Democrats appear to be on a suicide mission, determined to pass trillions in new spending and embracing a host of far-left positions on social issues despite warnings that this could cost them control of Congress. One might expect Democrats to be more careful considering the shellacking they endured in response to similarly aggressive pursuits of left-wing legislation in the midterms following Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s elections.
In 1994, after Clinton had pushed an assault weapons ban, admitted gays in the military and strongly advocated universal health care, the Republicans picked up eight seats in the Senate and 54 in the House. In 2010, after Obama pushed through the Affordable Care Act despite broad voter opposition, Republicans won seven seats in the Senate and 63 in the House, the biggest shift in seats since 1948. At the state level, the GOP had a net gain of six governorships while flipping control of 20 state legislative chambers.
Given those consequential defeats, why would Democrats risk their narrow majorities with a far more robust cornucopia of leftist policies than even Clinton and Obama had advanced?
Because Democrats play the long game. Where Republican victories are always temporary – their tax cuts and deregulation efforts are easily undone when power shifts – major Democrat achievements are forever. Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare and Obamacare are irrevocable. In their calculation, losing the House and Senate is a small price to pay for establishing new entitlements that will never go away.
Through incremental victories over the decades they have inexorably transformed America into a big government welfare state. Because their achievements cannot be undone, the country has eventually adapted to the imposed realities. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal did not end the Great Depression. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society did not end poverty. While those liberal landmarks were failed promises that are the prime drivers of our national debt, they have become sacred programs that no politician dares to question, or even reform, because so many Americans are now dependent upon them.
In fairness, FDR and LBJ enjoyed broad public support for their dubious experiments. Democrats since then have not – in part because the people recognize the perils of such overreach. The fact they continue to push unpopular policies illuminates an ignored but central aspect of the party’s character: Democrats have never truly been democratic. Since the 19th century when it was controlled by wealthy white supremacists in the South and machine politicians in the North, the party has always been a top-down institution in which cultural and political elites decided what was best for everyone else.
This is why progressivism, which is based on the idea that a small group of learned experts should organize and run society, made its home in the Democratic Party in the early 20th century. Woodrow Wilson, FDR, John F. Kennedy and LBJ prided themselves on attracting “the best and the brightest” to run an ever-expanding government. The tax-and-spend policies they embraced were not evidence of their deep compassion but tools they used to buy votes to expand their power.
If they truly respected the “the people” they claim to champion, they would not have imposed policies that led to repudiation at the polls in 1994, 2010 and, perhaps, 2022. But the party leaders are convinced they know best. They are willing to martyr themselves at the polls to lead the ignorant masses to the Promised Land.
Democrats like to say they cast aside their racist history and completely reinvented themselves during the 1960s. They incessantly repeat LBJ’s false claim that the party had “lost the South for a generation” by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (with a higher percentage of Republicans supporting it in the Senate than Democrats). In fact, most Southern states remained in the party’s grip: Republicans didn’t gain control of the state legislature in Georgia until 2005, in North Carolina until 2011 and in Mississippi in 2012, according to Ballotpedia.
More deeply, the party’s defining characteristic as a top-down organization – now dominated by rich white coastal elites and African American activists – never changed. Neither did its tendency to smear its opponents. Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, its target was the “Negro menace.” The party’s organs routinely depicted African Americans as dumb, irrational and violent creatures who posed a grave moral threat to public order.
Today, Democrats use these tropes to describe Republicans, continuing their racializing of public life by beating the drum about white supremacists. There is a straight line from Jim Crow to Joe Biden – even though Biden likes to use that phrase to tar Republicans. If the past is prologue, Democrats will push their ambitious spending plans, the voters be damned. They may suffer another shellacking at the polls, but so what? They are used to it. All their losses are temporary but their victories are permanent.
J. Peder Zane is an editor for RealClearInvestigations and a columnist for RealClearPolitics.