The Democratic Party is finished in Oklahoma. After arguably the worst 2 years of governance in Oklahoma history, the Republican Party maintained its complete control of the state government. How did this happen?
The Democratic Party lost because over half of eligible Oklahoman voters did not vote in the general election, and the vast majority of them are working people. Why didn’t they vote? To live modestly yet securely (i.e. not in or at risk of poverty), a family of four needs to earn $4600 each month. On average (median), Oklahomans make $3900, and rural Oklahomans earn $3450. That means that well over half of the state is living in or near poverty, and the problem is significantly worse in rural areas. Also, because of rising health insurance premiums, many people are about to get significantly poorer (while 16% of the state has no health insurance), and the predicted budget shortfall for 2017 will drastically curtail public services.
Things are not looking good for working people in Oklahoma, and, in all likelihood, it’s only going to get worse. When working people look at the political landscape, they’re undoubtedly looking for solutions to their eroding standards of living, complete lack of social mobility, and rising wealth (and power) inequality. The solutions are nowhere to be found in either party. To quote the party website:
We are the party squarely in the center of the political spectrum.
The record of Oklahoma Democrats in elective office is a prudent and moderate one which recognizes that economic development is business development.
What kind of message is this in such dire times for millions of Oklahomans? Economic development is business development? The average working Oklahoman creates $110,500 of economic value each year. That’s about $10,000 more than the average American worker produces. At the same time, the median annual income in Oklahoma is $32,400, which is about $4000 less than the median American worker. That means that, all things considered, businesses in Oklahoma are making about $14,000 more per worker. To “recognize that economic development is business development” is to recognize a reality that doesn’t exist, or at least one that doesn’t exist for working people in Oklahoma.
Of course, people aren’t dumb. They know that they’re being ripped off and they’re not happy about it. They’re not any happier about it here than they are in Detroit, or Minneapolis, or Milwaukee. That’s why Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist, won the Democratic primary in the “reddest of the red states.” That’s why he won over three-quarters of new Oklahoman voters. His message was simple: create good jobs, provide health care for all, and return power, both economic and political, back to the working people.
The Democratic Party
It is not simply enough for the Oklahoma Democratic Party to co-opt Bernie Sanders’ message and expect to lure in voters. That’s what the national party tried and failed to do, and their failure had nothing to do with the party platform, which reflected many of his ideas in writing. From the very beginning of the presidential primary season, the Democratic Party actively undermined Sanders’ campaign. As the primary season went later and the momentum of the party base became clearer, the party fought harder. In my opinion, the most telling part of the entire process was the superdelegate vote. By July, it became clear that Clinton’s chances were increasingly poor. In swing state polling, she frequently tied with Trump, while Sanders polled with double digit leads in every swing state. In addition, with Sanders’ appeal to working class independents and Republicans and his campaign’s momentum, his odds were only improving. Despite this, with neither candidate having a pure delegate majority, the superdelegates almost universally supported Clinton, quite possibly the only plausible Democratic candidate who could’ve lost to Donald Trump. In other words, for the Democratic party (both across the country and in Oklahoma), it was more important to defeat Sanders’ working class campaign than it was to defeat the Republican Party. Only a fool would think that the Oklahoman people didn’t notice.
The Way Forward
In the context of the domination of the elite in both the economy and in politics, it becomes obvious why half of the Oklahoman people don’t vote: they’ve got no reason to. The failure of the Oklahoma Democratic Party is not the failure of the left, it’s the failure of the center. Things may be bad under the current Republican rule, but the alternative is a party that offers no solutions, no understanding, and no hope for working people.
Oklahoma needs a party that stands unapologetically for the working class. It is not enough to try to co-opt rhetoric from working class movements. The people have rejected that already, both here and across the country.
The new party must support workers’ issues. It has to push for a society where ordinary people have full control over key decisions that affect their lives. It has to support full employment and living wages, universal education and health care, and grassroots economic democracy. It has to support these things because the Oklahoma working class supports these things.
The only way to build a party that supports workers’ issues is to build a party of workers, made up of and controlled by the working class with a bottom-up organization. The new party might be called the Democratic Party if the current leadership sees the writing on the wall. If they don’t, then it is only a matter of time until the Oklahoma working class realizes that they are the majority and creates their own party that represents their interests. In either case, as it exists now, the Oklahoma Democratic Party is finished, and not a moment too soon.