The Democratic Party is the most important political party in the world today. It is the only organization in a position to defend what was once the world’s flagship democracy and economic power from a president who has re-engineered his own party to justify racism, misogyny and xenophobia. Yet the party of the donkey is hardly up to the task. Over the past decade, as Republicans have further embraced an ideology of resentment unmoored by facts, Democrats have lost hundreds of seats in state legislatures, 22 seats in the House of Representatives and control of the Senate — while losing the White House to the most toxic candidate in history.
In his new book, “Capital and Ideology,” economist Thomas Piketty explains why. The Democratic Party — like left-leaning parties throughout the world — failed to come up with a compelling response to the global conservative resurgence of the 1980s. Like New Labour in Britain and the Socialist Party in France, it abandoned the working-class voters who were once its base: “Improving the lot of the disadvantaged ceased to be its main focus. Instead, it turned its attention primarily to serving the interests of the winners in the educational competition.” By 2016, according to the post-election surveys that Piketty analyzes in depth and across several countries, the Democrats were the party of not just the highly educated but even the highly paid.
The Western world stands at a crossroads. For most of the past century, politics in prosperous democracies was primarily oriented by the division between rich and poor. Today, that axis is being overshadowed by clashes over national or ethnic identity, between anti-immigrant nativists and pro-immigrant cosmopolitans. Examining the data over several countries and decades, Piketty identifies the turn toward identitarian politics as a direct consequence of the left-wing parties’ conversion to market capitalism: “The disadvantaged classes felt abandoned by the social-democratic parties (in the broadest sense) and this sense of abandonment provided fertile ground for anti-immigrant rhetoric and nativist ideologies to take root.”