Where Have All the Democrats Gone?
By John Judis and Ruy Teixeira
Henry Holt, 336 pages, $28.99
Ours Was the Shining Future: The Story of the American Dream
By David Leonhardt
Random House, 528 pages, $32
A couple of years ago, Bruce Springsteen starred in “The Middle,” a Super Bowl commercial that doubled as a sentimental PSA for the preservation of a dying breed—the political moderate. In it, the Jersey crooner drives to a wind-beaten chapel in Lebanon, Kan., near the geographic center of the United States, a handy visual metaphor for his middle-of-the-road political philosophy. The two-minute spot mythologized the rootsy, hardscrabble wisdom of the rural Midwest and called for us all to find the dignified halfway point “between red and blue,” preferably while sitting in a Jeep Wrangler (it was a Jeep ad, after all).
The commercial was like a love letter to Springsteen’s podcast partner, Barack Obama, whose political approach at times felt like an attempt to plot every single issue and policy on an imaginary spectrum between left and right and then take aim for the dead center.
What the commercial left out was the stark reality of Lebanon, Kan. There isn’t much there anymore. It’s a dying farm town whose population has dropped by 60 percent since the 1980s. In 2006, The New York Times featured Lebanon in a story about the “doom loop” of rural flight. Nor is the surrounding Smith County exceptionally keen on Obama-style centrism; 4 of 5 voters cast a ballot for Donald Trump in 2020.
Sorry, Boss, but Lebanon’s fall wasn’t precipitated by partisan discord, but the opposite: a generational neoliberal consensus between the center left and center right that shaped the presidencies of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, the Bushes, Bill Clinton, and Obama. Their legacy includes globalization, deregulation, and a shrinking safety net for the working class, paired with tax-cutting welfare for the rich. Returning to that kind of Third Way centrism—Milton Friedman economics plus cultural progressivism—seems about as appealing as a Rangers-Diamondbacks World Series.
Is it possible, however, to imagine a bizarro-world version of the center, one that successfully blends social conservatism—or, perhaps more plausibly, moderation on culture-war issues—with economic progressivism? That’s the provocative question raised by two worthwhile new books: Where Have All The Democrats Gone?, by longtime writer duo John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, and Ours Was the Shining Future: The Story of the American Dream, by New York Times journalist David Leonhardt.
The Judis-Teixeira book reads like a classic polemic, while Leonhardt’s is more reportorial. Yet the two arrive at similar conclusions. Both hold up midcentury America—the New Deal order that spanned roughly from the 1930s through the ’60s—as the zenith of the modern nation-state. Both look with jaundiced eyes at a 21st-century America plagued by institutional decline, stagnant real wages, low social trust, rising crime, and grotesque inequality—all while Congress barely functions and media of all stripes fight pitched battles over the skin color of Snow White’s seven dwarves. Now what?
Well, in an age of endless remakes, there are rising calls for a reboot of the New Deal order and the restoration of—for lack of a better term—the “vital center” trumpeted by the likes of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., with its powerful labor unions, can-do reformers like Robert F. Kennedy, and cowed business elites.
“New Deal liberals were liberal, progressive, and social democratic in their economic views, dedicated to creating a better balance of power between labor and business and security against poverty, unemployment, disease, and old age,” write Judis and Teixeira. “But by today’s standards, the New Deal Democrats were moderate and even small-c conservative in their social outlook.” They presented themselves as defenders of “the forgotten American” and his humble values over and against “the merchant and banking class of Northeastern Protestants.”
For Judis and Teixeira, Where Have All The Democrats Gone? functions in part as a corrective to their best-known collaboration, The Emerging Democratic Majority, published two decades ago. Back then, the authors tried to counter the liberal despondency of the George W. Bush era by projecting that America’s changing demographics would cement Democratic primacy for the foreseeable future: the more people of color, the better the outlook for Team Blue.
“If these voters remain solidly Democratic,” Judis and Teixeira speculated back then, “they will constitute a formidable advantage for any Democratic candidate. Democrats could suffer from an embarrassment of political riches.” Democrats and liberal media took this as holy prophecy, and lo, Obama was elected in 2008. A Time cover the following year depicted an elephant below the headline “Endangered Species,” as if Judis and Teixeira’s prediction had already come true.
The pair now conclude that they were wrong, mainly because the Democrats lost touch with their base and embraced a politics that more resembles an elite lifestyle brand than a project of working- and middle-class uplift. Under this dispensation, progressives barely lifted a finger for economic issues. Instead, they too often appeared maniacally obsessed with finding new things to “abolish”: borders, police, jails, gender, and even the nuclear family. Their Green New Deal had promise, but the party substituted the NGO archipelago for the working class, and the program predictably failed to garner popular support. A growing share of ordinary working Americans—including people of color—are rejecting the mores of what Judis and Teixeira call the Democrats’ “shadow party” of certain sectors of the urban professional-managerial class.
“Shadow party” is a blanket term Judis and Teixeira employ to describe the various power brokers and interest groups that in recent decades supplanted the traditional base of voters that once buttressed both the Democratic and Republican parties. For the Dems, the institutions that helped anchor the party to the concerns of normies in the New Deal era are dead or weakened: urban political machines, organized religion, and the labor movement. What has replaced them is the nonprofit-industrial complex, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, corporate media, and narrow single-issue interest groups. The GOP’s shadow party, meanwhile, is composed of conservative media, aging billionaires, and sundry think tanks with “America,” “Freedom,” or “Family” in their names.
These shadow parties “subsist within their own closed universes of discourse,” Judis and Teixeira explain, with each “using the extremes of the other to deflect criticism of their own radicalism.” These closed universes exist primarily in cyberspace, which means they are increasingly detached from reality; always feeding off each other for energy, a perfect ouroboros of debate. If the online left obsesses over a delusional future of “fully automated luxury communism,” then the e-right must demand the opposite: a “RETVRN” to ancient Rome. The right calls for a white-skinned Christian theocracy? Then the left must stand up for a drag show in every classroom.
Against this backdrop, it isn’t crazy to wonder if, instead of seeking new models, Americans should travel back in time and bring back FDR, metaphorically speaking. That is Judis’s and Teixeira’s idea, anyway. Reviving the nation, they argue, is the task of a muscular American-flag-waving Democratic Party whose values more closely reflect that of ordinary working people, the New Silent Majority. It’s time, in other words, to ditch the shadow party and the social-media screechers.
“The Democratic Party has had its greatest success when it sought to represent the common man and woman against the rich and powerful, the people against the elite, and the plebeians against the patricians,” they write. “Most voters do not agree with the party’s cultural radicals, and as long as the party is identified with them, it will not win the majorities it needs in order to enact its liberal economic agenda.”
One great virtue of Where Have All The Democrats Gone? is that Judis and Teixeira, though progressives, aren’t afraid to jab at their own side for its complicity in the sordid state of the union. And the same could be said for Leonhardt in Ours Was the Shining Future, though one wishes he’d punch a little harder: In his prescriptive sections, he too often apologizes for capitalism, making a false distinction between the “rough and tumble” kind (bad) and the “democratic” kind (good)—when the mechanisms the government imposes from the top to make the system fairer and more democratic are the ones that go against capitalism’s very nature.
Even so, Ours Was the Shining Future lays out an impressively detailed narrative explaining how we got to the current moment. As the story goes, out of the ashes of the Gilded Age and Great Depression came a miracle of both Democratic and (little-d) democratic governance, in which the grassroots labor and social-justice movements, middle-class progressives, and center-left politicians eager to prove American governance superior to fascism and communism, teamed up to tame corporate Republicans and the robber barons. They ushered in decades of relative economic prosperity, equality, and working-class power, albeit with some massive caveats (above all, the racial-justice gap).
The GOP, which had evolved from the Party of Lincoln to the Party of Monopolists, had to either sit on the sidelines or play ball with the empowered Democrats. Many New Deal-era Republicans chose the path of cooperation. Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon weren’t so bad if you look back at their policy record, with both presidents expanding the logic of the New Deal in new and useful directions.
By the same token, the progressive movements of the New Deal era were far better than subsequent iterations. Unlike the New Left radicals of the 1960s and their contemporary heirs, as Leonhardt notes, under the New Deal order, the leaders of the labor and civil-rights movements staked their claims with the American flag—not in opposition to it. “All of America’s great reform movements, from the crusade against slavery onward,” noted labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein, “have defined themselves as champions of a moral and patriotic nationalism, which they counterpoised to the parochial and selfish elites who stood athwart their vision of a virtuous society.”
If all of this sounds suspiciously close to a blue-hat version of MAGA, it’s because, well, it kind of is. But the red-hat version was never tied to a coherent political vision, perhaps intentionally so—the right’s version of “good vibes only.” Blue MAGA’s program would emulate what Leonhardt labels “populist nationalism.” As he writes, “social and cultural conservatism can be paired with government intervention in the economy to lift mass living standards.”
What we are talking about, in other words, is not the “centrism” practiced by the Clinton and Obama machines since the 1990s. Obama consigliere Rahm Emanuel was neoliberalism’s Machiavelli over that period, perfecting a cynical “just win, baby” philosophy of politics that meant making Wall Street, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley cash rain on the Democrats while cynically framing their opponent as monstrous, even as they governed only slightly to the left of said monstrous opponents.
Blue MAGA would rather look wistfully back at a very specific kind of Democrat: Leonhardt profiles Robert Kennedy, civil-rights leader A. Philip Randolph, and former United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther. In other words, your dad’s Democratic Party is—or should be—dead. Long live Grandpa’s.
America’s reigning gramps, Joe Biden, is no FDR. But if anything, Bidenism is a lurch at building Bernie Sanders-style social democracy and New Deal-lite—an attempt to revitalize the domestic industrial base and the welfare state. It’s not saying much, but Scranton Joe is the best president of my lifetime and would no doubt be more successful if we somehow reverted to the media platforms of a century ago (he’s cringe on TV).
Luckily, it isn’t as if Biden is the last man standing in this tradition. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a former Bernie Bro himself, has articulated a platform that attempts to reverse the effects of the neoliberal regime of the last two generations. “A new economic patriotism,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs last year, “calls for a globalization rooted in the interests of ordinary Americans, not the unrestricted version that has shredded the United States’ economic and social fabric over the past four decades.”
Whether some fresh political force resembling the “vital center” is possible or sustainable in the 2020s is still an open question. The historic conditions and institutions that the New Deal coalition coalesced around don’t exist anymore or are in poor shape. Much political energy remains centered on the shadow party’s culture war of woke versus anti-woke, not the class-based confrontations of old. The technology-fueled isolation and fragmentation of American society don’t bode well for Building Back Better. Bidenism is as fragile as the man himself, who is limping toward a possible re-election.
Still, no other alternative looks all that appealing at the moment. Right-wing populism depends on and is limited by Donald Trump. It increasingly feels like an exhausted force. The former Sanders coalition is likewise in disarray, especially since the start of the Israel-Gaza war. It appears that we are in a time of interregnum in American politics. Yet interregnums can be productive for reformers.
Consider that in April of 2016, Baffler founder Thomas Frank wrote his own version of a wake-up call for the return of the old Democratic Party. But few progressives listened to Listen Liberal: Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People? because most were only in Month Four of screaming about Trump. The fact that seven years later, a liberal journalist as prominent as Leonhardt is making nearly the same arguments as Frank bodes well for a new New Deal.