Party Like It’s 1994

The Democratic Party never learned the lessons of 1994. It’s long past time they did.

November 9, 1994: the day after election day, I was on the phone with my terrified mother. She was terrified because, the night before, the Democratic Party, an institution into which she and I had placed so much hope and faith, had just received an epic ass kicking from the GOP. In one night they lost 9 seats in the Senate and 54 in the House, giving the Republican Party control of both houses of congress. Even the sitting Speaker of the House, Tom Foley, was not immune-his thirty year Congressional career came to an end that day as he lost reelection. And, of course, Newt Gingrich became Speaker.

The Democratic Party has had few days worse then that Tuesday in November. I’m sure you can think of at least one.

The GOP, with its newfound power, did two things that the Democratic party has never been able to effectively counter.

First, they convinced the Democratic party that the GOP victory represented a wholesale repudiation of the Democratic party in general and the Clinton administration in particular. It really didn’t — in terms of the winning margin of votes, it was rather small, driven by low turnout and post-1990 census redistricting — but the GOP nevertheless claimed it as a mandate for their preferred policies.

The GOP does this again and again, every time they win, regardless of the circumstances or margin. They did it in 2000, when Bush won by a handful of votes in Flordia; they did it in 2004, when Bush won re-election, also by a very narrow margin; in 2010, when the Tea Party and their corporate backers took advantage of a slowly recovering economy and low-turnout election to a 1994 style victory, and they’re doing it again now, in 2016.

The Democratic Party doesn’t really do this as well. Only with the largest victories do Democrats even attempt to claim a mandate. Moreover, the Democratic Party’s usually misplaced faith in the political appeal of bipartisanship leads them to negotiate with Republicans even when they’re soundly beaten — witness the Obama administrations’ fruitless courtship of Susan Collins and Chuck Grassley (among others) on the Affordable Care Act.

The second major thing the GOP started to do in 1994 (and still does today) GOP started to change the playing field to their advantage, in order to lock in their gains and support permanent majorities. They changed the rules of the game to make it easier to win fight after fight.

In 1995 Congress closed its Office of Technology Assessment, whose job was to provide Congress with unbiased scientific information. They passed the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, which endeared them to big corporations by making it harder for them to be sued, and de-funded plantiffs’ lawyers (who disproportionately give money to the Democrats) by reducing their income. In later years they would aggressively redistrict states they controlled to favor Republican candidates, locking in still more gains. Their ongoing attempts to steal people’s right to vote, by imposing voter ID requirements, reducing early voting hours, and closing voting locations are all intended to make it harder for Democrats to vote and likely played a role in Hillary Clinton’s defeat last month.

The GOP has shown itself to be, over the past few decades, utterly certain about its goals and completely ruthless about achieving them. These convictions of goals and means have enabled them to run roughshod over the Democratic party time and time again, despite the GOP’s combination of gross mismanagement and demographic disadvantages. The Democratic party has never had an effective answer to this onslaught. They desperately need one now.

(You can argue over and over again whether or not the Democratic party is progressive. Personally, I believe that sometimes they are, and sometimes they aren’t; but, for the foreseeable future, the Democratic Party is the only realistic option to get progressive legislators in office and progressive policies into law. If the Greens or another leftist party starts winning some elections, I’ll revisit this, but for now, it’s the Dems halfhearted progressivism or the GOP’s kleptocratic conservatism. That’s it.)

In order for the Democratic Party to start winning again, and more importantly, to capitalize on those wins when they happen, is (at least) three things.

First, they need to be as utterly ruthless in their pursuit of power and their wielding of it when they have it. Too often the Democratic party treats politics like a game, played by Marquess de Queensbury Rules. A recent example was when, this October past, a North Carolina GOP office was vandalized, some progressives raised thousands of dollars to fix it. They raised money for the GOP in the middle of tight races for President and Governor, and despite the NC GOP’s fierce attempts to steal the franchise from hundreds of thousands of North Carolina voters and to humiliate and endanger transgender people with their discriminatory bathroom bill. This obsessive bipartisan comity has to stop. If it ever was a game, it sure isn’t now. People are being hurt out there; the Democratic Party needs to be on their side, not the side of those hurting them.

The Republicans are different: they know it’s not a game. They play to win. If a Democratic office were attacked, the GOP would likely blame the victims, bank their advantages, and move on. It’s not the only reason they win, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. And once the GOP wins, regardless of how, they govern like they have a mandate, and change the rules to help them win again.

The second thing the Democratic Party needs to start doing to gain and maintain power is to work the refs, by which I mean the media. Right now mainstream media in the U.S. is center-right. Most media outlets today are part of large corporate conglomerates, which are inherently conservative themselves. Moreover, even those outlets that aren’t nakedly partisan compete for viewers from nakedly partisan outlets like Fox News, so they lean conservative to keep those viewers. Finally, the GOP has been attacking the so-called “liberal media” so effectively for so long that the media outlets themselves tilt conservative in order to blunt those attacks. The media isn’t fair to the Democratic Party, because the GOP and its supporters has spent decades making them unfair.

The Democratic Party needs to fix this, and quickly. The Democratic Party and its affiliates need to identify outlets, journalists, stations, and networks pushing false or biased stories and punish them. This means not granting interviews to biased outlets, excluding their reporters from press pools, and staying off biased shows.

I’m not talking about censorship. Media outlets that publish negative, but otherwise true and unbiased stories, shouldn’t get this treatment. But when outlets like Fox News and CNN should have resulted in fierce and lasting consequences from the Democratic Party.

As you may know, shortly after his ‘firing,’ CNN hired Corey Leandowski, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager. They hired him even though Leandowski was still getting severance payments from the Trump campaign to the tune of $20,000 per month. They gave this Trump operative air time to criticize Clinton and praise Trump, and they even paid him to do it.

Once CNN hired Leandowski, the Democratic Party should have cut them off completely. They should have thrown CNN reporters and camera crews out of the press pools, stopped all official Democratic participation on their shows, and fiercely denounced their transformation into an organ of the Trump campaign, and they should have kept this up at least until Leandowski was fired. But they didn’t, Leandowski got paid, and the Trump campaign got free airtime on CNN. Good job all around.

Third, once the Democratic Party gets in power (and I certainly hope they do, fingers crossed) they need to rapidly change the institutional structure to lock in their gains and make it easier to win again and again and again. They can do this by passing broad voter access laws, to fight the GOP’s rampant vote theft; encouraging unionization (via card check legislation and others), increasing marginal tax rates on high incomes, and abolishing subsidies for industries that primarily fund Republicans (like oil and gas).

If the Trump Administration and the GOP are able to do the things they say they want to, millions will suffer, even die, needlessly. They will gut healthcare for seniors and the poor, strip industries of regulations that protect our air, water, and their own workers, and wreck the global economy. We know this because they’ve done it before. We know this because this is what they say they will do now.

We need a Democratic Party strong enough to win elections and ruthless enough to stop this. Right now we don’t have one. We needed one in 2016.

I’m hope we’re luckier in 2017.

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