The Democratic Leadership Council was formed in the mid-1980s to cope with the problem that the Democrats went 1-4 in Presidential elections from 1968 to 1988. It was Southern in nature – Bill Clinton was its leader for the longest time – and it was focused squarely on what could be considered the New South Governor model. Almost every Southern state had one (except, tellingly, Alabama) – could be from either party, but was always some good-looking young white guy who tried to downplay the racial angles of Southern politics while coming across as broadly pro-business and hammering hard on the importance of education. Writ large, and looked at with 30 years of hindsight, it comes across as “we’re going to take care of you, traditional minorities, but we’re going to do it as quietly as we can so as not to scare the white folks – and when push comes to shove, we’re going to err on the side of not scaring the white folks.”
It was a clear-cut effort to be the lesser of two evils. And at a time when the Democrats still had a significant Southern component (lest we forget, Clinton won Georgia and West Virginia pretty handily in 1992), it was broadly feasible and tactically clever. But it had two major problems. For one, it perpetuated the idea that the “Reagan Democrat” – the working-class and usually Southern white voter – was the most to be desired and somehow counted more than female or black or Yankee voters, maybe because they thought those would always hold their nose and pull the Democratic lever. And for two, it staked everything on capturing a voter base that the Republicans had spent a quarter-century diligently working to pry away from the national level down. Once the Gingrich Revolution completed the capture of the South, the DLC strategy was shot straight to shit.
Flash forward twenty years and here we are. Things have changed again. In an age of political ennui and indifference and apathy, the biggest risk isn’t defection, it’s that your base will stay home. The GOP has relied on base activation almost exclusively in the 21st century, with tremendous results in mid-term elections every time out save one. The Democrats got incredibly lucky with Obama’s appeal to black and young voters, but at present, those blocs are split between two different primary candidates (and the enthusiastic youth are lining up behind arguably the less electable one). But the demographic component of the New South Governor strategy is of less interest to me than the economic one.
You see, the New South Governors were eager and anxious to create a “good bidness environment,” which meant tax cuts and economic incentives to get your auto plant to go to Smyrna or Spring Hill or Vance instead of Dearborn or Fort Wayne or Sandusky. It meant unbalancing your tax code with the result that somebody got socked with ridiculous income tax or property tax or sales tax to make up for the cuts (which is how a resident of Birmingham could wind up paying 9% sales tax on everything, food and medicine included, and a state income tax that started at $5000). It means, in essence, giving away the game and imitating the GOP so as to get the business angle off the table. And in the rush to be business friendly, the Democrats left a gap in their coverage. A fatal one, as it turns out, because that gap left just enough room for Ralph Nader to get some traction beating his drum. And now that drum has been picked up by Bernie Sanders, and he’s got rhythm, as it turns out.
Because despite the economic recovery, there are still huge gaps in the economy. Nothing has replaced the manufacturing sector as a source of good livelihood for high-school graduates without a college degree. And with the college degree as a necessary but not sufficient criterion for employment, lots of folks are out there on the starting line with tens of thousands of dollars in debt and taking jobs that a) barely service the debt and b) don’t actually need a college degree as anything more than a signifier of what a high school diploma used to stand for: some base level of education to float your resume over the transom. If a degree is so damned important, how do we get swamped with all these stories of people dropping out of school to create their whizzy tech thing?
Which is the other problem: having so many people start their professional life shackled to a debt greatly decreases the flexibility in what you can do. You can’t afford to take jobs that are important and do necessary work but don’t pay enough. (Honestly, I don’t know how the hell anyone becomes a teacher out of college anymore.) Couple people in debt to the new generation of app-enabled contractor service jobs, and you’ve not only invented an entire new class of day labor, you’ve let employers off the hook. Who needs to feel guilty about paying insufficient wages if they can always just go pick up a couple of days a week of driving Uber or doing Instacart deliveries? And then Uber slashes their rates, and Instacart slashes theirs, and you’re back to “well you can just hustle harder and make a living doing this full-time” and next thing you know, you’re on the 80-hours-a-week schedule.
Maybe this was easier in the shadow of the Great Depression and the Second World War. Maybe there was a time when demand was high, unions were strong, and management looked at the money and said “there’s enough to go around” instead of viewing every penny spent on labor as a penny that could have been profit. But we’ve had three substantial recessions since the last time “socialist” meant anything other than “I’m a right-winger in search of some way to slander anyone to the left of Ayn Rand” and no round of downsizing or offshoring or outsourcing has been meaningfully reversed. The clothing comes from Bangladesh instead of Russellville, the electronics are assembled in Shenzen instead of Fremont or Fort Worth, and you have the opportunity and flexibility of free agency instead of actual job security. The net impact of the last thirty years, the productivity revolution and globalization, has been to transform and expand the day labor class in America.
Could we even bring it back? Consider the iPhone in my pocket. Donald Trump thinks he can somehow make Apple make them in the United States, which, okay, let’s just take it as read that we can move an entire supply chain and manufacturing base that hasn’t existed in this country in over a decade. Sure. No problem. Even allowing for that particular impossibility, from how many companies has Apple taken a bite? Consider where I was in, say, 2000: I had a PDA (Palm), cellphone (Nokia), Walkman (Sony), pager (Motorola), camera (Kodak), plus a regular record store (Sam Goody). How many of those companies even exist any more? Everyone but Sony either got axquired or bankrupted, and none of them ever the ability to replace all the others. That’s not even a question of a new company replacing an old, that’s entire categories of consumer goods done away with at all but a superfluous level. Point-and-shoot cameras, cassette players, consumer pagers and PDAs – those are done. They aren’t coming back. It’s not enough that rust-belt heavy manufacturing has decamped elsewhere, the cutting-edge high-tech sector eats its own just as quickly.
And the other problem is that all those broke folk in the red states, whose good solid blue collar livelihoods have been drummed out of existence by the invisible hand of globalization – where do they get the things they need to get by? How about Wal-Mart? And how does Wal-Mart sustain those Everyday Low Prices? By ruthlessly slashing away at supplier contracts until the supplier has to resort to outsourcing and offshoring, and the circle of life continues – because we can’t charge enough for American-made goods to pay American workers a decent wage to make them, and in turn the workers can’t afford to buy American-made goods. Economic death spiral. If you want to blame somebody, miss me with Apple and instead ask what the hell they’ve been thinking in Bentonville these last couple of decades. And be grateful that government and unions still required some measure of made-in-America to keep up what manufacturing we still have in those sectors.
So there you have it. We turned the American Dream into a luxury good, and along the way one side spent years whipping up the oooga-booga at the foreigners and the gays and the MOOslims and such. And the folks whose world was slowly starting to crumble believed what they were told, and grew to buy into this “you’re entitled to your own facts” mentality. And right on time, here comes a prominent TV figure offering simple solutions, and he’s rich so he must be smart, and you get what we have now. Which is terrifying, but so so utterly predictable. And now…who knows.