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Why Democrats Lost: It's Not All About Millennials

letsgetitdone's picture

Carl Gibson, a writer blogging at Reader Supported News, provides an "Open Letter to the Democrats" giving his view of why they lost the Congressional Elections of 2014. He endorses the President's view that people didn't show up to vote because their choice of politicians didn't motivate them. And to this view he adds that the Democrats did not get his generation's support because they didn't “. . . get populist.” And he goes on to say:

2014’s low voter turnout was historic. Voter turnout actually hasn’t been this low since the 1940s. As Mother Jones pointed out, voter turnout for people under 30 was dismal. In this election, people like me only made up 12 percent of those who voted, while people aged 60 and older made up almost 40 percent of total voters. In 2012, when President Obama was re-elected and Congressional Democrats made gains in the House and Senate, millennials made up almost one-fifth of all voters, and voters 60 and older made up just 25 percent of the electorate, bringing us a little closer to a tie. It isn’t hard to see the difference – this year, Republicans steamrolled you, Democrats, because most of us stayed home and let our Fox-watching uncles and grandparents decide on who was going to represent everyone else.

So how do older people pick who runs Congress? Like every other voting bloc, they pick the ones who run on issues most important to them. And as Vox reported, data consistently shows that younger people want their tax dollars spent on education and job creation. Older voters want their money spent on Social Security and war. The Republicans who swept the U.S. Senate ran largely on fear campaigns over ISIS, promising to be more hawkish than their opponents in an eagerness to pour money and troops into Iraq and Syria to snuff out America’s newest boogeyman.

Contrast the unified Republican message with the profound silence from you Democrats on addressing the trillion-dollar student debt crisis, rampant inequality and underemployment, and your collective fear of openly embracing economic populism, and you cook up what we saw on Tuesday night. Older people showed up, highly motivated to elect war hawks. Younger people mostly stayed home, disillusioned with the only alternative on the ballot who didn’t even talk about the issues affecting our lives every day.

I think this is a good amplification of the point the President made, though perhaps not exactly in the direction the President had in mind. But like the President's explanation for what happened, it too is incomplete, and perhaps partial to the author's very strong millennial consciousness. So, here's a broader view.

First, of course, the Democrats offered nothing to the millennials, but even if they had and millennials increased their participation from the actual 12 to 20% of voters, I think it's doubtful that Democrats would have won, if by winning one means, taking both Houses of Congress so that they could have delivered on any promises they might have made to millennials and others.

Second, so I think that a real victory allowing them to legislate and not just point fingers at the Republicans would have taken more than populist promises to millennials. I think it would have taken a broad-scale populist agenda sufficient to move Republican constituencies in the direction of Democrats. These constituencies include small businesspeople, married white women, blue collar workers, as well as white male voters over 60.

What would it have taken to get all of those constituencies to move towards the Democrats and greatly cut or eliminate the very large margins the Republicans received in these constituencies. You guessed it; more populism, not just for students with huge debts, though certainly for them, but also for all the other constituencies as well.

So, third, here's what the Democrats could have run on, on the condition that the voters delivered both Houses of Congress to them, with the Republican constituencies that likely would have been impacted.

-- 50% increase in Social Security benefits; (people over 60, including old white guys like this author)

-- Lowering the SS retirement age for full benefits to 65; (people over 60, including old white men and old married and single women)

-- Change in the SS cost of living adjustment formula to incorporate the CPI-e (CPI for the elderly);

-- A Federal Job Guarantee (JG) at a living wage, adjusted for variations in the CPI across America, with good fringe benefits for all people who want to work full or part-time; (All working age adults concerned about the insecurity attached to private sector employment including married white women)

-- Extension of unemployment benefits to at least 52 weeks, with automatic extensions for another 52 weeks triggered by any recession; (All working age adults concerned about the insecurity attached to private sector employment, including married white women)

-- Basic Income Guarantee for every American over 18, adjusted for variations in the CPI across America, set at 50% of the JG living wage; (All adults including married white women, who would be compensated even if they chose not to work)

-- Enhanced Medicare for All; no co-pays, no deductibles, with no further tax burden on small businesses to pay for it; (small businesspeople would be relieved on any health insurance burden or taxes to fund it)

-- Full Debt Jubilee for all Student Loan Debt, with debts assumed by the Government; (All students and all adult parents whose children have student loan debt)

-- Free college education going forward, at State Public Institutions across the country with tuition and other fees paid for by a Federal education program replacing Pell Grants and other now redundant Federal aid; (All students and all adult parents having or anticipating the burden of college costs)

-- Clear promise of investigations, prosecutions, indictments, and appropriate convictions of FIRE sector executives involved in mortgage-related and other frauds from the years 2004 to the present, and a clear promise to restore one rule of law for all in the United States (Most voters would respond to this, married white women who are worried about good government especially.

-- Education reform, including greatly increased Federal funding of K-12 education, through State grants, aimed at making the US public school system world class, and providing a quality education for all students facilitating equality of opportunity. (All adults with school children or involved with children, and all adults concerned with the sorry state of public school education in the United States.)

There is more they could have run on in the areas of environmental protection, reinventing energy foundations, and programs intended to counter climate change. There are also specific measures, other than those listed earlier to reduce inequality. But these issues can wait for future campaigns. For now Democrats should be trying to build their political credit and power by passing legislation producing benefits that are simple to explain to people and that they would directly experience in the short term. That's what wins elections, and that's the kind of performance that will maintain the position of Democrats in Congressional elections as well Presidential years.

Towards the end of Gibson's post he begins to get at the broader populism I've advocated:

You Democrats, on the other hand, looked pitiful in the year leading up to the midterms. You didn’t seem to stand for anything in particular, you just pointed the finger at the other guy, told us they were bad, and that you weren’t like them. That’s not enough. Take a risk, be bold. Get behind Elizabeth Warren’s 0.75 percent interest rate for student loans. Allow student debt to be abolished with bankruptcy. Push for single-payer healthcare, or at the very least a public health insurance option. Need some catchy buzzwords? Try “affordable education,” “good jobs,” and “healthy families.”

Of course, I agree, but my proposals go a lot further. In the political debate that might have ensued over them, the main Republican counters would have been funding problems, the prospect of inflation, and the debt, apart from their usual calls for self-discipline and condemnation of lazy people and moral degenerates (unlike them and their Wall Street and big bank allies of course) who won't stand on their own two feet and want, instead to rely on big Government. There are of course MMT answers explaining why all these supposed problems are faux problems, or can be easily be managed. These answers are in books here, here, here, and here, and in many earlier posts by MMT economists and writers at NEP, cross-posted at many places.

Also, I want to close by emphasizing the stupidity of the campaign the Democrats ran this year. That stupidity was fully reflected in the continuous e-mails I and millions of others received day-after-day in this campaign. The overwhelming majority of these e-mails called for contributions to candidates without saying anything about what those candidates had done, or were promising to do. The message content of these appeals used fear of Republican opponents and the labels “progressive” and "Democrat" to try to induce me to make a contribution to each of a huge number of candidates, usually through Act Blue.

But why in heavens name, should I contribute to any candidate who won't tell me what they've done, and what they plan to do down to the level of specific commitments? Why in heavens name should I move to buy a pig-in-a-poke? And when it came to certain candidates such as Mary Landrieu, the requests for funding were completely ridiculous.

Do the Democrats think everyone has forgotten that Mary Landrieu was one of those Democrats who worked to limit the size of the ARRA stimulus bill, helping to ensure that the bill would be inadequate to get the US to full employment, and who, with others on both sides of the aisle, was responsible for costing Americans many millions of jobs since 2009? Do they think, people have forgotten that Landrieu was one of the Democratic Senators who worked to take enhanced Medicare for All off the table, first to replace it with a very weak public option proposal, and then later, and all too willingly, working to junk any thought of even the sparkle pony public option in health care reform legislation, and to replace such a bill with the current PPACA (“Obamacare”); a bailout of the insurance companies at the expense of the people's interests, which does little to solve the financial problems that private insurance has and will visit upon the people getting insurance through the exchanges?

In short, this year's Democratic Campaign handling of e-mail was incompetent. It could not have been better designed to generate anger and contempt from Democratic Party-inclined supporters. It was a series of no-reply harangues intermixed by messages about “your supporter record shows . . . “ (which were like dunning messages from debt collectors), and whining pleas for money from seemingly idiot candidates who, apparently, could not even say who they were and what they stood for. They had absolutely nothing to run on, a condition I predicted would result as far back as 2010 when they chained themselves to PPACA. No wonder they got blown out by the worst gaggle of Republicans ever assembled for a political campaign.

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

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Barmitt O'Bamney's picture
Submitted by Barmitt O'Bamney on

Democrats could have promised me the Moon and beachfront property to watch it from, or just a shiny trinket, or anything in between - but I wouldn't have believed them. Nothing they've done since 2006 gave me reason to trust their promises large or small. If anything, they and their promises have pushed me towards libertarianism, a political bent which I have long derided (as being more like a point on the autism spectrum than a political philosophy) and which I have long despised (Hey, if you really hate government move somewhere where there isn't any -like Somalia- and leave the rest of us alone). It's not that I deny the existence of society, like Mags Thatcher, nor have I stopped believing that society has economic problems that democratic politics could and ideally should helpfully treat. It's just that when you ask modern Democrats to help you with your problems you can pretty well count on being worse off from their "help" than you were before. Think twice, and twice again, before crying out for Reform! The Democrats might hear you.

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

But I couldn't stay quiet when somebody blamed this solely on D neglect of millennials!

Submitted by lambert on

... is like a textbook case of false consciousness. Horrible, like pod people. Gibson will never get anywhere with an analytical base like that, because you can't build a "movement" let alone a party out of an age cohort.

McDee's picture
Submitted by McDee on

I got a card hung on my door the day before election. It was from the Democratic Party of New Mexico and it was my voter's "Report Card" They told me that "public records indicate that you did not vote in the last election." Compared to my "neighborhood" this was rated as "good" for comparison purposes. It urged me to vote. I found this a bit creepy. But then, they gave me a much better grade than I would give the Dems. And they were wrong. I did vote in the last election. I've voted in every election but one since 1968. Plus I've been a registered Green since 2007. There was no mention on the card of the Dem candidates or what they stood for. Just "be sure and vote" Incompetence!

Alexa's picture
Submitted by Alexa on

the Democrats offered nothing to the millennials,

they offered no one anything.

And they will never come close to your dream list, Lets (sorry!).

None of it, IMO.

If anything, they will continue to go in the opposite direction.

Every day I hear from both sides of the isle that "tax reform" will go through--and we all know that tax reform won't happen without so-called "entitlement" reform.

Frankly, I just wish that they would get it over with--I'm tired of thinking about it. And It's not like it won't happen.

Clearly, both parties just wanted to wait until PBO is a "lame, Lame Duck!"

Which he is, now.

Sigh . . .

nippersdad's picture
Submitted by nippersdad on

I have had that impression for over a year now. Like decisions on the Keystone pipeline being delayed over and over again until it could be done, as in the Clinton admin, the way they clearly wanted to all along without the bother of an impending election affecting their actions.

They just aren't fooling anyone anymore and people are sick of it; just want to get it over with so that they don't have to think about it anymore. The big surprise is that anyone came out to vote for them at all.