Progressives and the Democratic Party
Cohen:Swing voters are not ideological, if Obama doesn’t deliver real change they will vote against him
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, coming to you today from Ithaca, New York. Joining us now is Jeff Cohen. He’s the director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. He was the founder of FAIR, the media watchdog. Thanks for joining us, Jeff.
JEFF COHEN, FOUNDING DIRECTOR OF PARK CENTER, FOUNDER OF FAIR: Great to be with you.
JAY: So you’ve been in progressive media, progressive politics for many years. So react a bit to what happened to Massachusetts. What does it tell us about the state of the country, the state of the Democratic Party?
COHEN: I think Massachusetts has to be seen in a context that for decades in this country we’ve had stagnant wages. And when you hear the term "swing voter" in our society, you’ve got think working-class, middle-class whites, because, you know, rich people, whether they’re Republicans or Democrats, they know who they’re for. Poor people, people of color, they know who they’re for: they’re for Democrats. Religious fundamentalists, Christian fundamentalists, they’re for the Republicans. But there’s this middle group that is—they’re called swing voters or independents. They’re given a lot of names. One thing we have to understand about this group is the stagnant wages, stagnant income for decades, even though now there’s two wage earners in so many families, which changed since the 1970s. So in this backdrop, you have these elections that are constantly about throwing the bums out. And this class that I’m talking about, of largely working-class whites, lower-middle-class whites, they’re not heavily ideological. There’s no one less ideological than a swing voter, by definition. And they see themselves as beleaguered, no one’s talking to them, and they just go. You know, so Obama was the agent of change in 2008, and in Massachusetts these independent voters—and there’s more independents than Democrats in Massachusetts—they went with Obama.
JAY: Obama was, at least emotionally, a progressive message. I think if you actually listen to what he said, one could debate how progressive it was, but [inaudible] change you can believe it, we’re going to get away from the status quo, sounds progressive.
COHEN: I think that’s what Scott Brown’s message was in this last election, that he’s going to get away from the status quo. And if you have no ideology and you’re not following it that closely, you’re going to—and nothing’s been really delivered to you in the one year of the Obama administration, you’re likely to jump. And I think the key thing to understand about swing voters or independents is the lack of ideology. They don’t have an ideology. But what they go for is someone that’s promising them change or—and this happened a lot in 2008—they sense from their neighbors, their relatives, that there’s all this enthusiasm about change, and the enthusiasm is with Obama in 2008. That’s where the activism was. And if someone who’s not that political is looking around, they say, wow, a lot of people believe in this new Obama guy, and I’m beleaguered, and I’ve—haven’t had economic justice, I’m going to give them a chance. And now where’s the energy? Well, the progressive base has been demobilized by Obama vacillation, corporatization, and escalation of military intervention. But the tea bag movement, the right wing, the people that have a simple answer for complex problems, which is cut spending, that’s where the enthusiasm is. They’re having the rallies. So if you’re sort of a depoliticized independent voter, or swing voter, and you sense, all right, a lot of people think that Brown’s going to bring me change. And it’s really sad. I mean, the people that are laughing all the way to the bank, you know, are the Wall Street people, that they just see—they throw the bums out, and nothing really affects Wall Street. They’re still laughing all the way to the bank.
JAY: The kind of voter you’re talking about has kind of two wants. The status quo’s not working for me, I want more, and I don’t want to lose what I got. So the right always is able to play to "You’re going to lose what you got," and it’s a clear-cut message. When they run in elections, the Democrats say you’re going to do better. Then they can’t deliver.
COHEN: And then they don’t deliver. Right. And there’s a couple of things that need to be talked about. That’s a great question. One is that the polling data has been done. I saw it come out a couple of days later by a progressive group, where they only interviewed in Massachusetts people that had voted for Obama in ’08 and either voted for Brown this time or didn’t bother voting. And their message from—and that’s a big group—their message was that we wanted change and we didn’t get it. Do you think health care went too far or not far enough? More of them said didn’t go far enough. Is this administration doing enough?
JAY: And by "far enough" I think it was pretty clear they said they wanted a public option.
COHEN: Oh, yeah. And, yeah, there was a—that was one question specifically asked. It was just overwhelming, through the roof. So here’s a case where these swing voters who are not very ideological would have stayed in the Obama camp if Obama was bringing change, taking on Wall Street, delivering health-care reform that was real reform, that wasn’t just a giveaway to big insurance companies and big Pharma. So I think that’s a key point. And your next part of your question was how come they can’t govern. And I’ve been following corporate liberalism since I became politically active as a teenager, and the candidate then was Hubert Humphrey, who, you know, just could not mobilize the base, because he was connected to the Vietnam War. And every time we get a Democrat in there—Carter, Clinton, Obama—they always get elected based on a message of change, especially for these, the middle-class and working-class voters, and their message of change is never delivered. And the Democrats are good enough, sometimes, to get elected when Republicans have collapsed. Like, Carter won after Watergate and a complete Republican collapse. Clinton got in when the first President Bush let the public know that he’d never really seen a scanner in a grocery store, you know, and they played [inaudible]
JAY: And the economy was a mess.
COHEN: Right, the economy was a mess. But they played it for all it was worth, that he’s an elitist—he doesn’t know what a scanner is in a grocery store. And Bill Clinton preaching a message of change. Clinton won reelection in ’96 because the economy had picked up and it was one of the worst Republican candidates was Bob Dole, and then you have Obama after the complete collapse of Bush’s popularity and the popularity of the Iraq war. So Democrats can get in with a message of change. The problem is, when they govern, the only thing they can always be counted on to do is demobilize their base. They do it like clockwork.
JAY: You campaign about fighting corporations. You campaign with this populist message for—you campaign from the left, but if the party’s actually controlled from the right, you’ll never going to be able to deliver on the campaign promise.
COHEN: It’s always fake left, go right.
JAY: So, in the next segment of the interview, let’s talk about some of the historical roots of the Republican Party’s plan for the right to really control—the far right to control the Republican Party, and then let’s talk about how the Democratic Party became so corporatized. Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Jeff Cohen.