLC policies. He restored dignity and sanity to the presidency, but also pushed hard to expand NAFTA-like outsourcing policies by throwing several years of political capital into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was ultimately as unpopular among a majority of Americans as was NAFTA in 1992. And his support of organized labor was weak, at best.
Since 1981, not one American president has seriously challenged the neoliberal basis of Reaganomics. Billionaires and corporations now largely run our politics, to the point that average working people’s desires are about as likely to be made into law as random chance.
As a result, Pew found that only about half of Americans qualified as “middle class” by the beginning of the Obama presidency. “From 1971 to 2011, the share of adults in the middle class fell by 10 percentage points,” they noted.
With fewer than half of Americans qualifying as middle class by 2015, Pew concluded their study: “The hollowing of the middle has proceeded steadily for the past four decades.” Four decades earlier, of course, the Democratic Party began a course that culminated in Bill Clinton leading the party to turn its back on FDR and LBJ, and embrace Republican-lite economic and trade policies.
Like a partner whose cry was still unheard, America’s still-wounded working-class and newly poor voters decided to take another chance with a new Republican partner, this time a mobbed-up New York City real estate hustler and reality TV star who promised to reverse so-called “free trade” and “bring those jobs home.”
Donald Trump had reached back into the old Democratic playbook, picking up where LBJ (who maintained protective tariffs and brought us Medicare and Medicaid without a single Republican vote) had left off, promising to reinstate protectionist trade policies to bring factories back to America. He also promised to reinstate LBJ’s emphasis on the quality of life for working-class and poor people through a national health insurance plan that would be “better” than Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which was floundering after being gutted by the Supreme Court.
“We’re going to have insurance for everybody,” Trump told the Washington Post. “There was a philosophy in some circles that if you can’t pay for it, you don’t get it. That’s not going to happen with us.” Then-Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price added, on “Meet the Press,” that “nobody will be worse off financially” with the new Trumpcare plan. Trump tweeted that there would be “no cuts… to Medicaid” and said that “no one will lose coverage.”
And while Trump’s trade efforts have been ham-handed, his trade war with China is—outside of farming communities—still popular in the industrial heartland, particularly among current and former union workers.
His health care plan was a scam, making available on Obamacare exchanges formerly 90-day (now three-year) emergency “bridge plans” that could still cancel insurance for preexisting conditions. But with the media focused on Trump, horserace and scandal, virtually no Americans realize that the plans Trump pitched as new and cheaper are so dangerous.
Thus, working-class whites in the American Midwest and South, even those not in thrall to Trump’s pitch to white supremacists, are largely staying with him. Hope springs eternal, after all, and dies last. The Democratic Party is still locked out of the Senate, the Supreme Court, and the White House, even after two of the past four presidents who served for eight years each were Democrats.
Which brings us to how relationships heal and couples reunite, and how this could be applied to save the soul and electoral outcomes of the Democratic Party.
When the partner who had ignored the “cry” now hears it, there’s a very real chance that the relationship can be saved. Doing so requires two steps, both done with a lot of commitment and hard work.
First, change the offensive behavior.
Second, remember why you “fell in love” in the first place, and revisit those reasons, experiences, feelings, and activities that first brought you together.
Democrats know how to do both of these things, party leadership notwithstanding.
The Democratic Party had built a three-generation governing majority once in the past. All they need do today is reimplement Democratic policies from 1933 to 1979, updated for modern times.
Raise taxes on the rich, bring our factories home, expand the safety net, support GI Bill-style free education, and restore union rights. The party should know its history, after all, and should remember how well it was received by the American people.
Like a partner who wants to repair a wounded relationship, the Democrats must return to core principles and stay faithful to them. And we still have the template.
Today, the Democratic Party has two presidential nominees who carry the values and economic policies of FDR and LBJ, while embracing modern-day values of diversity and inclusion in ways neither party dared before this century. The Congressional Progressive Caucus is the second-largest Democratic caucus and the third largest in all of Congress.
If the Democratic Party follows its base and promotes progressive candidates and policies, it has a good chance of pulling America back from the brink of authoritarianism and oligarchy, and to restore our moral authority in the world. A return to big thinking and big goals like those of FDR and LBJ will put Democrats on a track to a second multigenerational governing majority.
If the party uses its convention and superdelegates (on a second vote) to choose another candidate committed to DLC (now Third Way) policies, get ready for either another four years of Donald Trump or a “moderate” one-term pause in the continuing deterioration of the middle-class American Dream.
Thom Hartmann is a former psychotherapist, SiriusXM talk-show host and the New York Times bestselling author of The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America and more than 25 other books in print. He is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute.
This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.