What exactly is the constituency of the Democratic Party?

Joe Conason has a piece at Salon repeating a piece of conventional wisdom that has been floating around since the 2008 election: even if Democrats suffer losses in the upcoming elections, unstoppable demographic trends (the rise of the ‘minority majority’ nation and the growth of the college-educated workforce) will ensure that Democrats have significant successes over the next twenty years.  The continuing decline of the percentage of the country that is white, Christian, and lacks a college education will doom the Republicans- whatever their short-term gains- to demographic irrelevancy as a regional party representing portions of the rural South and Midwest.

This line of reasoning takes for granted that demographic categories that currently favor Democrats over Republicans- such as Hispanic/Latino voters, African-Americans, and Asians- will continue to vote for Democrats.  Conason points out that failures to achieve Democratic goals over the next couple years could threaten the party’s mid-term dominance, but the argument seems to assume that if Democratic legislators can pass the legislation that they want, voters that are currently voting Democrat will continue to do so.  But is their hold on their voters as strong as the pundits think?

Factors other than failure to deliver legislation may hold a much greater threat for the long-term health of the Democratic party.  Performance problems- be they the result of a leadership gap or the narrow majority in Congress- are temporary.  If Democrats take for granted the support of their current constituents and pass legislation that fails to reflect the real goals and views of voters, much more serious problems could be in the offing.

When you look at the legislation that Congress has passed- and at the regulatory and procedural changes that the Obama administration has applied- you can’t find a lot of victories that Democratic voters are really happy about.  Beyond minor changes to some regulations for credit card companies and the proposed (but still as-yet unimplemented) end to Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell, there is very little in the catalog of Democratic achievements that could really be labelled progressive or liberal.  The underlying agreement that everyone should be able to participate in the healthcare system counts as a win for the healthcare bill, but the actual details and funding of the legislation as it was passed are such a mess that little beyond that seems certain right now.  Progress on Afghanistan and Iraq remains fleeting, and changes to U.S. policies on interrogation, detention, and executive power are largely yet to materialize.

Some would say this represents necessary compromise, and they have a point- the Democratic margins in Congress continue to be razor-thin, and the Republican party remains dedicated to a policy of blanket obstruction.  In many cases, however, Democratic legislators have begun the discussion by taking a position that is well to the right of where many of their voters stand.

Healthcare reform is a great example; the healthcare debate didn’t start with a left-wing solution and move right, it started with something that looked from the beginning more like a Republican policy, and then stayed there.  The public option was never a serious contender, nor single payer, or a national health service- all policies that enjoy broader support on the left than the bizarre, corporate-focused, questionably funded proposal that we actually passed.

Who was the constituency for the healthcare bill as it was passed?  The outcry- bordering on hysteria- from conservative quarters leaves little doubt to their feelings on the matter.  Meanwhile on the left, virtually every option considered and rejected by Congress enjoyed wider support than the bill that was actually passed.  Polling showed significant support for a public insurance option, as well as single-payer, Canadian-type solutions- two options that really never made it out of the Democratic starting gate.  Meanwhile, the bill that was passed seems to entail a massive filtering of public funds through the hands of private, for-profit insurers.  Policy options popular with Democratic constituents were abandoned left and right in pursuit of ‘consensus’- and yet the final product attracted no meaningful support from the right, and required procedural gerrymandering to clear the legislature.  Liberal supporters are left to wonder what was gained in exchange for the positions that were abandoned.

Currently, the Democrats assume that educated professionals, ethnic minorities, and gays will continue to regard them as the lesser of two evils when it comes to policy- imperfect, but better than the Republicans.  But such a position can’t last- and can’t provide a basis for building a meaningful long-term electoral majority.  At best, it results in voters see-sawing between the two major parties; at worst, it gives other parties the opportunity to permanently capture supposedly ‘safe’ Democratic voters.

Voters frustrated with Bush’s take on human rights, “enemy combatants”, and other executive power overreaches overwhelmingly voted for Obama.  Obama, as Glenn Greenwald, The Daily Show, and others have pointed out, has stepped back from very few of these policies in any meaningful way.  How long before voters like these vent their frustration, either in the form of actual defection or voter apathy?

If the Democrats fail to pay attention to these dissatisfied constituents, moves by either the GOP or another party could threaten their predicted demographic gains.

First, neither political party has a platform that is written in stone.  Movement by the Republicans to steal the center from the Democrats on some of these issues could move current Democratic voters to the other side of the aisle.  For example, stealing a page from Richard Nixon’s play book by using their ongoing, inexplicable credibility as the party that is better on issues of national security to make significant changes in our policy in Afghanistan and Iraq- painting it either as neo-isolationist disengagement or “Vietnamization”- could siphon away war-motivated voters from the Dems.

Minorities already often vote with Republicans on social issues, as they are more religious as a group than other Democratic voters.  Minor republican adjustments on immigration and a more skillful handling of racial issues could see significant numbers of black and Latino voters aligning with the GOP because of social issues that Democrats continue to struggle to address.  Democrats continue to proffer ham fisted, tongue-tied answers to questions about abortion, gay rights, and other hot-button topics where Republicans make hay.  If they don’t improve their handling of these issues, they could well see minority voters departing the Democratic fold.

Likewise, the emergence of a significant left-wing third party challenge could easily cost Democrats the votes of many educated liberals.   If the Democrats take a drubbing in the midterm and 2012 elections without delivering significant progress to report to their parties left wing, the desire to punish the Democrats for capitulating could outweigh the memory of Nader’s deleterious effect on the 2000 election.  Voting for a third party is often seen in the U.S. as throwing away a vote- but voters who feel that they get no return for their vote may be willing to throw it away in protest, or chose to avoid the polls altogether.

Democrats need to seriously consider the policy constituency that the represent and lay out an agenda for the next 10-20 years that keeps those constituents engaged.  That may mean, in the near term, that some voting demographics move towards the GOP.  Not setting a real legislative and longer term policy agenda risks losing everyone to multiple  forces of attrition.  Are they actually liberal, or just Republican-light?  Really committed to reforming corporate influence and the abuses in the financial sector, or just committed to the sound bite?  Are they willing to firmly defend gay rights and abortion rights as an important aspect of individual liberty, or do they want to continue to make attempts to woo pulpit-driven voters?  Are they willing to brave the ‘tax and spend’ catcalls of the Republicans to set realistic tax revenue and enforcement goals?

If the Democrats are going to be a force to reckoned with in the future, they can’t just count on every constituency that votes for them right now and hope to ride the demographic wave off into the sunset.

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