The 2012 election provided more evidence that a liberal Democratic coalition is gaining strength and may have supplanted the conservative alliance that essentially dominated American elections and policy from 1968 to 2006. In addition, the elections of 2008 and 2012 demonstrated that new technology and get-out-the-vote strategies can boost participation by lukewarm and occasional voters. In 2012, moreover, postelection findings suggest black turnout rates exceeded white turnout rates.
Republican voter suppression efforts in 2012 generally failed, and may have actually backfired, by swelling minority participation. In addition, the massive growth of conservative super PACs that many on the left thought would push the nation to the right appear to be, at least for the moment, paper tigers, with pathetic won-lost records on November 6.
Developments on the participation side of the ledger have been favorable to progressives in terms of building political support for measures to ameliorate inequality, the decline in middle-class jobs, and the shift in income from labor to capital.
At the same time, however, economic inequity has been worsening. There are a number of public policies that should be adopted. Those cited universally are: a substantial increase in investment in community and four-year colleges; an expansion of preschool programs, especially in poor neighborhoods; and reform of curricula and standards at public elementary, middle, and high schools.
Underlying such calls for policy intervention, however, is a growing conviction that there are powerful economic forces driving inequality—forces that will not yield to educational reform. One such force is the intensification of global competition, which requires continuous minimization of labor costs, cross-border production, and a shrinking role for human labor.
In this context, the goal of increasing voter participation runs head-on into the difficulty of developing goals or rewards for growing involvement in the political process. For the American Left to flourish, policy innovations that address competitive pressures are required. The failure so far to do so is, I believe, one of the reasons for the anxiety regarding democracy.
There are a series of other uncertainties that will shape participation and policymaking.
The first of these is the fragility of the ascendant Democratic coalition. There are at least two potential fissures, both of which conservatives are watching closely.
The first potential defector is the constituency less in need of safety net and redistributive policies: relatively upscale and well-educated whites whose main concerns are issues of personal autonomy and freedom. Insofar as the Democratic Party pushes an agenda imposing higher taxes and other cost-sharing burdens on this wing of the party, its loyalty will be tested. The link may break. This will be especially the case if the establishment wing of the Republican Party succeeds in its efforts to emphasize economic issues and mute the voice of social-cultural-moral conservatives.
The second potential Democratic fissure may stem from conflicts over limited resources, especially in the nation’s cities, between blacks and Latinos. Access to model schools, the award of government contracts, patronage jobs, and elective office are all grist for ethnic competition and for the fracturing of multiracial partisan alliances.
A wild card in the intra-Republican debate is the role of the business elite. This elite has, in the past, depended on the Republican Party for support on issues of taxation and regulation. If the business and finance communities perceive the GOP as a weak political force, they will increasingly look for ways to strengthen their leverage in the Democratic Party. This will mean increasing support in Democratic primaries for candidates in the mold of Mark Pryor, Mark Warner, Ben Nelson, Max Baucus, Thomas Carper, and Maria Cantwell.
The selection of centrist Democratic candidates is, in turn, likely to diminish participation and turnout by reducing the salience of contests to those further to the left and right.
Of all these factors affecting political engagement, the most important is the current lack of coherent and credible policy to foster and sustain involvement in the electoral process. The central anxiety of the Left is rooted less in the question of participation than in the lack of an agenda.
The development of a relevant and coherent liberal agenda is a Herculean task, requiring a willingness to defy partisan orthodoxy and deeply rooted interest groups. I would question whether the Democratic Party, or liberalism more generally, is currently prepared to take on this task.