Op-Ed

Goldberg: Are the Dems doomed?

Probably not, but the party seems far less prepared than the GOP to cope with the coming era of austerity.

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President Obama talks about the economy

President Obama talks about the economy in the briefing room of the White House in Washington. (Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press / June 8, 2012)

Is it time to start talking about the inevitable demise of the Democratic Party?

Since the 1990s there's been a thriving cottage industry of doomsaying about the Republican Party. The gold standard of the genre is undoubtedly 2002's "The Emerging Democratic Majority" by Ruy Teixeira and John Judis, which argued that the Democrats were destined to become a majority party because demographic and cultural trends were on their side. The increasing cultural liberalism of professionals, the dramatic growth of Latinos and the increasingly liberal attitudes of (single) women were celebrated by Teixeira and Judis as proof that time was on the Democrats' side.

And they may have been right, had all the trends they identified or took for granted continued to move in a straight line.

But that pretty much never happens, as Sean Trende brilliantly argues in his book, "The Lost Majority: Why the Future of Government Is Up for Grabs — and Who Will Take It." For instance, Trende recounts how the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in the summer of 1972 that George McGovern was "the leader of a coalition of citizen participation, a coalition for change, as broad as FDR's in 1932."

McGovern lost in a massive landslide (61% to 38%).

The problem for the Democratic Party is that its core philosophy and mechanisms are increasingly ill-suited to our times.

In an essay for National Affairs titled "The Politics of Loss," Jay Cost recounts how the entire edifice of post-World War II politics is starting to crumble under the weight of debt and impending austerity. "The days when lawmakers could give to some Americans without shortchanging others are over; the politics of deciding who loses what, and when and how, is upon us," Cost writes. He's undoubtedly right when he adds, "Neither party yet fully understands the implications of this shift, which means both parties risk being caught unprepared when the economic slowdown forces profound changes in American politics."

But there's a key difference between the parties. The Democrats tend to be more traditionally coalitional: If everyone sticks together, everyone gets paid. In the age of austerity, however, zero-sum politics become more of the norm. When one constituency's victory is another's loss, the payoff for solidarity diminishes.

Already, across the country, there's a growing rift between unions in the public sector and the private sector, perhaps not in official statements but clearly in terms of rank-and-file voters and popular perceptions. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker got 37% of the vote from union households in his recall fight, in part because private sector union members understood how much the private sector needed a healthy state economy.

More broadly, the old system of rewarding liberal elites on cultural and environmental issues while paying off the working class with economic spoils will be increasingly hard to sustain. Obama's positions on gay marriage and the Keystone XL pipeline fuel donations from celebrity millionaires but they don't help with middle- and lower-class voters. And if those voters get no payoff from voting Democratic, what's the point?

Consider Obama's decision to grant work permits to perhaps 1 million young illegal immigrants. In a booming economy that would be a lot easier. Instead, the White House must tell millions of unemployed blacks that the competition for jobs has just gotten tougher because Obama needs more Latino votes.

Ironically, the last time America experienced the politics of austerity, it was a great boon for the Democratic Party.Franklin D. Rooseveltcobbled together his great coalition in the 1930s by doling out patronage and spoils to various constituencies.

But here's the difference. Roosevelt could target his pandering without too much fear of spillover. He could tell blacks he was on their side and Southern racists he was on theirs. In Oval Office meetings, he would mollify members of his coalition by blaming other members for holding up progress.

I don't actually think the Democratic Party is doomed (nor did I ever believe the GOP was). But the way politics is done has to change for the simple reason we cannot afford it. Maybe I'm wrong, but the Democrats seem far less prepared to deal with that reality than the Republicans.

jgoldberg@latimescolumnists.com

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