The Democrats Search For A Message

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House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., accompanied by, from left, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y. speaks in a park in Berryville, Va., Monday, July 24, 2017, where they unveiled the Democrats new agenda. (Cliff Owen/AP)
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., accompanied by, from left, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y. speaks in a park in Berryville, Va., Monday, July 24, 2017, where they unveiled the Democrats new agenda. (Cliff Owen/AP)

This week on Freak Out And Carry On, Ron Suskind and Heather Cox Richardson examine the Democratic Party in disarray: out of power in the White House and Congress and looking for a message to attract voters. They speak with Jonathan Chait, political writer for New York Magazine, about the Democrats' new economic plan, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's liberal legacy and President Bill Clinton's "Sister Souljah moment."


Jonathan Chait: Partisan politics is a zero-sum game. So unless you think that one or both of the parties is going to collapse and give way to a different party, which I don't think is happening anytime soon, I don't think it's possible for both parties to be in total disarray. The Republicans are in control of government and with a dysfunctional government, a dysfunctional legislative program that's deeply unpopular and a totally incompetent president. And I think this is going to help the Democrats regardless of what they do.

Heather Cox Richardson: It seems to me that we have two major issues to look at with the Democratic Party. There is the center, the moderate Democrats, against the more radical [wing]. But there is another major issue for the Democrats and that is that the system as it is currently operating is so significantly stacked against them. There's a problem of gerrymandering. There's the problem of voter suppression. The fact that they have a very shallow bench right now in states and, to some degree, in the federal government. So our larger system privileges Republicans over Democrats. And that's something that the party must grapple with before it really worries about policies. 

Chait: I think that's a great point. I would say the problem with this system is it is undemocratic in a way that benefits the Republican Party. The house is gerrymandered, the Senate gives disproportionate representation to Republican states. So that's a huge problem for Democrats and I think it means that they need to win a [larger] majority. They can't just have 50.1 percent and govern the country. They can't. The Republicans can really govern the country with the 47 or 48 percent because of these advantages. Democrats need a stronger majority which I think gets to your second point which is the division between the center and the left. And I think this means that the Democrats really need a plan for winning red areas, red states, centrist places which means they can't succumb to the temptations of ideological purity because the system is stacked against them and they need to find a way to win some pretty hostile terrain. 

Ron Suskind: The question is can the Democrats rise to what is clearly the opportunity of Donald Trump's arrival? Will they essentially take a page from the Republican playbook to get the job done on their own behalf? 

Chait: If you really look historically, the Democratic Party has had these divisions since the New Deal. You had people on the left angry with the direction of the mainstream liberals who tended to have control of the party. In 1948, Henry Wallace broke off and formed a splinter party opposed Harry Truman. You had significant opposition in 1968. Ralph Nader opposed the Democrats and ran a left wing splinter party in 2000. Jill Stein in 2016. A lot of these are the same constituents, the same themes, the same ideas. I think there's you know pretty consistent 2 percent, maybe two and a half percent, of the public that's pretty far left, suspicious of mainstream liberalism, and very hard to get on board with your party. I think the Democrats just have to face up to the fact that they're not going to have those people and probably any concessions they make to keep those people will cost them more votes in the center than they win on the left.

Richardson: So whenever I think of the Democratic Party I think of this speech by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1936, a few days before he was re-elected to his second term as president. And it's an important speech for him. It is more articulate on the issue of rich and poor in America than he normally was. What we've got now is a system, as he says here, of government by organized money which is just as dangerous as a government by organized mob. And what the American government has to do is it has to get involved in the economy and level the playing field. It's got to provide a basic social safety net. It's got to protect workers. It's got to make sure that a few wealthy men don't walk away with everything. And with that he and the Democratic congress create the new deal which is the activist government that does regulate business and protect a basic social safety net and try to create infrastructure and create opportunity for every American. And that idea is the way to maintain a stable society that offers equality of opportunity for all Americans is really articulated in this moment by FDR we don't want a government of organized money any more than we want an organ to a government of organized mob.

Suskind: I interviewed Elizabeth Warren and I asked her point blank when it comes to Wall Street will you repeat Roosevelt's line? Will you welcome their hate? She said "You bet. I welcome their hate." Now there it is. Warren is trying to catch the fire the lightning of Roosevelt and many folks on the left are saying now it might be the time. Let's move to present tense. Is now the time in which that narrative has come due? Is this the moment for the Democrats? Many on the far left are saying, "step up" angrily and saying "I'm going to fight fire with fire here. I'm going to bring fire to the what some see as largely a mercantile and materialist, distribution of goods, economic technocratic views of the Democratic Party.

Chait: Well, I have a soft spot for technocracy. The thing about technocracy is that it works. I think Obama's policies are enduring because they work. There's a reason why Republicans are able to posture against Obamacare but were not able to replace. You know there's a reason why Dodd-Frank has actually had such a strong effect on reshaping Wall Street and in taking some of the risk out of the system and there's a reason why the climate policies have had the impact that they've had. So well-designed technocratic policies actually work so you're really setting yourself into a trap by making populist promises that sound really good but can't be followed up. That's what Donald Trump did. Everything he said was super popular. I'm going to cut everybody's taxes and I'm going to give everybody wonderful health care coverage. I'm going to build a huge wall and all these things sound great but you can't really do them.

The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are solely those of the participants and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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