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How John Edwards has Changed the Democrats

It is now an acknowledged truth that Howard Dean, even though his candidacy for president was unsuccessful at the ballot box, nonetheless changed the Democratic party for good, showing the party the possibilities of bringing in new voters, new technology, new sources of funding, and an unintimidated spirit of challenge to the right.

As the nomination process seems to be winding swiftly to a conclusion, it's time to argue that Senator John Edwards has done the same, and in fact, his contribution to the party and to modern liberalism may be more important, more daring, and more lasting. His contribution was in challenging the lazy assumption of "universalism" that has dominated the language and program of liberals and Democrats. By this I mean the assumption that successful politics depends on benefits that reach "a huge cross-class constituency," in the words of political scientist Theda Skocpol. It is largely Skocpol and pollster Stan Greenberg, in books and articles such as "The New Majority" who popularized the idea that only programs that benefit the middle class as well as the poor, as Social Security and Medicare do, can be politically successful.

I don't mean to criticize Skocpol, whose work I love and whose research and knowledge is unimpeachable, or Greenberg. But it's really when their historical understanding gets oversimplified in ordinary political practice that it severely narrows the sense of possibility in modern politics. The result of the search for programs that reach "a huge cross-class constituency" in times of fiscal scarcity and hostility to government is thin programs, like Clinton's "micro-initiatives" of the Dick Morris era, that offer a little something for everyone and not much to anyone.

Meanwhile, what this politics missed was the fact that the middle of the middle class in the U.S. was not doing that badly -- at least not during the Clinton boom -- but life has been getting steadily more difficult for the bottom 40% of the population, which is to say not only the very poor but the first rungs of the middle class. The median income for households in this sector is $23,000, and they have gained virtually no income since 1974, while losing significant economic security. While we fixate on the fact that more than 50% of Americans now own stocks or mutual funds, at least 45% do not. Three in ten households has a net worth of less than $10,000.

Of course you'll never hear George Bush, or, sadly, any other Republican mention any of that. You won't hear many Democrats mention it either. They prefer to hit a little closer to the middle, to the stock-owning, voting middle. They want to talk about child care, not Unemployment Insurance and certainly not Food Stamps or Medicaid. Last week, for a project I've been working on, I spoke to someone in Washington who has been very important in organizing opposition to the Bush tax cuts. "Every communications person or pollster we talk to," she said, "tells us that we have to speak to the middle middle of the middle class, and not talk about anything that benefits poor people." She didn't disagree with that judgment, but found it very limiting.

Even the "populism" peddled to candidates Kerry and Gore by Bob Shrum conveys little sense of the degree to which the working poor are screwed in today's economy and how that can be changed. It's about "the people vs. the powerful," that is, it's a populism that's almost entirely about the rich, and only by inference about the people who are really suffering. (I resist even calling this appeal "populism," because it is only vaguely resembles the American tradition of populism, which (1) had an ugly side to it and (2) sprung naturally from the deeply suffering rural poor. It was not just language adopted by ordinary politicians.)

Edwards is the first politician who, when he talks to a room full of middle-class people, doesn't necessarily seem to be promising something to them. Sure, he's a little vague about just where the line is between the "Two Americas" -- it's "the rich and powerful" and "everyone else." But when he gets specific, when he starts talking about the ten-year-old girl who goes to sleep hoping that it isn't as cold tomorrow as today because she doesn't have warm enough clothes -- it's got to be apparent to any audience that he's not talking about what he's going to do for them. He's making a moral claim about what our country owes to those who have the least, not promising something to everyone who "works hard and plays by the rules." And, shocking as it is, that's a big deal. And it matters that it comes from a candidate who is generally perceived as a moderate -- if only because he's a southerner -- rather than the leftmost candidate in the race. Although I think that's a very subtle distinction, and I agree with every word of Joel Rogers' argument in The Nation, "Progressives Should Vote For Edwards".

It also, surprisingly, permits a kind of optimism. The Shrum populism is just a complaint, it doesn't lead to a structural revamping of the economy that would really change the circumstances that the rich and powerful are rich and powerful. Edwards' vision, on the other hand, suggests something that it is within our power to change. We can do something for that ten-year-old girl, we can generate what the folks at the Economic Policy Instittute call "broadly shared prosperity."

Dean's transformation of the Democratic party was largely procedural, though not unimportant. He helped the party see that enthusiasm could be as valuable as converting a swing voter at the 50th percentile. He showed that money could be raised from supporters of any age, income or background, that the only contributors were not those on the Democratic National Committees official list of proven contributors. And he showed how giving up control of a campaign, letting it be driven by its supporters, could generate tremendous enthusiasm. Edwards' campaign has been more conventional in procedure, and in the end, while doing "better than expected," he is still unlikely to be the Democratic nominee. But if Democrats hear his language, the willingness to make a moral claim about what our country should be like, not just what he will do for the middle of the middle, it will be a powerful voice.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on February 10, 2004 | Permalink


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The Decembrist, as usual, has hit on something important that the mainstream media has ignored. I too have been struck by the quiet radicalism of the moderate Edwards.
However, change occurs when a strategy succeeds as Dean's fundraising succeeded. Thus far Edwards appeal to the lower middle class does not seem to be earning their votes, at least that was my anecdotal impression from various surveys and exit polls.
To test that impression, I just went to cnn.com and looked at the exit poll data they have for primary states where Edwards got at least 12% of the vote.
Here's the data (number is how much better or worse the candidate did with the demographic vs. their overall performance):

Income under $15,000


Tennessee -8
South Car. +1
Missouri -3
New Hamp -4
Average -3.5


Tennessee +5
South Car. +4
Missouri +10
New Hamp 0
Average +4.8

Income $15,000-30,000


Tennessee +1
South Car. -3
Missouri +5
New Hamp. +2
Average +1.3


Tennessee +3
South Car. +3
Missouri -4
New Hamp. -2

Average 0

Income $30,000-50,000


Tennessee -1
South Car. +2
Missouri -4
New Hamp. -2
Average -1.3

Tennessee +4
South Car. -1
Missouri +3
New Hamp. -6
Average 0

It's not alot of data to go by (the education data backs it up with Kerry doing extremely well with no high school and only high school and Edwards well with only college), and Edwards does show a slight gain in the 15-30,000 demographic, but overall he's doing worse with the poorer half of the electorate than Kerry and significantly worse with the very poor. It will be interesting to see if that changes if Edwards can stay in the race

Posted by: Terry | Feb 13, 2004 10:39:35 AM

Excellent piece. Only thing missing is the stylistic element that enables Edwards to tell these stories so well. He's empathic. Not anybody could pull this off.

Dean said to people that he wasn't going to promise to fix all their problems, which was good, but he didn't find the meta-framing about societal fairness that Edwards has, and didn't deliver it with the same "positive" appeal.

Edwards use of message will possibly have far-reaching influence. You might see Kerry pick it up this year, regardless of whether Edwards is on the ticket. I've always thought that had 9-11 not happened, Edwards would have had this in the bag. But he is only 50 years old, there is plenty of time for him to lead this message.

Posted by: Crab Nebula | Feb 13, 2004 1:50:01 PM

An interesting post, Decembrist. I have also been drawn to Edwards' straigthforward talk about poverty, the 2 Americas, and all that; your comments regarding the way Edwards addresses a room of middle class voters does suggest something real about him. One the unfortunate things about the derailment of the Dean campaign was that we never really got to see how his campaign would develop in terms of bread and butter domestic/progressive issues. I had my doubts--his seeming rigidity on deficits was a bit of warning flag to me. At any rate, since the injection of personality/electability as the dominant theme, it seems that we won't get a chance to see how he might have evolved, especially in the face of Edwards' more frank talk about the poor. That said, anybody can talk about poverty, say its a bad thing, and needs to be gotten rid of. This is not a knock on Edwards, just a way of really honing in that "structural revamping" you mention. This is the really difficult stuff, and here is also where some kind of political critique of power, and who has it in this country, is necessary. Who stands in the way of a higher minimum wage and union organizing; unemployment insurance (and health care and child care); an accountable federal reserve and a treasury less beholden to the bond markets? As you argued a bit ago, there is not necessarily a Democratic establishment these days, but both parties--of course to varying degrees--have to negotiate (if not just cozy up to) corporate might to get anything done. Such is the nature of the hegemony of big capital. Candidates need positive, progressive ideas and the programs to put them in place. They also need to educate the people about the obstacles these ideas and policies will face. Complain, no. Critique, yes.

Posted by: R Wells | Feb 13, 2004 3:00:52 PM

As a Church leader of a Church, which accepts homosexual marriages I'm disappointed in Kerry's cynical and distasteful behaviour. He has made liberals seem sleazy, untrustworthy and unelectable. First he says he is a war hero, then I see footage of him at Hanoi Jane's anti-war demonstration in the 70's denouncing soldiers fighting in Vietnam as murderers and warcriminals. Kerry can't even keep a vow to his wife, so how are we supposed to believe him when he vows to uphold the constitution? The girl was only 20 years old. Kerry is 60 for goodness sake. He was banging a baby. Isn't Michael Jackson in court for that? But I guess Creepy Kerry can always flee the country and hide in France, like Roman Polanski. So the rumors about Kerry using Botox are true after all. Though looking at the age difference he probably wasn't using Botox to stiffen his forehead.

Posted by: Ricky Vandal | Feb 13, 2004 5:34:44 PM

The only problem is that Edwards's *substantive* approach to poverty and the "two America's" is a repackaging of what he had already proposed which are largely a series of small-scale micro policies (go to his website to see this). Its not like he's proposing stakeholder accounts --as in the UK.

His rhetoric is undoubtedly a contribution but even that is more in his own personal oratorical skills.

Dean's contribution is more than procedural, he has made many of the rhetorical and points that I *later* heard Edwards and Kerry borrow...but he didn't put it together as a unified message the same way or as eloquently as Edwards has.

Posted by: lerxst | Feb 13, 2004 9:46:04 PM

Yes, Edwards has more personal appeal than any of the other candidates. And he talks a good game. But "changed the Democratic party?" Not likely. Dean's campaign hasn't done that, either, and I say that as someone who has supported Dean from the start.

Dean's campaign showed how angry the rank and file was with the Democratic party establishment. That was the beginning of a movement to change the party, and it scared the Washington Democrats. Aided by slanted media coverage -- especially the media's "scream" assault on Dean after Iowa -- they went after Dean and knocked him out of the race. That looks to me like a party scared to death of change.

Dean's campaign was really a movement, and that was its weakness and its strength. To win elections you need a well-organized campaign, staffed by people who have done it before. When it comes to attracting voters, movements full of enthusiastic amateurs aren't what you want -- especially when the professionals are out to get you. But can you have a movement and a campaign organization -- Joe Trippi and Roy Neel -- at the same time? No one's ever done it, and maybe it can't be done.

But the movement was exactly what the party needs. Whether it can actually change the party depends on whether the movement continues in some form after Dean drops out, and continues after November.

Kerry may now be reading Dean's script, and even the DLC is calling itself "populist." But these guys are probably just dressing up in progressive clothes long enough to get votes from people whose hearts are still with Dean. It's way too soon to say the party has changed. That job is just beginning.

Posted by: Bob | Feb 13, 2004 10:12:30 PM

Means test entitlements, cur payroll taxes at the low end, tax the rich and cut government to the bone. No better method to put private sector resources in the hands of the poor.

Posted by: Matt Young | Feb 14, 2004 12:12:21 PM

That Edwards changed the Democrats is an interesting hypothesis but one we can't evaluate until the general election. Has Edwards given Kerry a roadmap for succeeding without moving to the center? Like Bob points out, I have a feeling that the rhetorical change is temporary and Kerry will slowly shift away from it (except in front of certain audiences) as summer turns to fall.

The veep selection will also be interesting in this regard. Does Kerry choose someone who can excite the base like Edwards or someone to lock up a moderate leaning state and appeal to the center (although Edwards does also seem to appeal to the center).

Posted by: Stuart | Feb 14, 2004 1:01:49 PM

>> >He's making a moral claim about what our country owes to those who have the least, not promising something to everyone who "works hard and plays by the rules." And, shocking as it is, that's a big deal."

It's shocking because that's exactly what the Democratic Party used to stand for until it attempted suicide with McGovern. It hasn't recovered yet, in large part because the Republicans learned how to appeal to voters who spend the greater part of their lives in fear that tomorrow will be worse than today. That's the real base of the Democratic Party, but it's turned away from those folks and taken up with suburban SUV drivers.

Posted by: | Feb 14, 2004 3:10:10 PM

This is excellent dissection from the Shrum populism as espoused by Gore 2000 versus a early 1992 Bill Clinton/Zell Miller populism. Yes, some of us remember Zell Miller the democrat.

Edwards has changed the terms of the debate for the better. In his speech at Georgetown last June(http://www.johnedwards2004.com/page.asp?id=125)
he offers - in his words - the hope middle-middle class people can hold about government making a difference in their lives. There's little government can do about Enrons of the world until after the fact.

But changing the tax code to reward work versus passive activity is hands on demonstrative action that can be taken.

Nice job, Mark.

Posted by: tmartinsmith | Feb 15, 2004 12:47:01 PM

You hit the nail on the head on why I got turned on to Edwards. He is genuine. He can work the crowd (Carville said even better than Clinton). And unlike Kerry he has yet to show a boring bone in his body. And on top of all that, he's not bought into the play to the middle of the middle class stuff that too many D's and their friends on the Left try to do. And his talk of how government makes a difference in peoples' lives is long overdue after years of the DLCers incidiously trashing government with new speak about reinventing, running like a business, etc.

Keep up the good work Mark.

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