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Why Democrats are losing ground

The Democratic Party is the oldest political party in the United States, born in 1828

with the election of Andrew Jackson and conceived out of the various splits within the

then-Whig and Democratic-Republican Parties. It was founded on a platform of weak

federal governance, strict constitutionalism and agrarian and business interests.

For decades it would be a party carried by Southern slave owners and conservative

Midwesterners and known for its staunch segregationist attitudes and laissez-faire

economic model. However, the Democratic Party has endured dramatic changes during

its tenure, transforming into the party of the New Deal and of the nation’s first President

of Color. This is also the party that is being dwarfed in every level of the legislature by

the Republican Party, with the Democratic Party holding less than 200 seats in the House

of Representatives and only holding a majority in 11 state legislatures. The reason the

party that is responsible for the majority of recent social progress is also the minority

party in government is a result of the most recent ideological realignment within the party

and how it aligns with the political beliefs of the American majority.

This problem of Democratic popularity is a relatively new one considering the party

reigned near supreme in Congress for the decades following the Second World War.

From 1956 until 1994, the Democratic Party had a majority in the House of

Representatives and until 1980, held one in the Senate as well. During the same time

period, the Democratic Party controlled a majority of the state legislatures and from 1970

until 1993, controlled a majority of governorships. The Democratic Party had political

domination for nearly half a century while the Republican Party struggled in opposition

through a combination of conservative Southern support and broad popularity. Southern

and Midwestern conservative Democrats, know as “Boo-Weevil Democrats”, struck

numerous legislative deals with Republican Presidents, such as Nixon and Regan, that

pushed legislative agendas forward but keep the Democratic Party in power. The second

aspect was the popularity the party enjoyed from a broad coalition of Northern and

Western Liberals, Midwestern and Southern working class, and most minority groups

across the country. Many congressional districts and geographical regions were reliably

Democratic not only for presidential elections, but congressional and state level as well.

This reliability would change with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which

began the major realignment of both the party and the Southern States. The

segregationist policies in the Democratic Party lead to a mass, but slow, exodus of

working-class white voters from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party over the

next few decades. This would result in the Democratic Party ending its long-running hold

on power when it lost control of the House of Representatives in 1994. While this marked

a turning point, the true modern defeat of the Democratic Party would come over a

decade later during the 2010-midterm elections when the Democratic Party lost 63 seats

in the House, six in the Senate and 690 state legislature seats. The Tea Party revolution

showed a real rejection of the Democratic Party in many parts of the country and shut the

party nearly completely from the legislative process. The party has struggled ever since

the defeat and currently only controls of 11 state legislatures, 18 governorships and only

188 seats in the House of Representatives.

While the exodus of white working-class voters from the South and Midwest is

partially to blame for the Democratic Party’s fall from prominence, it is not the sole

reason. Part of the reason also lies in the low, declining turnout rates for

traditionally Democratic demographics, especially during midterm elections. For

example, youth and Latino turnout was around 40 percent in the last presidential election while

turnout among older white voters was above 65 percent. This low turnout is dampened even

further by the current myriad of voter suppression tactics, which range from from new

voter I.D. laws to barring convicted criminals from voting. However, one of the least

discussed and most prominent of reasoning is the Democratic Party’s ideology and its

inability to connect with the American people.

This disconnect is a direct result of the current neoliberal ideological swing that has

taken hold within the Democratic Party. Neoliberalism first came to fruition under

President Clinton as an answer to the previous 12 years of conservative rule. It was a new

way of thinking that would truly bring the country into the 21st century by marrying

socially liberalness and fiscal conservatism. This “third-way” economic model touted the

benefits of capitalism and railed against obtrusive government regulation while making

real promises of rebuilding infrastructure and creating some form of universal healthcare.

However as Clinton’s presidency continued, it would become apparent that neoliberalism would be more of a continuation of past administrations than a departure.

Small liberal concessions would be made such as the Children’s Health Care Program

and the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, but these would be overshadowed by the

more conservative actions of his administration. Welfare-to-work programs, military

inventions in Serbia and the 1994 Crime Bill, all actions supported by an extremely

conservative Congress, would come to define Clinton’s presidency and dramatically

shape the United States.

This ideology of neoliberalism would continue under later administrations in some

form and reign supreme in the ideology of both parties until the Tea Party insurgency in

2010. This midterm election saw a dramatic shift where the majority of the Republican

base, and many of its legislative members, rejected the neoliberal consensus and

accepted a dangerous form of conservative nationalism. While this ideology has won the

party legislative seats, it’s no more a tool to excite a radical base and alienate moderate

factions. While Republican turnout increased in 15 states during the last election,

Republican registration among voters is still only 23 percent, which is dwarfed by the

Democrats' 32 percent. However, the Democrats refusal to shake off the neoliberalism has also

cost them with the highest percentage of Americans being registered not as Democrats

but as Independents. Thirty nine percent of Americans are currently registered as independents and the

trend has been on a steady increase since the 1990’s and the Democrats adoption of neo

liberal policies. Democratic turnout is suffering, with only two states (Louisiana and

Iowa) showing a 0.5 percent increase and four others (New York, Utah, Washington D.C. and Illinois), all

showing a decrease by more than 5 percent.

Neoliberalism lies at the crux of the Democratic Party’s problem with gaining

legislative seats. In 2012, 93 million eligible voters did not vote, which means more

people didn’t vote than voted for either candidate and these numbers become even more

dismal when you look at the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections. This is because most

voters agree with proposals such as the legalization of marijuana, same-sex marriage, and

are pro-choice but also oppose foreign military interventions, support upper-income

individuals paying higher taxes, and oppose free trade deals such as NAFTA and the

TPP. These millions of voters are all potential Democratic voters because these are the

values the Democratic claims to have every four years. Each presidential election, the

Democratic Platform isn’t based in neoliberalism, but in true liberal values of social

inclusion and progressive economics. When elected, however, Democratic politicians tend

to revert back to neoliberalism and carry out actions such as the lackluster Dodd-Frank

financial reform package, the DEA's refusal to reclassify marijuana and the expansion of

drone warfare in Yemen and Pakistan. Once elected, the Democratic politicians resort back

to these extremely problematic polices and cease to be the party of liberal values they

claim to be.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be. Insurgent campaigns, such as that of Bernie

Sanders, have shown there is a true willingness to truly adhere to the values the party

claims to hold so dear. If the party did so, it would not only secure future Presidential

elections but also mount an impressive offensive to retake the majority of legislative seats

on both a state and federal level. The answer to this period of Republican domination

doesn’t lie in strategy but in dogma. The Democratic Party needs to be more than an

alternative to the Republican message, they need to become a living-breathing

embodiment of the liberal values they claim to have.

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