What Today's Democratic Party Can Learn From Yesterday's GOP

In 1977, the GOP faced an identity crisis. It eventually found a winning formula and returned to power.
September 2017
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders thinks the Democrats' way back is through populism. (AP)
Alan Ehrenhalt
By Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Senior Editor

Forty years ago this fall, one of the nation’s political parties was in the throes of an identity crisis. It had just been beaten in a close but humiliating presidential election. It hadn’t won a majority in either chamber of Congress for more than two decades. And it was in abysmal shape at the state level: It controlled only 11 of the 50 legislatures and claimed barely 40 percent of the nation’s state lawmakers.

I wouldn’t argue that the Republican predicament of 1977 constitutes a parallel to the Democratic situation today or is somehow close to it. But it does suggest some interesting lessons.

The GOP of 1977 offered no coherent message of any sort. President Richard Nixon had worked hard to fashion a law-and-order appeal to Southerners and the urban working class, but this had collapsed with his resignation in 1974. Three years later, the Republican Party was essentially saddled with its residual image as a country club enterprise dominated by corporations and affluent suburbanites, preaching little of consequence besides a visceral dislike of the New Deal and the Great Society. It was easy to say what Republicans were against. It was almost impossible to describe what they were for.

What relevance does all this have for the Democrats of 2017? Well, to start with, there’s the absence of a clear agenda, or, one might even say, any real agenda at all. It wasn’t just Hillary Clinton who seemed to be campaigning on fumes in 2016 -- Democratic candidates for lesser offices generally offered little in the way of a tangible platform. Some of them had position papers calling for a higher minimum wage and free college tuition, but they rarely talked about them. Like Clinton, they mostly voiced their disgust at Donald Trump and assumed that would be sufficient enough. Obviously, they were wrong. Today, Democrats are a negative party in the same way that Republicans were 40 years ago.

As the GOP fought to recover in the late 1970s in Washington and in the states, it had some crucial strategy questions to answer. Should it focus single-mindedly on economics, pushing tax cuts and a free market platform as set out by New York Congressman Jack Kemp? Or should it gravitate to the social and religious conservativism offered by newcomers like the Rev. Jerry Falwell?

Ronald Reagan was a candidate skillful enough to erase the Republican message problem. Reagan’s 1980 campaign demonstrated that free markets and lower taxes, when wrapped in a package of genial optimism, constituted a tangible agenda that the average voter could grasp. But Reagan taught his party something even more important about the whole question of strategy: He showed Republicans that there was no need to choose between economic and social conservatism. The party could be made large enough, and policy choices could be made skillfully enough, to accommodate both strains of ideology. When the factions challenged each other, they could be brought together by the hard-line Cold War foreign policy that every strand of the Republican Party subscribed to in those years.

The Democrats of 2017 don’t have the Cold War to bring their quarrelsome factions together. But they do share some of the dilemmas that confronted the Republicans of 1977. They know that their base constituency isn’t sufficient to create stable majorities in Washington or in the states. Republicans were boxed in as the party of cul de sacs, country clubs and chambers of commerce. They found a way out. Democrats today are the party of racial and ethnic minorities and the urban professional elite. This is not enough.

As in 1977, there are two obvious strategies for the struggling party to propose. The first is to run as the party of the civil center, hoping to expand its urban professional base into the vote-rich and socially moderate suburbs of cities such as Detroit, Milwaukee and Philadelphia. This is essentially what Democrats did in 2006 and 2008, and it worked beautifully for them. Suburban legislative seats that had been Republican for decades fell to the Democrats, a response to the broad-based unpopularity of George W. Bush’s administration and uneasiness in the suburbs about Republican social policy rigidities.

Democrats might be forgiven for assuming after 2008 that they had a winning formula on their hands. But the formula failed. Most of the centrist Democrats elected on Republican turf in 2006 and 2008 were wiped out in the 2010 elections for Congress and the state legislatures. Those who remained were almost all defeated in 2014 and 2016. The anxiety that affluent suburbanites felt about conservative doctrine in the closing Bush years ceased to bother them very much as soon as Bush was gone, and has shown few signs of returning. That is the main reason Democrats now control 31 legislative chambers to the Republicans’ 68 and have lost nearly 1,000 legislative seats in the past eight years.

You’d think centrism and civility would work for the Democrats in many places amid the embarrassments of the Trump presidency, but it doesn’t seem to be happening. It didn’t happen in June in the much-hyped special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, in which the Democratic nominee offered a textbook centrist campaign, hoping that the affluent voters in the suburbs north of Atlanta would be attracted to quiet decency and wouldn’t need to hear any tirades against the Republican president. Even with a campaign treasury of more than $20 million, the Democratic effort fell short.

One could argue that coming within 10,000 votes in a district that hadn’t elected a Democrat in decades didn’t exactly amount to a humiliation. Nevertheless, the summer months produced a blizzard of op-ed columns, blog posts and speeches arguing that centrism was a dead end for Democrats and that the only viable alternative was a sharp turn toward plan B: a noisy and indignant populist crusade aimed at winning back the factory-town working class and struggling inner-suburban constituency that had defected to Trump in 2016. Bernie Sanders was the most visible champion of this idea. The Democratic Party, he wrote in The New York Times, “must make clear to the working families of this country that it is prepared to stand up for their rights,” and “it must take on the powerful corporate interests.”

Could a populist politics of this sort possibly succeed? There are lots of reasons to be skeptical. Ever since the 1960s, activists on the Democratic left have believed that support from minorities and the lower echelons of the working class was the key to long-term political power, if only they could come up with the right insurgent message and generate enough ground-level enthusiasm to boost the turnout in the right places. It never happened. Centrism at least worked for a while. But angry populism, at this point, is a shot in the dark.

Nevertheless, it seems that the populist strategy is going to get a chance. Civil centrism has simply lost too many elections to retain much strategic credibility. In the current environment, it will be argued, there is little to be gained by showing voters you are nicer than Trump. There may be some percentage in showing that you can be just as mean as he is. Anyway, it looks like we will find out.

My own suspicion, though, is that the most important test of Democratic strategy next year will lie in the quality of candidates who can be persuaded to run for Congress and for state legislative seats. It’s important to remember that throughout the presidencies of Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Republican officeholders were a distinct minority in most of the country. As the anti-government party, the GOP found it difficult to recruit talented young candidates to devote a large chunk of their lives to serving in office. Democrats, as the party that sincerely believed in the value of government, generated superior talent year after year, from the 1970s into the early 1990s. Baby boomers who grew up with the civil rights and environmental movements formed the nucleus of Democratic majorities all over the country, even in states and districts where public opinion on most issues tilted to the right.

Republicans didn’t solve that problem until 1994, when after more than a decade of organizational effort and prodigious fundraising they finally managed to generate candidates at every level whose talent and commitment matched those of the Democrats who had been beating them in most of the country for an entire generation. The GOP learned that, given enough money and encouragement, it was possible to find smart young people who distrusted government but were willing to make careers in public office. Democrats, in an era of widespread hostility to government in general, gradually lost the talent advantage that the ambitious cohort of baby-boom liberals had given them.

Is there any way for the Democratic Party to regain the recruitment edge that once cemented it in power? Maybe. The energy that has produced huge anti-Trump rallies and waves of campaign volunteerism in much of the country suggests that Democrats could be on the verge of winning elections the way they used to -- with a combination of energy, commitment and sheer talent. It’s not out of the question.

Then again, maybe neither centrism nor populism nor candidate recruitment constitutes a winning answer for Democrats at this point. Maybe there is no winning answer, and they are destined to be the minority party for decades to come. That’s a possibility too. But I can’t help recalling that this is what many Republicans were lamenting about themselves in the fall of 1977.