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ISR Issue 58, March–April 2008

Election 2008: Beginning of a new era?


ELECTION YEAR 2008 holds the potential of being equivalent for the Democrats what the 1980 election was for the Republicans. The 1980 election, when Ronald Reagan won the White House and the GOP won the U.S. Senate and made major gains in the U.S. House of Representatives, marked the beginning of the conservative dominance in mainstream politics. While it is still too early to make major predictions, it appears that 2008 will be a year of major gains for the Democrats, with a high likelihood of a Democrat winning the White House.

If such an eventuality takes shape, it will mark the first time in decades where official liberalism will be seen as decisively defeating official conservatism. Even Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992 was only partial, with Clinton winning the presidency by a plurality in a three-way race, and the Democrats failing to make any real gains in Congress. Two years later, the Democrats lost their congressional majority and Clinton largely ended his term governing as an Eisenhower Republican and stealing many of the GOP’s talking points. By contrast, 2008 appears to present the U.S. with a mainstream political terrain different from what we have known for much of the last thirty years.

Not only is the ISR taking note of this. In a Financial Times op-ed entitled “Beware the coming Democratic sea-change,” former Bush speechwriter David Frum, the conservative who coined the phrase “axis of evil,” warned:

The stage has been set for the boldest and most dramatic redirection of U.S. politics since Reagan’s first year in office. Of course, there are no guarantees in politics. An inept president could bungle his or her chances. Unexpected events could intrude: a nuclear test in Iran, a major terrorist attack on U.S. soil or some attention-grabbing political scandal. But given moderate luck and skill, the next president could join Reagan, Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt as one of the grand reshapers of politics and government.1

“Leading indicators” of a strong Democratic showing in November are easy to establish. The sheer amount of money Democrats have raised has put Republicans in the shade. For example, in 2007 alone, Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton raised between them just under $200 million, compared to a total of about $126 million between leading Republicans Mitt Romney (with $88 million) and likely GOP nominee Senator John McCain (with $38 million). In the month of January 2008, Obama pulled in $32 million—or just under the amount McCain raised in the entire previous year. In late 2007/early 2008, the Democratic congressional campaign committees held similar advantages over the Republican campaign committees. This means that the voters in the “money primary,” the corporate interests and wealthy individuals who fund U.S. elections have already decided that the Democrats will be the winners in 2008. Another “institutional” indication of the likely Republican defeat in November is the announced intention of nearly one in seven Republican congressional incumbents—including leading figures of the Republican leadership like Mississippi Senator Trent Lott and Representative Tom Davis (R-Va.)—that they will not run for re-election.

More important still are the indicators of rumblings “from below.” Since late 2005, the majority of the population has turned against the Bush administration and the Republican Party. The 2006 election ended GOP congressional rule, rendering Bush a nearly irrelevant lame duck for the last two years of his term. This year’s Democratic primaries have turned out record numbers of voters—in most cases dwarfing the number of Republicans voting in that party’s primaries. Through the Super Tuesday February 5 primaries, 15 million people had voted in the Democratic primaries, compared to 11 million in the GOP primaries. If these trends hold, they point to a heavy turnout in November where the majority of voters will be primed to toss the Republicans out of office, from the White House to city hall.

Not only has the public turned against the GOP as a party, but also it appears to have turned against conservatism as an ideology. As a March 2007 Pew Research Center for the People and the Press report on social attitudes over the last twenty years explained:

Increased public support for the social safety net, signs of growing public concern about income inequality, and a diminished appetite for assertive national security policies have improved the political landscape for the Democrats as the 2008 presidential campaign gets under way.

At the same time, many of the key trends that nurtured the Republican resurgence in the mid-1990s have moderated, according to Pew’s longitudinal measures of the public’s basic political, social and economic values. The proportion of Americans who support traditional social values has edged downward since 1994, while the proportion of Americans expressing strong personal religious commitment also has declined modestly.

Even more striking than the changes in some core political and social values is the dramatic shift in party identification that has occurred during the past five years. In 2002, the country was equally divided along partisan lines: 43 percent identified with the Republican Party or leaned to the GOP, while an identical proportion said they were Democrats. Today, half of the public (50 percent) either identifies as a Democrat or says they lean to the Democratic Party, compared with 35 percent who align with the GOP.2

With the GOP’s main calling card, the war in Iraq, opposed by seven out of ten Americans, and with rising public concern about the economy—likely to be validated by a sharp economic recession—the “issue terrain” is much more favorable to the Democrats than to the Republicans. Since U.S. elections mostly give voters the opportunity to “throw the bums out,” the GOP bums are the most likely ones to pay the price for the disaster in Iraq and the recession.

Since the mid-1970s when the ruling class took its decisive turn toward neoliberalism and the employers launched their three-decade-long offensive against organized labor and the broader working class, the Republican Party was their chosen vehicle for delivering, enforcing, and building a social base for these policies. After largely accomplishing its goals, the GOP has come up against the limits of its strategy.

The conservative program—tax cuts for the richest Americans, cutting government spending on programs that benefit working Americans, and exposing more government policies to “market forces”—largely succeeded in becoming orthodoxy. So much so that, in ending “welfare as we know it” and financing a prison-building boom, Democrat Bill Clinton helped to finish what Reagan and his ideological supporters started.

Yet this has left conservatives with fewer targets like “welfare” on which to focus public discontent, while at the same time, creating a backlash against the wreckage the Right has created. The simple truth is that the majority of people have not benefited from any of these conservative policies. In fact, ordinary Americans’ lives have worsened as they try to cope with declining living standards, the loss of government social benefits, declining value of their homes, and so on. The clear public perception that Bush has been a president for the rich, coupled with the increasing economic precariousness reinforced by the bipartisan consensus, has discredited neoliberal nostrums.

This opinion is part of a larger shift in consciousness that has remained largely unnoticed. While Republican politicians (and Democrats who want to mimic them) use rhetoric that appeals to a 1950s image of the U.S., in reality, the U.S. is a far more tolerant and less paranoid country than it was in the 1950s. With the partial exception of a slight rightward shift on attitudes toward abortion in the late 1990s, the majority of white workers—the supposed inhabitants of “Bush country” and “red state America”—are more tolerant on their social issue stands and more liberal on economic issues than they were two decades ago. And ordinary whites certainly hold more liberal attitudes regarding government economic policy than do wealthier whites, a disproportionately Republican voting base.3 Despite Republican success in using cultural conservative “wedge issues”—successful largely because Democrats cave in on them—the genuine Kulturkampf that leading figures of the Christian Right want to impose on the nation is anathema to the majority of Americans.

A more tolerant social climate draws also from the emergence into adulthood of the largest birth cohort since the postwar “baby boom”—people born in 1990 who are turning eighteen this year. This group, and those born in the 1980s, has grown up in a more multicultural and sexually tolerant society than their parents. Politically, they have known nothing but Bush/Clinton neoliberalism, which has certainly not improved their or their families’ lives. Given these observations, it should come as no surprise that this age group is the most liberal and most pro-Democratic voting bloc in the electorate. It was the only age group to support Democrat John Kerry in the 2004 election. Today, it also appears to be the age group most attracted to Barack Obama’s candidacy in the Democratic Party.

With Bush ending his term as the most unpopular president this side of Richard Nixon on the eve of his resignation, the notion that his administration would usher in a new generation of conservative Republican rule seems laughable today. Instead, large majorities of the population associate Bush and the Republicans with disastrous policies (Iraq), incompetence (Katrina), scandal (too numerous to list) and cronyism (Halliburton, et al.). The boost that 9/11 gave to Bush and the Right temporarily slowed, but did not stop, the longer-term trends that appear to be unraveling the old GOP coalition.

Facing these headwinds, the GOP machine looks rusty as it heads toward November. The Republican primaries have exhibited all of the GOP’s contradictions, with various candidates representing different parts of the Republican voting base, and with none of them really exciting conservative America. Super Tuesday gave a decisive lead to a candidate, Senator John McCain, who much of the GOP “base” of conservative evangelical Christians dislikes and distrusts. While conservatives will no doubt rally to him—and he will pander to them—this outcome is indicative of the larger problems the Republicans face. The flood of corporate money to the Democrats is a vote of no confidence in the GOP, as it is currently constituted, to be the main vehicle for Corporate America’s policies today. The ruling class of the world’s largest and most technologically sophisticated economy is no longer willing to invest millions in a party whose candidates have to kowtow to people who want to use the government to promote belief in creationism. This doesn’t mean that the GOP or the institutional Right is finished. It just means that they will have to reinvent themselves to become a more viable option for the ruling class again.

On the Democratic side, Super Tuesday delivered a more muddled outcome, with Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama almost equally dividing the primary vote between them. Since Super Tuesday, Obama has racked up a primary winning streak that has put him ahead in the race for delegates to the August Democratic convention in Denver. When the ISR went to press, Clinton was hunkering down, trying to win the March primaries in Ohio and Texas and the April primary in Pennsylvania. Wins in these large states would recapture the momentum for her. Even Republican pollster Bill McInturff, no friend of the Clintons, recognized that it is a mistake to count her out. “The Obama wave is unlike anything I have seen during my career. It would have totally swamped any traditional candidate,” McInturff told the Wall Street Journal. “The fact that Clinton is still standing and breaking even is actually a remarkable statement about how unique a candidate she is and what an exceptionally strong candidate.”4

As the primary season unfolded, Clinton positioned herself as the candidate of the Democratic establishment, winning support and endorsements from a majority of Democratic institutions (i.e., the major lobbying groups and unions) and from elected politicians. Obama, on the other hand, has excited much of the Democratic “base” as measured by large turnouts at elections and in mass rallies. Yet this is not a case of one establishment candidate versus the “insurgent.” In fact, Obama is well wired into all the main Democratic institutional networks, which is the main factor that explains his viability as a challenger to Clinton. Election atmospherics—and the very real hopes that millions are placing in Obama—aside, the support for Obama from inside the Democratic hierarchy is based on a calculation that he, rather than Clinton, would be a better bet to win in November. If Obama establishes a solid lead over Clinton, it would not be surprising to see institutional support for Clinton crack, with increasing numbers of Democratic leaders and fundraisers going over to Obama.

“If Obama continues to win...the whole raison d’etre for her campaign falls apart [i.e., that she’s the “inevitable” nominee who will win in November] and we’ll see people running from her campaign like rats on a ship,” Democratic strategist Jim Duffy told the Associated Press’s Ron Fournier.5

Despite the endorsements of Obama from liberal organizations like, the Mexican American Political Association, or chapters of the Progressive Democrats of America, Obama is not cut from different cloth than Clinton. In fact, according to Federal Election Commission data tabulated by the Center for Responsive Politics, Clinton and Obama run first and second among Democrats and Republicans in contributions from the following industries: commercial banks, computers/Internet, education, health professionals, pharmaceuticals, and television and film. Clinton and Obama were nearly tied in contributions received from hedge funds and private equity firms.

Obama’s main appeal over Clinton among liberals stems from his opposition to the war in Iraq. But no one should doubt that he comes fully vetted by the U.S. foreign policy establishment. According to Laurence Shoup’s very useful article:

Barack Obama’s foreign policy advisers include 13 current CFR [Council on Foreign Relations] members and one former member. These include two former National Security Advisers, an Air Force chief of staff, an Assistant Secretary of Defense, an Assistant Secretary of State, and a National Security Council Director for Europe. One of Obama’s advisers, a former CFR director and President Carter’s National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, explained his support by stating that it was only Obama who could “grasp the historical moment,” set a new direction, and address the “fundamental historical misjudgment” of the Iraq war. Furthermore, Obama “understands, even personalizes, the historical quest for diversity and dignity.” Clinton, in contrast, would, in Brzezinski’s view, take the country “back to what we had eight years ago.”6

So if a Democrat wins the White House and the Democrats hold the Congress, will this mark a rebirth of liberalism? The answer is both yes and no. In the sense that both Clinton and Obama stand to the “left” of McCain on most issues, and a Democratic victory would break years of right-wing Republican dominance, liberalism would receive a boost. What is more, millions of Americans would vote for Democratic candidates hoping that they would act on the issues that concern the majority: ending the war in Iraq, fixing the housing mess, providing universal health care. If the mainstream political system began to raise these “liberal” issues, people’s expectations that something could be done about them would be raised. And just breaking the stifling conservative orthodoxy of the last generation would make liberalism a more viable ideological alternative for millions who want to see real social change.

On the other hand, the kind of liberalism the Democratic Party represents today is no longer the counterfeit social democracy of the New Deal or Great Society. As the pillars of the New Deal coalition dissolved, the Democrats remade their party. Particularly in the 1990s, Democratic Party leaders under Bill Clinton reoriented the institution to the emerging sectors of the “New Economy” so that “the onetime party of Jefferson and Jackson emerged as the clear choice of many of the new Internet and telecommunications rich headed to the top of the Forbes 400.”7 So when Democratic leaders get down to discussing what can be done to fix the health-care crisis, it’s likely that they will produce a “universal health care” plan that will preserve the dominant role of private insurance companies that are the main source of the existing disaster of U.S. health care. And as the Democratic Congress’s capitulation to Bush on almost all aspects of the war in Iraq has shown, a Democratic administration will want to prove itself as a responsible trustee of U.S. imperialism.

Since the primary season opened, every candidate in both parties, it seems, has embraced the idea of “change.” Exactly what any of them mean by that is up for interpretation. Even they recognize that the public is looking for something different. In his speeches and advertising, Obama invokes images of past movements for social justice, like the movements for civil rights, abolition, and women’s suffrage, and asks supporters to join his “movement.” But we should always remember that Obama is not building a real grassroots movement for social change. He is building an electoral campaign within the Democratic Party, one of the two big-business parties in the United States. That distinction is crucial, as author and radio host Laura Flanders, an Obama supporter, notes:

Let’s keep in mind that those hopeful base voters aren’t doing all this work simply in order to get a change of personnel in the White House. It’s change in their lives and their communities, as well as in the country at large that they need and want. Even a shift of power in both chambers of Congress in November 2006 has brought them precious little of that….

The swirl of the primary season is intoxicating—and the media love it. But real change happens on a different timetable. If you’re looking for estimated times of arrival, the problem is: We don’t know that timetable yet.8

Lance Selfa is author of a forthcoming book on the Democratic Party from Haymarket Books.

1 David Frum, “Beware the Democratic sea-change,” Financial Times, February 6, 2008,


2 Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Trends in political values and core attitudes: 1987–2007. Political landscape more favorable to Democrats,” March 22, 2007, at http://

3 See Larry M. Bartels, “What’s the matter with What’s the Matter with Kansas?” at

4 McInturff quoted in Jackie Calmes, “Obama’s extraordinary wave fails to sink extraordinary foe,” Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2008, A6.

5 Ron Fournier, “Chickens come home to roost,” Seattle Times, February 13, 2008, at

6 Laurence Shoup, “Ruling class conducts its hidden primary,” at

7 Kevin Phillips, Wealth and Democracy (New York: Broadway Books, 2002), 541.

8 Laura Flanders, “Grassroots: The Democratic Party’s real hope for change,” AlternetAlterNet, February 8, 2008, at

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