America’s political system seems broken. In “Chaotic Neutral: How the Democrats Lost Their Soul in the Center,” author Ed Burmila describes it as being “stuck in a cycle: Democrats win power when dissatisfaction with the GOP surges, talk themselves out of governing, and the GOP come roaring back into power and goes on a rampage. Things slowly, gradually, consistently get worse.” “Chaotic Neutral” tells the story of how we got to this place.
Burmila begins by describing the party of FDR — the New Deal Democrats — who ushered in culture-changing progressive programs, including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other programs highly valued in today’s America. The New Deal generated millions of jobs investing in the public good and improving the economic status of multiple classes, not just the poor. This provided Democrats a winning coalition for the next 40 years, but it also included some strange bedfellows, such as minorities and (sometimes racist) working-class whites.
In 1968 and 1972, Richard Nixon was able to split the New Deal coalition, forcing Democrats to reevaluate. What Democrats decided is that electoral success depended upon moving to the right and discarding New Deal philosophy. In doing so, Democrats also discarded the working class and unions in favor of highly educated professionals and suburban moderates. Burmila explains how Democrats rejected the New Deal goals of poverty elimination and equality and instead embraced market-based policies. Beginning with Jimmy Carter, Democrats effectively started supporting a Republican-lite version of governing.
Democrats hoped this would win over moderate Republicans, but Republicans kept moving further right while continously attacking Democrats. Thus, this new centrist strategy only alienated the working-class core of the Democratic base and gained no Republican support.
Repeated election losses in the 1980s led to more strategizing by Democrats, but the party consistently came to the same conclusion: It needed to double down on its move to the right. This philosophy inspired young Democrats like Bill Clinton and Al Gore, who committed to shrinking government and promoting market solutions to societal problems. According to Burmila, “Clinton accomplished more of Reagan’s agenda than Reagan did.” Clinton supported the export of jobs through NAFTA, deregulation, tougher criminal penalties, more policing and “ending welfare as we know it.” Democrats calculated that, even though the working class and minorities were hurt by the policies, these constituencies would continue to support Democrats, because Republicans were so much worse. “They’re worse than us” continues to be a core Democrat campaigning strategy.
In the 1990s, the Republican party decided that it could better achieve its far-right goals if it stopped playing by traditional political rules. Newt Gingrich showed Republicans just how successful discarding decorum could be. Gingrich’s efforts — amplified by new media avenues such as talk radio, cable TV and something called the internet — began to move fringe thinking into the mainstream. Republicans crafted simple talking points that were endlessly amplified by right-wing media.
Mitch McConnell perfected the art of obstruction when President Barack Obama was elected, yet Obama showed fierce determination to ignore this and insisted that Democrats continue to play by rules abandoned long ago by Republicans.
That’s another key point Burmila keeps coming back to: Republicans play hardball partisan politics, while Democrats refuse to respond in kind and instead wag their fingers at Republicans to play fair next time. Additionally, Democrats insist on investing heavily in unwinnable Senate races in lieu of supporting Democrats at the local level. This has led to massive Democratic losses in state legislatures and governorships, and, because of Republicans’ willingness to use their power to “tilt the political playing field in their favor,” it is now extremely difficult for Democrats to win back local control.
Burmila describes how President Obama continued the Democrats’ “Republican-lite” strategy. Instead of trying to govern ambitiously like FDR, Obama insisted on bipartisanship, but — surprise! The GOP absolutely refused to work with him. In 2016, Hillary Clinton represented the status quo, which didn’t work out so well. Trump, as feared, proved incompetent at actual governance and horrified much of America. In 2020, Joe Biden won the presidential election (honestly, he did), but Democrats were unable to obtain resounding wins down the election ticket. Now, it seems, as support for Democrats withers, the 2022 Democrat campaign strategy is centered on “we did all we could” and “Republicans are really bad.”
Fast-forward to today: Republicans are hard at work to discard American democracy. Under the guise of baseless claims of voter fraud, Republicans are making it harder for people to vote, as well as installing partisan believers of The Big Lie to run local elections, count the votes and anoint election winners to suit their liking. Burmila states that the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection was “effectively a dry run for Republicans to overturn future election results.” Democrats continue to show no real sense of urgency, have been unable to pass legislation to protect elections and voting rights and seem unwilling to develop a plan to counter Republican efforts to control the electoral process.
Burmila admits there is no simple solution to redirect the Democratic Party, but he does offer some guidance. He implores Democrats to abandon trying to be the party of the center-right. Democrats need to develop a political and economic worldview that “appeals to a wide enough coalition of working-class voters and professional-class liberals” to again become “a party of the people.” Democrats should learn from Republicans, abandon attempts at bipartisanship and instead strive toward being more successful partisans. Democrats need to stop supporting and funding the campaigns of candidates who don’t support basic liberal policies, such as voting rights (read: Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema). Democrats need to focus on the longterm, not only on the next election. Burmila doesn’t provide a failure-proof action plan, but his message to Democrats is pretty straight forward: Get the party back to New Deal progressive goals and do your damnedest to deliver on those goals.
“Chaotic Neutral” provides a well-written history of how we got to this point, and I found Burmila’s tone at times LOL funny. (I highly recommend reading the notes at the bottom of the pages.)
Burmila states that he doesn’t “have a ton of faith” that Democrats can turn things around. Given the past 50 years, I can’t blame him. Democrats seem remarkably lost right now, when the need to fight like hell to ensure American democracy prevails — and to provide government that works for the majority of Americans — seem pretty obvious.
It seems, once again, that effective change needs to be led from the bottom.
Read more of the Sept. 21-27, 2022 issue.