I’ll confess, as someone who spent the early 80s as a toddler, when I came across the term “Atari Democrats” in the second graf of this American Prospect piece by Jim McNeill, I thought it was a new coinage:
The world headquarters of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. is still in Akron, Ohio, but all they make there now are decisions. Except for a few specialty racing tires, Goodyear hasn’t made tires in Akron in years. Industry here is dead, dead, dead, and there is nothing we can do to revive it.
Apparently, Sherrod Brown never got that memo from the Atari Democrats. Twenty-five years after the cutting-edge members of his party gave up on quaint ideas like manufacturing and collective bargaining, Brown, a seven-term congressman from northeast Ohio, is running a campaign for Senate that breaks every rule in the New Democrat playbook.
I assumed this was a reference to the atari position in the game of Go, when a piece, or group of pieces, is surrounded except for a single “liberty,” or uncovered side, which must be built on if the group is to be saved from capture. I took “Atari Democrats” to be a clever, if somewhat obscure, metaphor suggesting Dems who were reluctant to make a really full-throated defense of free trade, but cast it as the only option left. So I was a little disappointed to realize it just refered to tech-booster dems in the 80s who were friendly toward foreign firms like videogame maker Atari.
Frankly, I like mine better; it’d be handy to have a term for someone who uses the idea of “no other option” as cover for supporting an unpopular position. That’s a week-kneed approach, but would be a step up from the rank populism the Prospect is so delighted to see Brown indulging in. I’m just hoping it’s only a cynical play to the hoi polloi. I think it typically is when Dems feel compelled to bash trade—I’m pretty sure that John Kerry, whatever his other faults, was smarter than his jeremiads against “Benedict Arnold CEOs.” It’s more disturbing if a guy who’s likely to be a Senator actually believes this gibberish about contemporary globalization not involving “comparative advantage” or whatever nonsense is the fashionable smokescreen for protectionism now.