Some buttons from more prominent members of the class of '74
I was reading a book about Nixon this week, which got me thinking about a related topic, the realignment of the Democratic party post-Watergate. It's an especially important topic to consider on Labor Day, since labor had been the backbone of the New Deal Democratic Party, which began to fade in the 1970s. Labor's role in the party changed along with the loss of industrial jobs and weakening of union membership and power that came with it. Even before that reality had fully set in, a new wave of Democrats after Nixon took a decidedly more technocratic direction.
Jimmy Carter, for instance, was no great friend to labor and did not support the full-employment plan pushed by the Democrats' old guard in the late 70s. The wave of Democrats brought into Congress post Watergate, exemplified by the likes of Gary Hart, emphasized their independence from the old guard. This was understandable in many respects, since that old guard was associated with the likes of Richard J. Daley. That old guard (which was literally dying off, in Daley's case) had often been unresponsive to the needs of people of color and women of all races and tended to be socially conservative.
The new class of Democrats emphasized their competence and know-how, as if they were above the demands of any particular constituency, labor included. In the 80s and 90s this impulse dove-tailed with agenda of DNC types, who were willing to accept a lot of the new neoliberal economic thinking. The next Democratic president, Bill Clinton, signed NAFTA, drastically cut welfare, increased prisons, and declared the era of "big government" to be over. Since this agenda did not exactly excite the Democratic base (keep in mind that Clinton did not get a solid majority of the popular vote in either election), Democrats relied more on raising big money than getting their base to the polls, as if that was some kind of dirty machine tactic.
For the past thirty years Democrats have expected to get their base to the polls by pointing out how awful the alternative would be. The Republicans have obliged them by putting forward reactionary troglodytes at every opportunity. This, of course, has absolved the Democrats of doing anything positive for their supporters. To wit: African Americans vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, but the party is just as guilty as their opponents of supporting prison industrial complex, which is institutional racism at its worst. Teachers unions reliably go to bat for Democrats, but in Chicago Rahm Emmanuel is attacking teachers, and the Obama administration supports education policy opposed by teachers' organizations.
The Democrats, flailing hopelessly along since 1994 as conservatism lite, got extremely lucky with Barack Obama, a candidate who could excite the base and bring a ton of charisma to the table. Further down the ladder, however, the rot was setting in. The Democrats have lost governorships in "blue" states like New Jersey and Wisconsin, and have failed to gain traction in red states like Texas despite favorable changes to demographics. This has drastically depleted the ranks of possible successors at the top. Just look at their presidential field, which is thin, and in which Martin O"Malley is the only candidate not eligible for Social Security. That post-Watergate generation still dominates the party because they were never able to sustain one afterward. (This is also a stinging comment on the effects of Baby Boomer narcissism and inability to share the spotlight with Gen X.)
It should hardly be a surprise that Bernie Sanders, a socialist in his 70s with a distinct lack of smoothness, is doing so well right now. Rank and file Democrats have grown tired of decades of not having their voices heard. The fact that the party does not have younger leaders at the start of their ascent (or even in the middle of their careers, for that matter) is a damning indictment of the party's failure to build for the future. Despite lauded demographic changes and the apparent clown show that is the Republican Party, don't expect the Democrats to make any major gains, or even to hold what they've got.