So how do Democrats vanquish a chief executive widely viewed as vulgar, mendacious, and psychologically debilitated—and whose approval ratings top out at 45 percent? Or wrest the Senate from an assemblage of spineless and generally mediocre Republican men torn between fealty to wealthy donors and fear of their Mad King?
Why? Because we don’t govern ourselves through plebiscite. By design, our democratic elections have never been small-d democratic; geographic polarization and patterns of migration have made them even less so.
In our current historical moment, our polarized electoral college yields a president picked by people in a handful of swing states.At the congressional level, the Senate map is composed largely of non-competitive blue and red states, which accord equal legislative weight to states with wild disparities in population. And of 435 House districts, gerrymandering and demographic sorting have created, at the utmost, 75 competitive races.
To win and then to govern, Democrats must execute a broken field run through a treacherous electoral terrain complicated by the need, in any given locale, to inspire disparate constituencies with differing—and often conflicting—aspirations and resentments than the voting blocs they need to carry other crucial states or districts. Anyone who reduces sweeping this national checkerboard to a singular formula—propitiate swing voters; or turn out the base—is smoking political crack.
Let’s start with the most obvious electoral challenge for Democrats: a divisive national distemper which roils the electorate in differing ways—a volatility bred by political polarization, sclerotic governance, economic dislocation, racial dissonance, tribal antagonisms, and accelerating incivility. Our faith in basic institutions—the presidency; the courts; Congress; media; our schools and colleges—continues to deteriorate. A tsunami of disinformation mutates disagreement into loathing amongst an electorate which is already emotionally over-caffeinated.
Little wonder. Our traditional rising expectations, once broadly shared, are buffeted by stagnant wages; uneven healthcare; an opioid epidemic; deteriorating family stability; a decline in life expectancy among less fortunate white Americans; a chasm in political influence between the wealthy and the rest; and a pervasive loss of hope for those left behind. We suffer from not one divide, but many—racial, geographic, economic, religious, educational, generational, informational and cultural. And these divides have eroded the common glue essential to democracy itself.
As fissures widen, geography mirrors demography, balkanizing the electoral landscape. Some locales are skewing older, whiter, more religious and traditional, their inhabitants grappling with rising diversity, new gender norms, and economic change. Others tend to be younger, less white, more liberal, more secular, and more receptive to immigration and diversity in various forms. Moreover, the economic, cultural and political concerns of older Americans are very different from those of millennials. Alienation follows.
In this environment, building a winning coalition—let alone one which can enact its legislative agenda—is like solving a Rubik’s cube. For Democrats, these political and societal challenges are exacerbated by intramural tensions: A sharpening conflict between the concerns of its base and those of more traditional liberals and moderates. The need to address racial and social injustice endured by critical constituencies targeted by Donald Trump’s cultivation of xenophobia, cultural resentment, and white identity politics. The proliferation of near-talismanic litmus tests such as “abolish ICE”, Medicare for all, free college for everyone, and the Green New Deal – formulations which inspire some voters while unnerving others.
Nothing illustrates the party’s difficulties better than the conundrum of race. Well before Trump, the GOP exploited cultural and racial anxiety to obscure its devotion to corporatist economics and its wealthy donor base. Trump’s version has coupled overt racism with the suggestion that white Americans are being marginalized in favor of the Democrats’ chosen subgroups.
This racial disconnect was abetted by the Democrats themselves. Increasingly the party mirrors its most affluent and educated adherents – including its own donors. Their progressivism focuses less on economic concerns than on social justice, abortion, and gun control. While these are important to many Democratic voters, they are also blissfully free from the need to raise taxes or regulate the financial institutions through which so many wealthy Democrats prosper.
But working – class Americans have very different worries – including a profound sense of economic insecurity and social marginalization which feeds the disinclination among many whites to consider the historic and contemporary experience of nonwhite Americans. Conversely, nonwhite Democratic voters deal with a persistent gap in access to quality education and housing, unequal law enforcement, voter suppression, lower wages, less household wealth, and drastically higher rates of incarceration. This gulf between white perception and nonwhite reality presents America—and Democrats—with a profound social and political conundrum: how to stake out common ground.
That Democrats address the grave injustices inflicted on disfavored groups, whether because of gender, ethnicity, or sexual identity, is essential to genuine democracy—indeed, human decency. But this cannot, by itself, replace assiduous efforts to create a just society for all Americans wherever they may live. And at its most insular, the insistence that only members of a disfavored group can grasp its grievances defeats the empathy and imagination that promotes true social comity.
What should Democrats do to reconcile all this? Oh, nothing much. Just fuse racial and social justice with a concrete and convincing message of economic uplift; restore faith in government as an ally of ordinary Americans; and offer a unifying vision which rallies enough diverse constituencies to win – a coalition broad enough to then ameliorate the ills which led to Trump in the first place.
This task demands dealing with the iron realities of the electoral map—specifically, rejecting the false choice between working-class Americans and the party’s younger and more diverse base. 2016 is a brutal reminder of what a blue-state strategy can yield. As Sherrod Brown put it, “I don’t want to wake up the day after the election 2020 and win the popular vote by 4.5 million and lose the Electoral College.”
Consider 2018. Democrats took the House by expanding their base beyond young voters, urbanites, and minorities to include suburban swing districts populated by college educated voters—and especially college-educated women. But Trump still turned out his base voters in states Democrats will have to win in 2020.
A majority of voters approve of his economic stewardship—which, were he less odious, would auger success. Armed with cash and relentless messaging, his newly-sophisticated campaign will rally his base yet again, abetted by Trump’s ineradicable need to command the limelight for his endless song of self. Ever shrewd, he will exploit whatever openings the Democrats create by fighting among themselves. He might be unstable, but he’s not a mark.
Faced with this, Democrats must execute a pretty trick—increasing turnout among their own restive base while gaining among white, non-college educated voters.
Yet within the party are voices who—convinced that their chosen demographic is “crucial” or “rising”—believe that, in effect, the party should tell everyone else to go pound sand. At worst, this becomes a contemptuous denunciation of their perceived political “other”: whether hopelessly retrograde white folks, zealous practitioners of nonwhite identity politics, or treacherous deviates from the one true ideology – whatever that may be. If 2016 should have taught Democrats anything, it’s that subtraction through smugness equals suicide.
There is a fine line to be cut here: A party bent on mollifying everyone stands for nothing. But writing off demographic groups without a principled and honorable effort is electoral malpractice.
Blue-collar whites may be a diminishing demographic, but they still comprise 50 percent of the electorate in every Midwestern state; over 60 percent in Iowa, Ohio, and Wisconsin; and 80 percent in key Pennsylvania counties. These are, one may remember, the states that made Trump president. To carry them, Democrats need to turn out their core constituencies and also to gain ground with blue-collar whites.
Contrast this task with emerging battlegrounds such as North Carolina, Georgia, Arizona, and even Texas—which comprise a big chunk of the party’s electoral future. Here Democrats must turn out more base voters—blacks, Hispanics, and the young—in record numbers while also attracting enough suburban and middle-class whites.
All of which means that if Democrats want to win, they must weave their ideals into a larger tapestry that is attractive to many different groups: non-college whites in the Midwest, blacks, Hispanics, millennials, and suburbanites.
That’s hard work. But it can be done, and it’s the only work worth doing. It’s no good to win the nomination by needlessly alienating voters crucial to winning in November.
The task starts with unequivocally embracing minorities, millennials, and labor: As a political and moral imperative, the party must address the realities faced by non-white Americans—giving the lie to facile aspersions about “identity politics” used against those whose identities were thrust upon them by slavery, bigotry and comprehensive social and economic discrimination.
But this requires stinting pieties in favor of policy: an unwavering commitment to civil rights and voting rights; housing security and homeownership for minorities; ending discriminatory laws, law enforcement, and the disproportionate use of force; and breaking patterns of residential segregation which consign many minorities to second-class schools and diminished access to employment. Any overarching message of economic uplift must squarely knowledge the deep and abiding disparities caused by race.
Anything less is potentially fatal. In 2018 the Democratic electorate was 39 percent minority, including 19 percent African-American and 14 percent Hispanic. A Pew survey found that the percentage of black Democrats who believe that America “needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights” rose from 82 percent to 90 percent in 2017. Among Hispanics, the percentage rose from 59 percent to 76 percent. In 2020, Democrats must give these voters a reason to come out—or else.
So, too, millennials. As a generation, they support racial and social justice. But many are also personally affected by the cost of college; the burden of educational debt; and the expense of our healthcare system. The gig economy has bred a widespread distrust of capitalism as they know it. They fear climate change more deeply than their elders.
To the extent possible, Democrats should try to reclaim another alienated constituency—working people. This requires renewed support for the right to form private-sector unions and the rejection of right-to-work laws designed to gut workers’ bargaining power.
One factor unifies all three of these groups: Their vulnerability to income inequality and wealth disparity.
Income inequality cuts across racial, generational, and even educational lines. It is causing a decline in the prospects of millions of Americans—not all of whom are white voters living in Trump country. Some are minorities; some reside in swing states which made Trump president; some are voters who originally supported Barack Obama or Bernie Sanders.
Most feel what surveys show: That despite superficially rosy employment numbers, the jobs which are growing fastest pay the least. That for decades only the wealthy have done better than their parents. That large corporations and their shareholders dominate the economy. As the Atlantic reports:
After-tax corporate profits have doubled from about 5 percent of GDP in 1972 to about 10 percent, even as wages as a share of GDP have fallen by roughly 8 percent. And the wealthiest 1 percent’s share of pre-tax income has more than doubled, from 9 percent in 1973 to 21 percent today. Taken together, these two trends amount to a shift of more than $2 trillion a year from the middle-class to corporations and the super-rich.
But these disparities, however startling, do not automatically empower Democrats to reimagine the New Deal for our New Gilded Age. Increasingly, embattled Americans believe—often correctly—that the same economic elites dictate public policy, and that average citizens are so systemically disempowered that redress is beyond their reach. All this is intensified by decades of anti-government rhetoric from Republicans bent on destroying its credibility as a counterweight to private power.
But that’s just the start of rebuilding a winning coalition – Democrats will also need white, college-educated suburbanites. And while this group is not averse to economic reforms per se, many of them will see the most progressive tent-pole plans—single-payer healthcare; free college for all—as expensive, intrusive, and impractical.
Economically, most of the white, college-educated suburbanites are doing well in the age of Trump. Often, their deepest objections are to the man himself—especially his race-baiting and immigrant–bashing. Here lie two lessons for Democrats: tone matters and so, for an increasing number of persuadable whites, does social justice.
Weary of Trump, more voters are seeking an agenda which speaks to the good in them rather than fear or anger. However tempted, Democrats should not replicate Trump’s politics of personal insult: His negatives are baked in the cake, and millions of Americans are sick of rancor to the point of numbness and withdrawal. Democrats should run with passion, but also with grace. And while they can deplore Trump’s meanness of spirit, they should focus on his failures of governance as the touchstones to doing better.
Here they have much to work with.
Start with Trump’s immigration program—a compound of racism and paranoia through which he hopes to win in 2020. Separating kids from parents. Vilifying asylum-seekers. Rejecting the historic values which made diverse newcomers into citizens bound by a common creed. As electoral fever intensifies, his rhetoric will grow more rabid.
But Democrats have yet to articulate a comprehensive program of their own. Clearly, they propose to help discrete categories of sympathetic people: Dreamers; families traumatized by separation; undocumented, but otherwise law-abiding, workers. But they’ve said little beyond that, in part because the issue splits the party’s progressives from both working-class whites and, in some cases, blacks. This enables Trump to portray Democrats as the party of ” sanctuary cities,” “open borders,” criminal aliens, and “abolish ICE.”
One cannot look at politics around the globe and imagine that Democrats can easly win back the White House without grappling with immigration. Democrats should propose a path to citizenship for Dreamers, legal status for undocumented immigrants, humane treatment of refugee families, and the prompt and compassionate resolution of asylum claims. But they should also affirm that national integrity demands secure borders; that the number of new residents should reflect what our economy can absorb; and that we should expeditiously deport undocumented immigrants convicted of serious crimes – and be credible in the effort.
Ditto trade. While our politics has trended toward protectionism, especially among Democrats, Trump’s erratic policies and blustery pronouncements are vitiating support in the battleground states which are serving as his political petri dish: Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Democrats can respond with common sense: That it’s wise to combat China’s unfair practices and theft of intellectual property, but feckless to wage trade wars against allies when it damages American workers – not least because if we mean to actually break China’s unfair trade practices, we’re going to need all of the allies we can get. You can’t beat something with nothing. But you can beat stupid with smart.
Elsewhere Trump’s menu for greatness continues to evanesce. His tax cuts are accurately perceived as a gratuitous giveaway to the GOP’s donor class which, by widening deficits, threatens programs such as Social Security and Medicare. His pledge to “repeal and replace” Obamacare ended in an aborted bill which would have deprived millions of Americans of decent healthcare.
As for Trump’s promises to “drain the swamp,” he, his family, and his appointees have busily congealed it. And this is but one facet of the comprehensive contempt for constitutional constraints and the rule of law which makes him so uniquely dangerous.
Yet these critiques, however damning, are only adjacent to the central question Democrats must answer: How will you make America better for all those who crave the opportunity and security they now find so elusive?
Generalities will not do. Admonishes Democratic strategist Celinda Lake: “Democrats still face the challenge of articulating a bold, compelling economic vision that rises above the safety of platitudes, or that seeks to convince voters that a reprise . . . of the 1990s or the early 2010s is sufficient to address the scale of the economy’s persistent failings.” This “perilous gambit”, she warns, “cedes the dimension of change to the opposition and ignores voters’ fears and their aspirations for the future.”
Polls show the Democrats enjoy a consistent edge in such critical areas as healthcare, education, and the environment—a mirror image of Trump’s vulnerabilities. But Democrats must capitalize by spelling out programs which are at once transformative and yet inspire wide support among key constituencies with disparate views of government.
How, for example, will they provide quality universal health care? Here we encounter the first of several litmus tests which could derail their electoral prospects.
Many progressives embrace single-payer healthcare, which would replace private insurance with a uniform government program. But many more voters favor providing access to Medicare for all who want it, allowing those who like their private insurance to retain it.
Both choices would transform medical care as we know it. But whatever arguable superiority single-payer might possess, it bleeds support among suburbanites and blue-collar workers, many of whom have employer-based insurance, or fear the potential expense and inflexibility of government-run healthcare.
Given that divide, it is myopic to insist on an ideological purity which lessens the chance of winning in 2020—especially when the alternative provides affordable coverage, protects against pre-existing conditions and catastrophic illness, and extends medical care to the previously uninsured. Perfection can come later.
The same calculus applies to providing affordable college tuition and student debt relief. As matters stand, too many worthy kids are dissuaded from attending or completing college by the sheer expense of it; others are burdened by student debt which narrows their employment options, hampers wealth formation, erodes financial security, and delays marriage and family formation.
The progressive answer is free college for all. Its virtue is that it fixes the problem. Its deficit is overkill: the uncertain but enormous expense includes educating the children of the affluent, providing more relief than many students require, and further inflating the cost of college in the future.
Once more, a package of more affordable—and politically saleable—alternatives exists: Two years of free community college. Expanding Pell grants. Reducing student loan rates. Providing significant student debt relief. Funding vocational education and retraining for new economy. By starting there, Democrats can open higher education to the millions of young people now barred by circumstance, changing lives while enriching society at large.
But the precipitous descent from high-minded slogan to rigid litmus test to purple state poison pill is best epitomized by the existential problem of climate change. Here the widely touted Green New Deal, once scrutinized, becomes the public policy version of The Wizard of Oz. As with the wizard, the residue of illusion is derision—rhetorical catnip for Trump.
Climate change is too serious an issue for feel-good policies or magical thinking. The scientific consensus is clear, the clock is running, the damage is proliferating—and the political reckoning is unavoidable.
For Democrats, the challenge demands a judicious meld of political realism, effective policy, and moral urgency. No doubt the goal of the GND is an environmental imperative: ending our dependence on fossil fuels. But the current gauzy outline includes other goals of dubious relevance, slights crucial details on how to get there—and fudges altogether the economic centerpiece of most serious scientific proposals: a carbon tax.
Details matter. Yet the consulting firm charged with fleshing out the GND concedes that it cannot provide “an appropriate level of detail” until January 2020—if then. This vacuum invites a line of attack that Democrats, and the cause of advancing climate science, can ill afford: that its proponents are utopian dreamers fixated on their own inner vision—at once impractical, extreme, and utterly divorced from political or economic reality.
Perceiving that, several Democratic candidates are advancing their own specific plans. Yet they too avoid explicitly embracing a carbon tax, perhaps because it could alienate workers in affected industries. Here, Democrats might profit from biting the bullet—proposing to use the revenue from taxing carbon to finance job retraining and reduce the overall cost to ordinary Americans.
Other measures could include encouraging the transition to electric vehicles; tax incentives to upgrade our homes and workplaces for energy efficiency; building more energy efficient infrastructure; and the judicious substitution of nuclear power for carbon-generating utilities. This is an issue where gumption matters: Democrats may benefit by embracing the obvious reality that combating climate change will not be cost-free, but a test of the optimism, resolve, and imagination which defines America at its best.
That spirit should imbue Democrats’ larger vision for the future. We already know Trump’s game: a phony populism of false promises and racial antagonism which masks its service to the wealthy. Only if Democrats become a credible force for betterment in the lives and minds of more Americans, no matter who or where, will we learn whether politics can help restore a country so fragmented and distrustful.
As Americans, Democrats should insist that we have much in common. We care for our children. We honor hard work. We want to better our communities. And all but a very few of us desire a country which gives all of its citizens respect and opportunity.
That means resurrecting a shared vocabulary of hope. It means proclaiming a program which appeals to our shared humanity and reanimates American democracy by giving more Americans something better to believe in. It means inclusion, not exclusion.
Of necessity it also requires reviving faith in government as a partner in helping empower every person to lift themselves and their country. In this narrative, government exists not to reorganize a free society, but to strengthen it. The ends are moral and pragmatic. Every wasted life diminishes our economic and human capital to our collective loss.
Government cannot repeal the forces of automation and globalization that beset struggling families. But a flexible and responsive government can fight for fair trade; provide education and retraining for the new economy; strengthen public schools; diminish student debt; and make college affordable for those in need.
It can expand healthcare to prevent illness from ruining lives and draining our collective wealth. It can rebuild infrastructure—roads, airports, Internet access, energy grids, and rural broadband—creating jobs and strengthening our economy. It can curb the dominance of corporations and the wealthy over our economy and our politics, and reform a tax system too slanted to too few.
Democrats must say that Americans should never live in gated communities of the spirit, defined only by their disadvantages and the narrowest definitions of identity. In the long run, no race or class can do better in a society that does worse. By inviting Americans to participate in a better common future, Democrats can grow not just prosperity, but compassion—the best in us, for a change.