Why are Democrats losing ground?
A history lesson
A few nights ago in Springfield, after enjoying dinner at our favorite Old Capitol Plaza restaurant, I came across an illuminating discovery – an old friend. Next door to our restaurant is a bookstore well known by Springfield-area residents and visiting bibliophiles. After closing, management leaves two folding tables filled with books outside for purchase. Payment is placed in a letterbox.
That night I found a copy of Theodore H. White’s Kennedy campaign classic: The Making of the President 1960. Its near-perfect 1964 jacket invited my opening. White begins: “It was invisible, as always.”
A few lines later, “All of this is invisible, for it is the essence of the act that as it happens it is a mystery in which millions of people each fit one fragment of a total secret together, none of them knowing the shape of the whole.”
This year voters enter another election cycle. Perhaps not as inspirational as 1960’s, or as transformative as 2016’s presidential races, but the 2018 contests may disclose whether either party learned anything since voters selected America’s most unfavorable presidential candidate in history – Donald Trump.
Even today, “The Donald’s” election remains a mystery.
It’s a mystery because the Democratic Party’s political elite wasted months struggling, obfuscating, deflecting, blaming others – even the Russians – for the nearly 40-year collapse of America’s “People’s Party” into political oblivion. The result is this disagreeable greeting: “Hello, President Trump.”
Did the Russians really do it? Perhaps instead, Trump’s election was an unwelcome slap to the establishment’s face delivered by Rust Belt voters, as CNN Exit Polling reveals. I am confident it is the latter.
The Democratic Party failed in 2016, not only by nominating the party’s most unfavorable presidential candidate in history, but by making unfulfilled promises over many years. An accumulation of bad karma left in the wrong places. A residual disdain for bicoastal elites residing in formally Democratic Rust Belt states.
One too many promises, such as Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign theme, “It’s the economy, stupid,” followed by 1996’s “Building a Bridge to the 21st Century.” Soon into the 21st century, voters crossed Clinton’s bridge built by deregulating the financial industry and unleashing economic and trade policies that destroyed trillions in homeowner wealth and a third of America’s manufacturing employment.
One too many promises, such as Obama’s “Change we can believe in,” then finding out the “change” was a dysfunctional Republican-inspired health care scheme, bound with an underfunded economic stimulus leading to the slowest economic recovery since WWII. Obama’s dubious “change” legislation required all-Democratic-member roll calls, giving the Republicans wedge issues to collapse the Democratic House majorities into minorities in 2010.
In 1980 presidential candidate Ronald Reagan famously asked: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” In 2018, Democrats should ask themselves: “Are Democrats better off than we were 40 years ago?” If not, then why not?
The answer begins a long time ago, in the late 1970s, when after the 1976 election Democrats enjoyed a 292-member “veto-proof” Congress. Today, Democrats have 194 members. Between 1930 and 1994, Democrats held House majorities in 60 of 64 years. Since 1994, Democrats enjoyed House majorities in only four of the next 24 years.
What happened? There were turning points along the way. A key turning point was the 1982 off-year congressional election. As today, Democrats were expecting to rout Republicans, but instead, picked up only 26 House seats, after losing 49 seats since the 1976 election. The Senate remained unchanged with 54 Republicans to 46 Democrats.
Downstate Illinois played a key role in the 1982 Democratic efforts, as Republican incumbents lost elections to young Democratic opponents. Springfield-area Congressman Paul Findley, R-Pittsfield, lost to establishment Democratic candidate Dick Durbin by 1,410 votes. Progressive Democrat Lane Evans picked up a seat held by Rock Island Congressman Tom Railsback by 10,136 votes. And a young attorney from Peoria, Doug Stephens, narrowly lost to the incumbent and Republican House Leader, Congressman Bob Michel.
Why have Democrats lost momentum and membership? Why have they not returned to even their 1982 majorities? Unraveling that mystery may have lessons for 2018. Here’s a clue: Promises not kept.
Bill Edley of Springfield is a 36-year Democratic Party activist, former Illinois Democratic state representative, Illinois Democratic National Convention delegate and Bernie 2016 field organizer. He earned a master’s degree in economic history from the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2012. Contact him at BillEdley@gmail.com.