Unless there is a recession in the next two years, Hillary Clinton, or whoever wins the next Democratic presidential primary, will likely be the odds-on favorite to take the White House in 2016. However, she may very well find it impossible to implement any sort of program, or indeed to govern at all.
As the era of Barack Obama has shown, any Democratic president will likely face an enraged, scorched-earth opposition campaign from Republicans in Congress, likely featuring repeated high-stakes hostage negotiations as Republicans shut down the government or threaten national default to extract policy concessions they couldn't pass through normal means.
The Senate map in 2016 is fairly favorable to Democrats, and if they have a good Election Night they ought to be able to win a majority. But when Republicans won a host of state legislatures in 2010, they gerrymandered themselves a large handicap in the House.
The Democrats would need a tidal wave election to win a majority there. Since American government now requires one party to control the presidency, the House, and the Senate to pass all but the most anodyne legislation, anything short of a landslide victory will leave President Hillary boxed in on domestic policy.
How can Democrats achieve this result? With a campaign of forthright economic populism centered around bold, aggressive policy to reduce inequality and shore up the poor and the middle class. For a concrete example, Lane Kenworthy's Social Democratic America has an excellent, realistic, and worked-out program. Many of its individual elements are also quite popular. Basically, hike taxes by 10 percent of GDP and plow the money into social insurance programs and benefits: genuine universal health insurance, a beefed-up Earned Income Tax Credit, a universal child credit, universal pre-K, a government job guarantee, and so forth.
In short: soak the rich, and direct the proceeds down the socioeconomic ladder. This would benefit the poor the most, of course, but also the middle class.
Could such a platform really win? I believe it could, as long as Democrats overcome ideological obstacles within their own camp and undertake an old-fashioned campaign of political persuasion. But more to the point, there's nowhere else to go but left, since a move in any other direction will result in the divided government Democrats seek to avoid.
The objective on Election Day would be to stoke turnout to the highest degree possible. A good rule of thumb is that the lower the turnout, the more conservative the electorate. The 2014 Republican victory featured the lowest turnout in 72 years, at 36 percent. Conversely, the population of nonvoters is younger, browner, and poorer — the ones who would would benefit most from the Kenworthy plan.
A cautious, centrist campaign that tinkered around the edges of policy would probably reassemble the Obama coalition, which got turnout nearly to 54 percent in 2012. But, assuming political and economic conditions are about the same in two years' time, it's hard to imagine beating that mark. Indeed, it might not even do that, since many of the 2008-era Democratic ideas have already been implemented.
To be sure, a nakedly populist campaign would be a shocking departure from the political mainstream. The Democrats haven't been that far to the left since 1972 at least, when they got obliterated by Nixon. Beltway careerists like Ron Fournier would faint in outrage. Hillary Clinton herself is strongly associated with neoliberal dogmas that are poles apart from social democracy.
But as Paul Glastris (who worked as a speechwriter for Bill Clinton) put it back in January, Hillary Clinton also isn't a fool. The turn to the right by Democrats in the 1980s and '90s wasn't just corporate sellout-ery, it was a result of being repeatedly massacred at the polls. Then it was politically vindicated by the Clinton victories in 1992 and 1996, and the red-hot economy of the late '90s.
But things have changed. This recent election was the second consecutive midterm defeat for Democrats, and today's economy is much, much worse than that of either the '70s or the '90s:
The essence of "Clintonism" is not the particular policies Bill Clinton championed in 1992. It is the wisdom of seeing that as times change, new ideas are needed to achieve progressive ends, and the skill of finding policies that hit the sweet spot of working both politically and in practice. [The Washington Monthly]
The Kenworthy plan is also a challenge to today's prevailing theories of political mechanics, especially on the Democratic side, which is largely reactive. Instead of trying to sell voters on new ideas and build enthusiasm on the merits of policy, today's political consultants typically build their messaging through focus groups and polls of what voters already think. Instead of treating people as persuadable individuals worthy of honest, straightforward argument, they assume attitudes are largely fixed and try to work around them.
This precludes running on a populist platform, since most people have a mixed-up idea of how today's economy works. When it comes to income inequality, polls show that most people think the government should prioritize economic growth rather than reducing inequality. This is why Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo is probably right to say that inequality is a political loser right now. Voters think it's just soaking the rich for its own sake, which is fun, but not directly beneficial to the country as a whole.
But that's not the whole story. Inequality is a symptom of the rottenness of the American economy. It shows that the economy has become a machine for directing all economic growth into the pockets of the rich. Indeed, more than all — this current period of economic growth has seen declining median wages.
There is no reason to think that the bottom 90 percent would get anything more than a scrap of extra growth, if anything. JFK's slogan is wrong — a rising tide no longer lifts anything but the yachts. Muscular populist policy is more realistic and appropriate today than at any point since the 1920s, the last time income inequality reached its current staggering level.
(That's in addition to more complex arguments that income inequality itself is slowing economic growth through marginal propensity to consume effects and by restructuring America's corporations into piggy banks for shareholders to loot.)
Therefore, for any populist program to be viable, Democrats and the left generally will have to convince people that their ideas are good. It will take confidence and energy, not to mention abandoning 30 years of policy and politics.
There are good historical reasons to think that it's at least possible. Sam Pizzigati's splendid book The Rich Don't Always Win shows how just such an effort created the American middle class in the first place. Pizzigatti demonstrates that decades of thankless political organizing and mobilization across two depressions and two world wars created the pressure that leveled up the bottom, and leveled down the top. This effort did not take place solely within one political party, of course. (Both parties nominated hardcore conservatives in the 1924 presidential election, for example.) It was a prolonged effort across all political fronts, from unions to newspapers to parties and beyond.
Make no mistake: This is an extremely stiff task. Nonvoters are generally alienated and politically apathetic. Social democracy is a bad fit for today's Democrats. Worst of all, there remains little more than embers and sparks of the left-wing institutions that drove previous movements.
But if the Democrats want to make a serious play for 2016 and beyond, this is their best option. Neoliberalism is exhausted, and revanchist Republicans are resurgent. It's time for the left to remember its history.