Parties Search for a Theme

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One of the most valuable gifts Donald Trump has given the Democratic Party is a postponement of the need to define itself. Right now it looks like running as the anti-Trump is an adequate winning strategy.

And today’s fuzzy Democratic definition is less disturbing than the ideological anarchy within the GOP. But there will be a day of reckoning. Tom Edsall and his academic sources make a strong case that today’s Democratic Party is an uneasy alliance between the intellectual-economic elite at the top and marginalized groups toward the bottom with a shared affinity for identity politics.

The Democratic Convention in Philadelphia, facing a low bar to seem more united than the Republicans, managed to talk the talk about love, unity, collaboration and cooperation. But the walk often involved a roll call of the tribes that share the American village.

President Bill Clinton and his Democratic Leadership Council colleagues once argued successfully for a compact that said anyone who obeyed the rules would be guaranteed a comfortable life. A crucial rule was college graduation. If you had a degree, he argued, you’d do okay. If you had the ambition and gumption to get a degree, the government would help you pay for it. Non-college graduates were warned that there might be hard times ahead. And things would be worse for the declining minority who failed to graduate from high school.

That was consistent with America’s insatiable appetite for education and both high school and college education rates rose steadily for decades. But it turns out that theory isn’t performing as promised.

We’re encountering several unintended and dismaying consequences. Some were spawned by The Great Recession, which reversed a series of positive trends. There’s a tendency of employers to increase education requirements for jobs requiring only modest skills as a screening device, a massive increase in the number of college graduates with loan repayment obligations and a decline in the college-education premium resulting from the creation of a much larger pool. There’s also a belated realization that training more non-college-educated plumbers and electricians would be helpful.

At a time when college students actually need more income, some are offered less.

Things were made murkier by criticisms of the quality of education, arguing that today’s college graduates knew were no more and were no more skilled than high school graduates of a few decades ago and thus simply didn’t know enough to earn enough in today’s environment. Illiteracy remains an impediment to earning an adequate income irrespective of how many diplomas you’ve won.

Neither American political party has offered a compelling replacement to Bill Clinton’s plan. Among the Democrats, there are those who argue that a guaranteed income is the answer because automation is shrinking the supply of well-compensated jobs and those who argue that there would be ample work and income for all of us if the moguls (aka the 1%) were taxed more aggressively.

Within the Republican Party, the traditionalists focus on taxes (if you lower the ratesenough the economy will grow by 5% a year and there will be plenty for all) and the neo-mercantilists who advocate a retreat from international trade.

For the moment, neither party has a compelling case and there’s clearly a substantial population who are economically treading water at best and thus up for grabs. Crafting an appropriate response will be the major challenge for those who seek to succeed President Hillary Clinton.


For 16 years, Jim Jaffe worked for House Democrats who served on the Ways and Means Committee, apprenticing with Representatives Green, Gibbons and Gephardt before working for Chairman Dan Rostenkowski.


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  • Jonathan

    Very interesting, as always. Michael Lind did a piece for the Atlantic in which he argued that the Dems would become (even more) the party of the coasts, the highly-educated, pro-free trade, and minorities, with Hispanics up for grabs in the future. The high income Dems would be open to higher taxes for means-tested programs on fairness grounds. The Repubs would become the home to union workers, less educated, culturally conservative, anti-trade voters in the middle of the country. In my view, the Dems face a far easier task than the Republicans. The Republicans are faced with a situation in which a very significant number of their base voters reject their fundamental tenets. I believe, perhaps too optimistically, that Dems can pick up a lot of these voters with MORE government programs. As Barney Frank has said, these voters are not against gov’t — they just think it hasn’t done enough to help people like them.