Dem Party Decades in Decline: Why?

Today’s analysis points to the Democratic Party’s loss of seats in the US Senate and House and in State Legislatures across the country. We present this info in the hope that the Dem. Party will recognize that you can’t get different results without changing strategy.

The Steady Loss of Democratic Party Influence in Congress and State Legislatures

Today’s post will focus on simply presenting  evidence of the erosion of the Democratic Party’s power base over 8 decades while also pointing to key shifts in Party policies and their chosen Party partners and will suggest a correlation between election results and voter registration and those changes in policies and partners. Let’s start with voter registration numbers.

Voter Identification & Registration. The table at left illustrates a trend in the historic reduction in the proportion of Americans who identify with and/or register as Democrats. Note that the decline begins in 1965 when over half of Americans identified as Democrats and the chart ends with Democratic identification hovering at just over 30%, but in 2015 that number had dropped to below 30%.  As other charts will illustrate, this trend is mirrored very precisely, by losses of House and Senate seats and losses of state legislatures, all coinciding with shifts in Democratic Party policy priorities.

Change in Control of House and Senate Seats.  We presented this table in yesterday’s post, but it needs to be incorporated in the analysis of voter identification and control of state legislatures. Interestingly, Democratic Party losses of Senate and House seats began in 1945, but the Democrats still had strong control of both chambers in 1965 with almost 70% of Senate and House seats still controlled by the Democrats and with the proportion vacillating between 60-70% from 1965 to 1978. However, after 1978 the Democratic Party saw a steady decline in control of the House and Senate. From a recent Politico Report:  “It goes without saying that Republicans improved upon their showing in the 2014 elections.  Their 54 Senate seats represent the second-best tally for the party since 1928.  Their 247 House seats is the most the party has won since 1928.” At 247 House seats, the GOP now controls 57% of House seats.

Change in Control of State Legislatures. The map at left shows the current breakdown of party control of state legislatures. An Associate Professor from the University of Wisconsin created a report which includes a table with the changes in Party Control of seats in the US Congress and State Legislatures from 1978 to 2016. It is not a pretty history for the Democratic Party. The report begins its analysis in 1978 when the Democrats controlled both chambers in 31 State Legislators, the GOP controlled but 11 with 8 legislatures split. This proportion didn’t change much between 1978-1990, however by 2000 Democrats had lost control of 13 legislatures, only controlling both houses in 18 states, while the GOP had increased their control to 16 legislatures. By 2016 the  GOP controlled both chambers in 32 states while the Democrats controlled but 14. Again this trend largely mirrors declines reported above related to both voter registration and control of House and Senate seats.   Click here to review the report.

Why the Democratic Party Got Here

For the Democratic Party to reverse this trend, it will need to return to the policies, messaging and alliances prevalent during the FDR and JFK/LBJ eras and turn their backs on neoliberal policies that reflect the interests of the corporate sector, at the expense of labor and under-served populations. In the 30’s the Democratic Party under the leadership of FDR, became the party of the people, literally lifting the country out of a deep depression. During this time frame, the Party vastly increased the role and size of government, created unemployment insurance, social security and increased public spending to fund a massive investment in US infrastructure. Click here for a Balance summary of FDR’s social and economic programs. Suffice to say the Party’s strong advocacy on behalf of the majority was a major reason for the surge in America’s identification with the Democratic Party.

As noted above, the Democrats largely sustained very high levels of support through the 60’s, in the House and Senate and in relation to voter registration. The commonality between FDR policies and that of JFK and LBJ is that all three significantly expanded funding to increase support for education, healthcare and social services. When JFK was inaugurated he inherited a deep recession. He immediately acted. From Balance: “Kennedy did this [respond to the recession] by pumping billions into the economy right away. He didn’t need Congressional approval. He simply directed Federal agencies to move their budgeted spending forward as quickly as possible. In this way, JFK dumped a billion dollars in state highway aid funds into circulation. He accelerated payment of farm price supports, tax refunds and GI life insurance dividends. He created a Food Stamp program and expanded Employment Offices.”  LBJ continued this investment in infrastructure and a social safety net, doubling the amount of new funding that Kennedy had invested. From another report from Balance: “You have LBJ to thank for Medicare, Medicaid, and urban renewal. He also championed the right for minorities to vote, ride buses and go to school the same as whites. Without his Great Society program, there would be no National Endowment for the Arts or Humanities, no Public Broadcasting, drivers education.”  For Balance’s summary of LBJ economic and social programs, click here.

The common thread to the FDR and JFK-LBJ administrations is a significant increase in the size of government, creating public entities and programs that supported Americans and built our infrastructure. During the Clinton years, Democrats used tax increases on the wealthy to help pull the country out of another GOP-generated recession. “He enacted contractionary fiscal policy. First, he raised taxes with the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993, his first budget. The Deficit Reduction Act raised the top income tax rate from 28 percent to 36 percent for those earning more than $115,000, and 39.6 percent for income above $250,000. It increased the corporate income tax from 34 percent to 36 percent for corporations with incomes over $10 million. It also ended some corporate subsidies, taxed Social Security benefits for high-income earners, and created the earned income tax credit for incomes under $30,000. It raised the gas tax by $.043 per gallon and limited the ability of corporations to claim entertainment tax deductions.” But while Clinton did revive the economy, at the same time he launched the War on Drugs, vastly reduced commitments to social welfare programs like Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), passed the largest trade agreement in history, NAFTA, and began the introduction of an array of neoliberal policies. What’s more, he failed to enact healthcare reform, largely due to the obstructionist involvement in the planning process of representatives from pharma, health plans and the insurance industry.  From Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor Emeritus of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University:  “the very real legacy of Bill Clinton, which doesn’t seem to garner much attention is on the domestic side. On the domestic side it has been, over the long-term, just as damaging to the nation as has been George W. Bush’s on the foreign side.” Jonas’ article goes on to analyze Clinton’s introduction of neoliberal policies that define the Party today, including the dismantling of Glass-Steagall regulations on the finance industry, which contributed to the 2008 bank collapse.. Click here to review the report. 

In previous posts, I have described both the achievements and the surprising number of profound disappointments that marked the Obama era. While the ACA remains a significant achievement, the failure to take bold action and seek punitive measures against Wall St, or perhaps to even let them go bankrupt and create a national bank, was a missed opportunity. Obama’s support for fossil fuel industry instead of taking bold steps to invest in renewables, is another missed opportunity. I’ll stop there, but in these two missed opportunities, we can see the difference between FDR, JFK, and LBJ and the party of neoliberalism that the Party has become: When faced with a crisis all three of these presidents took bold steps that ushered our country onto an entirely new paths: Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare, the War on Poverty, the Civil Rights Act, these were bold plans for desperate times and their policies were unequivocally designed to improve the well-being of the majority. On the other hand, Clinton’s War on Drugs, unraveling of the welfare system, relaxation of banking regulations, forging of the NAFTA agreement, none of these policies were designed to support disenfranchised people. What’s more, the healthcare reform he promised in his campaign was stalled because the Clintons allowed the foxes into the chicken coop, with insurance, pharma and health plan interests trumping the majority’s need for an improved healthcare system. Obama had a mandate to take similar bold action having been elected on the theme of change you can believe in. But instead of creating holding the banking industry accountable, he bailed them out; instead of investing in renewables he invested in fracking; instead of creating universal healthcare, he created the ACA, providing millions with insurance but by virtue of allowing pharma and the insurance industry to dictate conditions of the plan, he left Americans with large co-pays, out of control prescription drug prices, and millions of Americans uninsured. One wonders: had FDR been president in 2008 would he have created a National Bank, invested enormously in renewable energy research and infrastructure (instead of fracking) and created a health system that responded to the needs of the majority?

In closing, take a quick look at the large timeline of fluctuations in levels of Democratic support. Notice the two times when Democrats experienced a huge bump in popularity and Congressional strength:  the mid to late 30’s when FDR was launching the New Deal and the 60’s when the Democrats were creating Medicare, expanding social security, launching the War on Poverty and advancing civil rights and women’s rights. Note also when the Democratic Party saw the greatest loss in its House and Senate control:

  • During the Truman era when red baiting and the cold war resulted in the association of New Deal policies with Soviet-style big government and a subsequent retreat from New Deal policies;
  • In the late 60s-mid 70s when the Party turned its backs on a vibrant anti-war movement that had energized millions and nominated a centrist Hubert Humphrey and we got Nixon; and
  • During the mid-term elections in both the Clinton and Obama administrations when the GOP made enormous gains in both chambers of commerce, especially in 2014.

What is the trend here?  Democrats do best when they take advantage of opportunities, advance bold progressive agendas, expand government and money flows, and stand up for the majority. The Democratic Party does far worse when faced with a challenge or opportunity, it fails to lead boldly and offers neoliberal policies that tend to favor the corporatocracy more than the majority.   It will be pointed out that gerrymandered districts contributed mightily to the loss of State Houses and House seats, but gerrymandered districts could only occur because the GOP had wrested control of state legislatures who made redistricting decisions.

Others will point out that it was easier for FDR and JFK/LBJ to make dramatic changes as they enjoyed greater support in Congress and from the American people. But I’d suggest that they achieved these levels of support by offering an inspiring message that resonated with the majority of Americans precisely because the policies and priorities of these leaders and the Democratic Party were responsive to the needs of the majority, instead of responding to the needs of a corporate sector whose collective greed is destroying our planet and concentrating wealth shamelessly.

What if the Better Deal video concluded with a list of specific policies that clearly addressed the needs of the majority?  What if the DNC had welcomed Nina Turner when she arrived at its office with 115,000 signed petitions endorsing the People’s Platform, instead of barring her entrance?  For more on the People’s Platform and the DNC’s turning Turner away, click here.

We want to find a way to have conversation among all Democrats about the points made in this post. We want to hear from centrist Democrats about their understanding of the reasons for the Party’s erosion of strength, and we want to genuinely explore what we need to do together between now and 2018 to ensure that the House goes blue. That conversation can begin on August 19 from 3-5pm at 1420 Cerrillos, the Center for Progress & Justice.  Click here to RSVP on Facebook or simply write to

In solidarity,

Paul & Roxanne



Categories: Actions, Democratic Party Reform

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9 replies

  1. Good analysis, Paul.

  2. Good to read an analysis based on historical data! How about developing a piece and submitting it to Rolling Stone? or ……..????

  3. If I understand correctly, your hypothesis is that the Democratic party has lost ground because its policies weren’t doing enough to increase the role of government by aggressively increasing taxes and expanding government programs.

    It is difficult for me to believe that (anti-war) candidate George McGovern and Jimmy Carter in their campaigns against Nixon and Regan respectively lost so massively because they weren’t ‘progressive enough’. I also find it an extreme stretch to believe that the massive Democratic midterm losses during the 1994 midterms (Bill Clinton) and the 2010 midterms (Obama) in which the Democrats lost not only the house of representatives (and the senate in 1994) but also a large number of state legislatures and governorships were also due to the party and its leaders not being ‘progressive enough’.

    In fact, many analyses of the 1994 and 2010 midterms attribute the losses to backlash against a number of progressive policies enacted during Clinton and Obama’s first two years in office when the democrats had control of both houses of Congress. (Tax increases and Hillary-care in 1994, ACA, cap-and-trade bill and deficits exacerbated by the ARRA stimulus package in 2010).

    On the other hand, the major gains of democrats in the Kennedy/Johnson era were achieved in the 1964 election could be as easily be attributed to splits in the Republican party and extreme voter antipathy to the ‘war-monger’ Barry Goldwater who threatened not only preemptive nuclear war, but also expansion of American engagement in Vietnam. (Johnson quoted memorably in his 1964 campaign “We are not about to send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”)

    It should finally be noted that a large percentage of the losses in Democratic party support since the 1930’s is due to the abandonment of the party by voters in the deep south who had supported the Democratic party from the end of the Civil War until the 1960’s as the party of ‘State’s Rights’ (read ‘Racial Segregation’). Notable Democratic politicians of the era include such notables as Strom Thurmond, Larry McDonald (head of the John Birch Society) and George Wallace.

    A more detailed analysis of the 1994 midterms can be found in the Journal of Politics article by Prof. James Campbell ‘The Presidential Pulse and the 1994 Midterm Congressional Election’

    An analysis and literature review regarding the 2010 midterms can found in ‘ANALYSIS OF 2010 MID-TERM ELECTIONS: A CASE STUDY’

    Analysis of the 1964 election can be found in ‘American voting behavior and the 1964 election’

    A good general reference book by William Flanigan et al: ‘Political Behavior of the American Electorate, 13th Edition 2015’:

    An interesting analysis of political/voter coalitions with lots of data is the book by Real Clear Politics senior analyst Sean Trende: ‘The Lost Majority: Why the Future of Government Is Up for Grabs – and Who Will Take It’

    • I thought about the South movement to the GOP, as well. To be honest, I almost prefaced my last comments with something like “there could easily be other factors involved….” Not sure I’ve seen comments from you before, so thanks for good counter-view.

      • No matter how many factors one takes into account when considering election results, there will always be others that one is forced to neglect or are difficult to measure (such the quality of ‘messaging’ or a candidate’s ‘attractiveness’ or ‘likeability’). As such, any less than book length piece is bound to oversimplify somewhat, but trying to come up with concise and readable analyses, as you have, is still a worthy undertaking, since this is the most that the majority of people will have the time to consider.

        I didn’t agree with your conclusions, but I could certainly be wrong about that. I didn’t think Trump could possibly win the election, which shows how much I know…

  4. This piece is EXCELLENT. Well-researched and presented. Thank you, Paul!

  5. Paul, I do hope you study the points made by WF and let us know what you think. I also wonder what effect Fox News and other right-wing outlets have had. It used to be that everyone got the same news reports. Now, people get only the slant they want to hear. How do you reach Republicans or Independents who listen only to the Fox lies?

  6. It is interesting to see how knowledgeable people can get lost in the details. I believe that Roosevelt’s quote above says it all. Sometime in the 80’s somebody gave me a different analogy. Two wings of the same bird, which is now nesting in the white house and in congress. For example, Hillary sat for about 6 years on Walmart’s Board. As its director! Obviously she, as a democrat, is not for middle or lower America but for the one percent, just like the Reps. Yes, there is quite a bit of history showing how the Democrats betrayed democracy and the 99%.

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