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With all that GOP corruption, why are Democrats so quiet?

ASK THIS | February 27, 2006

Henry Banta says the quest for money has separated Democrats from their basic constituency, and that helps explain why they are failing to exploit Republican ‘pillaging and looting.’

By Henry Banta

Q. Why can’t Democratic leaders talk about the dramatic shift of income and wealth to a tiny fraction of the population?

Q. Why do many Democrats pretend that economic inequality is only a problem at the lower end of the economic ladder?

Q. Is the corrupting effect of political money as big a problem for Democrats as for Republicans?

Q. Is money the reason that Democrats can’t make an issue out of the economic distress of the middle class?

In the wake of the Abramoff and DeLay scandals, it is easy to point to the Republicans as the party corrupted by money. There is much to support this accusation, including the Vice President’s secret meetings with the oil industry, the President’s tax cuts for the very rich, Medicare plans that benefit drug companies, and the seemingly endless villainy of the Interior Department.

Money has also had a deep and fundamental effect for Democrats. The quest for political money has separated the Democratic leadership from their basic constituency. One could argue that it has caused the most cynical political betrayal since the 19th century when the Republicans abandoned the cause of Black Americans and became the champions of corporate greed. It helps to explain why the Democrats cannot exploit the current round of blatant pillaging and looting by the Republicans, much less deal with the looming economic problems of the middle class. At least the Republicans had the decency to have been bought by members of their own constituency. 

There is no longer any serious dispute that over the last two or three decades there has been a massive shift in income and wealth in the United States. Most of the economic growth has gone to a tiny fraction of the population while the middle class has largely stagnated and even lost ground. We have managed to create a degree of economic inequality that has not been seen in this country since before the Great Depression. The most recent study finds that 15% of all income goes to the top 1% of the population. And even within this group income is heavily skewed to the top 0.01%.

What is truly amazing, in retrospect, is that it has happened without the slightest comment from the Democratic leadership. The purveyors of conventional wisdom are almost unanimous in condemning the Democratic party for a lack of ability to seize the opportunity created by the most inept administration since Harding. But this failure pales into insignificance in the face of the failure to even note one of the most massive economic events since the industrial revolution.

The reason for this silence is not hard to find. The sudden creation of a tiny class of extremely rich individuals left the Democrats with a choice: fight for the economic interests of their constituency, or chase campaign contributions from the very rich.  

Their decision took the economic issue off the table for Democrats. As their constituency was eviscerated by “conservative” economic policies, they kept silent. When Reagan announced that government was not the solution; it was the problem, they simply said mea culpa. There were pro forma protests when the tax code was repeatedly rewritten to favor the very rich, but there was an almost total silence as IRS enforcement was crippled. The death of the labor movement was only partly a matter of our industrial decline; it was also a matter of deliberate public policy – about which the Democrats said very little.

One could argue that there was no decision; what happened was simply an acknowledgment of the reality of campaign finance. Caught between raising money and defending its constituency, they opted for the short term and took the money. In effect, the leadership of the Democratic party looked at the shift of money to the very top, and, rather than objecting, simply decided to chase it. Desperation and pragmatism were certainly not the only factors. Other forces pushed hard in the direction of chasing the money. More conservative Democrats seized the opportunity, and under the cover of saving the party from liberal extremists – gays, pro-choice, trial lawyers, etc. – embraced a very “conservative” economic agenda. Any reference to the exploding inequality was denounced as “class warfare.” The strange system of compensating political consultants on the basis of the amount of media advertising purchased certainly played a part. What political consultant would tell his client, “forget chasing the money, talk serious economics to the voters”? 

There is, however, good evidence that the fall from grace was not so innocent. In his book, “Honest Graft,” the former Wall Street Journal and CNN reporter, Brooks Jackson, chronicled the adventures of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee through the late 70s and early 80s as it explored new ways of selling off legislation, especially tax legislation, to the detriment of the party’s middle class constituency. The effect was to transform the party, in William Greider’s memorable phrase, into “a mail drop for corporate campaign contributions.”  

It is now widely recognized that the middle class (and for our purposes we can define the middle class as every one below the top 10% and above the poverty level) has kept it head above water by working harder, borrowing, and spending their savings. This cannot go on; somewhere out there is a day of reckoning. Even the “soft landing,” so dear to the hearts of some economists will hurt – and the farther down the economic ladder, the more it will hurt. And when it happens, where will the Democrats be?

There are Democrats who will contend that the inequality issue is the result of cosmic forces beyond the control of political leadership. They will invoke mega-concepts such as globalization and technological revolution and conjure up vague visions of a “new economy.” (Check the web site of the Democratic Leadership Council.)  For all the talk of a new economic order, they would rather see the inequality issue in old fashioned liberal terms – as a problem of education and job training. There is certainly an inequality problem at the lower end of the economic scale. But in its most dangerous form the problem is not the wage disparity between janitors and computer technicians. It is between the top .01% of the population and virtually everyone else. Here the cliches about globalization and technology won’t work. Here there are hard issues to be faced: grotesque overreaching and self-dealing by corporate management, massive overcompensation of the financial sector, and, of course, the tax code.

We will know when the Democratic Party has rediscovered its soul when its leaders can candidly confront the real problem of inequality and the potential catastrophe facing the middle class. There will always be those who think such a course to be political suicide. But maybe the suicide took place a long time ago; what we need now is a resurrection.

"begging for a guillotine"
Posted by Mike Mahr -
03/21/2006, 08:07 PM

Thank you Mr. Banta, you have described our social, economic and political problems concisely and elegantly. I have no doubt the masses will stumble on solutions to these problems, but lacking any coherent national organization or leadership, I fear their response will be irrational and violent. Our merciless plutocracy is literally begging for a guillotine.

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