Hillary Clinton, long an advocate of the “Third Way,” has recently urged Democrats not to go “too far left” or they could lose the next election. Based on findings in my recent book “Listening to the American Voter: What Was on Voters’ Minds in Presidential Elections, 1960 to 2016,” Hillary Clinton’s advice is wrong. The “Third Way” is the wrong way.
First, let us look at the success of the Democratic Party in recruiting members (identifiers) over the history of the Party. The modern Democratic Party began in the 1930s with the New Deal. FDR created a number of programs that dealt with the many problems brought on by the Great Depression. They were very liberal programs such as Social Security, the 40-hour workweek and the minimum wage. Unions were empowered by law to bargain collectively. These efforts were highly popular. By the 1940s and 1950s, half of American voters were Democrats.
In the 1960s, Democrats (under the leadership of LBJ) passed several advancements in the rights of Blacks including the Civil Rights bill of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. During the next two decades, White Southern Democrats left the party in droves so that by the 1980s the South had become solid Red. This loss of southern Democrats brought the nationwide portion of Democrats down to 35 percent.
The party had paid dearly for advancing civil rights for Blacks, but they did it because that is what the Democratic party is all about. The purpose of the Democratic Party is to represent the ordinary working man and woman, the poor, the downtrodden, and those without rights.
The ranks of Democrats continued to decline nationally after 1980 so that by 2016, only about 30 percent remained. Democrats were now tied with Republicans who also had 30 percent. This loss of 5 percent of identifiers in the last two or three decades has had devastating consequences. The result is a tied Senate where just one or two maverick Democrats — such as Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — can gum up the works. This loss of 5 percent came about because, starting in the 1990s, the leaders of the Democratic Party decided to use the “Third Way” strategy (taking a middling, vague position on issues and not going too far left). The problem with the strategy is that the party losses its identity; it has no clear image. It is difficult for people to identify with something that has no identity.
A well-known fact about socialization is that each new generation is more liberal than the last. From the 1990s onward, when each new generation of these predominately liberal voters were looking for a party to join, they could not find a liberal party and therefore became independents. Evidence of this generational effect is detailed in my book.
One might also ask how well this “Third Way” strategy has worked to win campaigns. Since 2000, there have been three Democratic candidates who have kept in the mushy, non-descript middle — Gore, Kerry, and Clinton. They all lost. Gore was inarticulate and evasive. Kerry flip-flopped on withdrawing from Iraq and did not fire back when attacked with the Swiftboat ads. Clinton did not deal in a straightforward way with Benghazi and her email server.
Barack Obama was not part of the “Third Way” crowd and was someone who could rouse a crowd (“Yes, we can!’) and took specific positions on issues. He won twice.
David E. RePass is an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Connecticut. He is the author of, “Listening to the American Voter: What Was On Voters’ Minds in Presidential Elections, 1960 to 2016.”