The thing about political symbols is that they can work for you as often as they work against you. The United States’ Democratic Party is a classic example of this rule. The party’s founder Andrew Jackson (president in 1829-37) was dubbed by his opponents in the press as a “jackass”. Whether they meant he was stupid or stubborn is unclear, but, far from being offended, Jackson actually found it funny, and started using the image of a donkey on his campaign literature. Several years later, in the 1870s, the cartoonist Thomas Nast began a much more regular habit of commentators using the donkey as a metonym for the Democrats and the elephant as one for their Republican opponents.
The free world’s oldest political party (it was founded in 1828, six years before Britain’s Conservative Party), the Democrats have been in power for 88 years and have produced 16 presidents. The Republicans, meanwhile, have been in power for 96 years and have produced 19 presidents. At different times over the course of their existence, though their ideology has transformed considerably since the days of Jackson, the Democrats have nonetheless managed to be stupid and stubborn alternately, and sometimes simultaneously. Actually succeeding in politics through seizing initiatives and pursuing winning campaigns, once the norm for them in their heyday, from the 1930s to the 1960s, has been largely conceded to the Republicans – even at a time when the latter party has been moving so far to the right that it is practically off the scale.
All political parties the world over struggle to move with the times, but the Democrats seem to have had a harder time than most. Arguably the party’s last great president was the 36th, Lyndon Baines Johnson (in office 1963-9). As JFK’s vice-president, he took over the reins on Kennedy’s murder in Dallas, and set about the task with the aim of continuing where the young Massachusetts firebrand had left off, being the mastermind behind such landmark laws as the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, thereby putting an end to the Jim Crow era in the South. (Shame about Vietnam, really…) Johnson managed to get his way through shrewd management of Congress, usually by a unique blend of pleading and browbeating. As a Texan, LBJ could impose his will on reluctant Southern Democrats in a way that Kennedy could never have done. When one fellow Democrat suggested to Johnson that civil-rights laws would be an election loser, the president rhetorically thundered back, ‘Well, what the hell is the presidency for?!‘ There is an unconfirmed account, however, that on signing the 1964 Civil Rights bill LBJ uttered ‘I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.‘
When Johnson left the White House in January 1969 he returned to his Texas ranch, and one of the first things he did was immediately resume the heavy smoking habit that he had given up thirteen years previously, after surviving a near-fatal heart attack in 1955. It was almost as if he could foresee the difficulties his party would henceforth have to grapple with. Four years later he was dead. Since LBJ left the stage his party has returned four more presidents – though never on the scale of his legendary 1964 landslide (which still holds the record for the biggest popular vote share for any president: 61.1%). The Republicans, meanwhile, have since returned six presidents, and, despite their dubiously patriotic belief that the American people deserve only leaders of the character of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George “Dubya” Bush and Donald Trump, they have been rewarded with four landslide wins in the last sixteen elections – including a 49-state shutout each for Nixon in 1972 and Reagan in 1984.
As I wrote in my article about the GOP six months ago, the fundamental problem with American politics is that the Republicans have been moving farther to the right than Democrats have been moving to the left (if they have moved at all). Also, Republican administrations have tended statistically to provide more jailbirds than Democratic ones. Republicans, once the party of monopoly busting, tariff reform and extending freedom, have over the years embraced conspiracy theories, advocated nonsensical trickle-down economics (or “voodoo economics” as George H W Bush once dubbed it), sneered at scientists and other experts, wallowed in blatant hypocrisy about issues like balanced budgets and Supreme Court judge nomination, and engaged in ethically dubious voter suppression.
One would have thought that with such open goals as those, the Democrats would be able to score again and again – yet the electoral evidence since the 1990s, whereby Democratic presidents invariably lose control of Congress just two years into their terms, suggests otherwise.
In some ways, the Democrats’ struggles to win elections since the 1960s has been down to factors beyond their control – with the main one arguably being the radical change in the role of the media over the last fifty years. One of the reasons why Trump didn’t leave office sooner than his term was constitutionally bound to end – despite the proven attempts to obstruct justice during Russiagate, as revealed in the Mueller Report – is that he didn’t have the same largely unified media landscape that Nixon faced in 1973-4. Carlos Maza of Vox magazine explains in a YouTube video from three years ago:
At the time there were three national nightly broadcast news shows [NBC, CBS, and ABC], thirty minutes each. Big cities typically had one or two major papers, there were one or two radio stations, and that was about it! No 24-hour cable news, no push notifications, no Twitter, no blogs, no internet (God, that sounds peaceful!) – and that meant that, Democrat or Republican, Americans were basically getting the same news…
In the 1970s Americans had incredible trust in the news they were getting: 69% of Americans expressed a “great, or fair amount of trust” in the media, and that trust meant there wasn’t really an appetite for right-wing news… That became a big deal during Watergate: as the investigation turned into a national story, Nixon lashed out, calling it a “witch hunt”, and attacking the media for covering it, and conservative outlets came to his defense… but despite their efforts, conservative media just couldn’t change people’s minds about what was going on… By 1974 Republicans in Congress begin moving to impeach Nixon, and by August Nixon resigns…
In the past fifty years trust in traditional media has plummeted, with all Americans but especially with Republicans, and the demand for conservative media has exploded: what started off as a few rinky-dink conservative magazines has become an entire ecosystem of right-wing TV, talk radio and websites… Republicans aren’t getting their news from Cronkite any more; they’re getting it from Fox – and that’s a huge deal when it comes to the Mueller investigation… That uniting narrative we had during Watergate – it’s gone…
Add to the radically altered media landscape, and an increased preparedness for left-wingers and right-wingers on social media to stay within their own ideological echo chambers, is the fact that America’s constitution is sorely in need of serious reform, as the comedian and broadcaster John Oliver explained in a September 2020 edition of his HBO show Last Week Tonight:
A Democrat has won the national popular vote in four out of the last five elections, but we’ve spent twelve of the last twenty years with a Republican in office – and that is because the Electoral College, with its winner-takes-all approach in most states, can distort the will of the majority, on top of which it grants disproportionate power to less populous states, which tend to be rural and more conservative. [This is] something which is even more pronounced in the Senate, where there are fifteen states, representing 38 million people, that have 30 Republican senators – even though that is less than the total population of California, which has just two Democratic ones. And that’s before you even get into the fact that places like Puerto Rico and Washington DC, where the populations are largely black or Hispanic, don’t have representation in the Senate at all.
In fact, if you take all of this together, the Senate gives the average black American only 75 percent as much representation as the average white American, and the average Hispanic American only 55 percent as much. And it’s clearly not great when the best thing you can say about your representative democracy is ‘Hey, at least black people got above three-fifths this time! At this rate they could count as a hundred percent of a white person as early as 2408! Onwards and upwards, black people: you truly are an inspiration to Hispanic half-people everywhere!’
On top of the fact that voters in America have in the last 20 years often been let down by their electoral system is the fact that, far from being a “center-right nation” as Mitt Romney suggested, America is actually a lot more liberal than many realize. If the various polling organizations are right, most Americans are pro-choice on the issue of abortion (71% according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey of 2018), they back women getting equal pay (82% – YouGov, 2013), tougher environmental laws (74% – Gallup, 2018), marijuana being legalized (61% – Pew, 2018), a higher minimum wage (61% – National Restaurant Association poll, 2018), everyone getting Medicare (70% – Reuters, 2018), public college being tuition-free (60% – Reuters, 2018), childcare being free (59% – Gallup, 2016), support for labor unions (62% – Gallup, 2018), a reduced military budget (61% – University of Maryland, 2016), and big banks being broken up (58% – Progressive Change Institute, 2015).
Yet, the Democrats, once happy to embrace the “L” word, have been running away from it ever since George H W Bush successfully turned it into an insult in the 1988 presidential election – or, to put it in campaigning terms, they’ve allowed their opponents to set the terms of future debates. All too often, campaigning seasons in the States are characterized by the Republicans deciding which of their candidates can best sell Conservatism (or, at the very least, their perversion of Conservatism), and the Democrats deciding which of their candidates can best avoid being called a Liberal.
The Democrats appear not to have noticed that their GOP opponents will always call them every name and level every crazy accusation under the sun, however limply and moderately the Democrats project themselves. During the Republican National Convention in August last year, party delegates said that Joe Biden would be “controlled” by “environmental extremists”, he would take the country ‘one step closer to government-run healthcare‘, he had ‘pledged to de-fund the police‘, and was ‘even talking about taking the [Mexican] wall down‘. As we have come to expect from the post-reality GOP, not a single word of those claims that they made was true, and is never likely to be true as long as Biden remains President. The Democrats may as well as just think to themselves ‘to hell with it,’ and actually get on with effecting such reforms – for all the good that plotting a safe, mushy, pallid program is doing them politically anyhow.
Standing in the way of such reforms would, of course, be the Republican minority in the Senate, and minority leader Mitch McConnell has repeatedly stated that he is there to frustrate the will of any Democratic administration’s government program, however moderate it is. The only way a law can pass the Senate without its being filibustered by the minority is if the party passing it has a two-thirds majority: right now the Democrats have a majority over their opponents there of just 1. The solution, then, should be to abolish the filibuster – even if it means that a future Republican presidency could thereafter pass any filibuster-proof law it likes. There is also the problem of the conservative-leaning Supreme Court being prepared to strike down a Democratic administration’s laws as being unconstitutional – though there is also the option of increasing the size of the Supreme Court (after all, there’s nothing in the constitution that specifies how many judges it must have).
Yet, one of the Democrats’ leading Senate voices, Joe Manchin, honestly believes that the way to deliver for a left-leaning nation is to pursue “bipartisanship” with his Republican opponents – unaware, it seems, that the GOP’s idea of “bipartisanship” is to demand concessions from the Democrats and then to forget about making any concessions of their own. What is the point of working with any group of people with whom it is manifestly impossible to work in good faith?
The Democratic Party has come a long way from its beginnings under Andrew Jackson, and has left its days as a pro-white supremacy, pro-Manifest Destiny organization far behind. During the party’s many periods in power in the last hundred years or so it has fundamentally changed America – politically, economically and socially. It could do so much more for so many Americans of all backgrounds, not just its rich donors. Joe Biden is exactly 26 weeks into his presidency. Whether he is planning to surprise his party and his country with an FDR-style approach to changing the country is doubtful – but by the time of the next presidential poll he will be 81, and who knows? – maybe Vice President Kamala Harris could be thinking such ideas if she’s planning a run for the top job in 2024? All that is certain is that any Democrat wanting to lead the world’s most powerful democracy needs to remember LBJ’s fundamental rhetorical question (‘What the hell is the presidency for?’). They don’t want to be known as “Jackasses” for the wrong reasons.
Based in Birmingham, Dan is a writer and actor