False Lessons of the New Democrats

Bill ClintonI have been working on a longer argument against the New Democratic movement. The standard explanation of how the Democratic Party has changed over the last several decades is wrong I think. The narrative says that the party became too liberal in the 1960s. I don’t think this is correct, but it is true that the Democrats lost their working class moorings. They seemed to misunderstand who was their actual base. But for whatever the reason, the narrative claims, much of the white middle class turned against the party as seen in the lost elections of Carter, Mondale, and Dukakis. And in steps New Democrat Bill Clinton who saved the party!

But the data don’t really support this narrative. It’s true that southern white males did turn against the Democratic Party, and that’s unfortunate. But that’s about all that happened. The reason that the Democrats went on a 12 year losing streak was just bad economic luck, as you can see in the following graph of the unemployment rate that I made. (My first ever using the FRED system!)

Unemployment from 1979 to 2013

In 1980 when Carter was running for re-election, the unemployment rate was increasing because the Federal Reserve put us into recession to fight inflation. That is why Carter lost, although the third party candidacy of John Anderson didn’t help. Note also that for the first two years of Reagan’s administration, the unemployment rate continued up to almost 11%. And then, the Federal Reserve eased the money supply and it (with an assist from Reagan’s deficit spending) created “Morning in America.”

During the 1984 campaign, the unemployment rate was still pretty high (7%), but it had already fallen over 3 percentage points, and was continuing down. According to political scientists who look at this stuff, that is what matters: the trend. It wasn’t Morning in America because things were great; it was Morning in America because things were getting better—the times were hopeful. And so Reagan won re-election easily.

The exact same dynamic was at work when Bush Sr ran. But the run was at its end. By the second year of his term, unemployment stopped dropping and started climbing. Remember after the Gulf War? Bush had an approval rating of 89%. And then he lost the election because unemployment was rising. But just like with Carter, a third party campaign didn’t help.

It is my contention that Bill Clinton did not become president because he was a new kind of Democrat. As it was, the opposition painted him as a radical anyway, and the mainstream press obligingly followed along. I still fail to see what the New Democrats Clinton and Obama think they get out of their conservative policies. They couldn’t be attacked any worse. If the individual mandate is “socialism” then what is single payer? Doubleplussocialism? But more to the point, these elections were for the Democrats to lose, just as the Reagan-Bush elections were theirs to lose. Being more liberal would not have hurt these men in their elections and might have helped them. Certainly being more liberal would have helped Al Gore.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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