The Democratic Party’s Rothko Problem

Look familiar? The Democratic electoral map has started to look a lot like Mark Rothko's No. 14 from 1960. (Image courtesy of

Look familiar? The Democratic electoral map has started to look a lot like Mark Rothko’s No. 14 from 1960. (Image courtesy of

Amid all the hand wringing and finger pointing within the Democratic party in the last week – and there has been a lot of it – one clear and indisputable truth has emerged: the Party has to change, and in a big way, if it wants to regain control of Congress and see the Oval Office in Democratic hands again.

Former (Bill) Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich has been among the highest profile party figures to call for radical change. In this piece, he called on the leadership of the Democratic Party to step down in order to make way for a new leadership focused on improving the lives of ordinary Americans. From Reich’s op-ed:

The Democratic party once represented the working class. But over the last three decades the party has been taken over by Washington-based fundraisers, bundlers, analysts, and pollsters who have focused instead on raising campaign money from corporate and Wall Street executives and getting votes from upper middle-class households in “swing” suburbs.

Indeed, the lesson of Clinton’s (Electoral College) loss is that the Democratic Party has, in the last eight years, built a real-but-fragile coalition of voters spanning college educated white voters, city-dwellers and ethnic minorities. Since the Clinton Administration of the 1990s, Democrats have also done well with the business community and Wall Street. That’s led to a flood of campaign cash for candidates like Clinton and Obama.

In the process, however, Democrats have become isolated from a vast swath of the American public that lives in working class and rural communities or “fly over” states between the technology, business and media centers on the coasts. The result of this results in what I like to call an electoral “Rothko” problem for Democrats. I’m speaking, of course, of Mark Rothko, the abstract expressionist painter whose canvasses frequently depicted vast swaths of colors – reds and blues, yellows and oranges, and so on.

Look at the results from Tuesday’s vote and, like me, you’ll find yourself wondering if you’re looking at a Rothko painting like Number 14 from 1960: a vast rectangular canvas, 2/3rds of which is bright red, with a narrow band of blue in the bottom 1/3 of the canvas. To me, that looks like Wisconsin or Florida: patches of blue against a sea of red.


A Rothko? You wish! Florida, by county, in 2016.

As former Secretary Reich notes: that’s because the Democratic Party long ago abandoned its commitment to the interests of working people like those struggling to make ends meet in the red bits. From his piece:

The White House for 16 of the last 24 years, and for four of those years had control of both houses of Congress. But in that time they failed to reverse the decline in working-class wages and economic security. Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama ardently pushed for free trade agreements without providing millions of blue-collar workers who thereby lost their jobs means of getting new ones that paid at least as well.

They stood by as corporations hammered trade unions, the backbone of the white working class – failing to reform labor laws to impose meaningful penalties on companies that violate them, or help workers form unions with simple up-or-down votes. Partly as a result, union membership sank from 22% of all workers when Bill Clinton was elected president to less than 12% today, and the working class lost bargaining leverage to get a share of the economy’s gains.

Bill Clinton and Obama also allowed antitrust enforcement to ossify – with the result that large corporations have grown far larger, and major industries more concentrated. The unsurprising result of this combination – more trade, declining unionization and more industry concentration – has been to shift political and economic power to big corporations and the wealthy, and to shaft the working class. This created an opening for Donald Trump’s authoritarian demagoguery, and his presidency.

The natural conclusion of 2016, when Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College, as did Al Gore in 2000, is leavened with some good news: Democrats do have a coalition that can win popular votes over Republicans. Democrats do (much) better with fast growing demographics in the U.S. like Latino and Asian Americans than do GOP candidates. But the Democratic Party, post Barack Obama, can no longer afford to paint Rothkos with the electoral map: with splotches of deep blue in a sea of angry red. That worked for Obama, because he did at least OK among working class voters in those red counties, and ran up huge margins in cities and affluent and densely populated suburbs around them. Hillary got demolished in the rural counties and didn’t do nearly as well turning out the vote among minorities and urban dwellers. The result: President Trump.

Ordinary Americans line the rails as the body of President Roosevelt passes on a train bound for Washington D.C. Photo courtesy of Life.

Ordinary Americans line the rails as the body of President Roosevelt passes on a train bound for Washington D.C. Photo courtesy of Life.

In short: the Democratic Party has to find a way back to their natural constituency among working class and blue-collar Americans. That shouldn’t be hard. These are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the folks who lined the rails as FDR’s funeral train made its way back to Washington D.C. They were loyal and even passionate supporters of the party as the champion of working men and women through the 1980s. Democratic policies and priorities: from shoring up the social safety net to supporting labor unions to helping to fund roads, education, healthcare and infrastructure would all benefit working class Americans tremendously.

Instead, the Democratic Party has been caught in a “What’s The Matter With Kansas” netherworld: standing by helplessly as working class and blue-collar voters throw their weight behind a party (the GOP) that is openly hostile to the kinds of policies and institutions that will most benefit working people: unions, public sector investment and policies that benefit workers and labor over capital.

With less than two years until the 2018 midterms, the job of rebuilding the Democratic Party has to begin now, and I’m hopeful that it will take place with an eye to those big swaths of red. I can’t say I’m that encouraged by what I’m reading on that score. This piece over at Politico seems to depict a party pushed to the brink of extinction (just 16 governorships nationally) and at war with itself over the way forward after Tuesday’s vote.

Is the future with establishment “New Democrats” like Howard Dean with business and lobbying ties and access to fundraising and donor networks, or is it with the Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren branch of the party: populist, angry and itching for a fight. Should Democrats a) double down on the Obama coalition: stoking fears of racial and gender based discrimination to spur turnout among aggrieved minorities, or b) find a way to transcend identity politics (always a tough ask for Democrats) and find common cause between latino immigrants, socially liberal urban and suburbanites and disenfranchised Wal-Mart workers, teamsters and coal miners in places like Michigan, West Virginia, Kansas and Wisconsin? *

With Rothko we lose. With Conrad Marco Relli, we might win!

With Rothko we lose. With Conrad Marca Relli, we might win!

Whatever the outcome of the leadership fight, change is due. The electoral map of states like Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin in 2020 can’t be a Rothko with spots of blue in a sea of red. Maybe, however, Democrats can paint something like the pictures of Conrad Marca Relli, another abstract expressionist who painted canvases that were a jigsaw of different colors. Do that, and the Party can look forward to a few decades of fruitful political leadership. Fail – again- and Barack Obama’s two terms will be remembered as a swan song. A brilliant moment of hope before the final and utter collapse of the dominant political party of the 20th century.

Stay tuned!

(*) the correct answer is b