The debate over the Democratic future

After a shellacking at the hands of someone like Donald Trump, it’s only natural that the Democrats (and liberal or left-leaning people in general) have spent a lot of time since the election wondering What Went Wrong? and What Do We Do Now?

Broadly speaking, two main approaches have emerged. One, associated with folks who supported Bernie Sanders during the primary, is that Hillary Clinton lost because she was associated with the failed centrist economic policies of “neoliberalism.” Consequently, people who should’ve voted Democratic went for Trump because of his populist-sounding appeals to economic discontent, particularly voters in the fabled Rust Belt. This is pithily summed up in the popular-on-Twitter slogan “Bernie would’ve won.”

The corresponding prescription is that Dems need to double down on Sanders-style left-wing populism with policies that appeal to the working class across lines of race and ethnicity and blunt the appeal of Trump’s phony populism.

Another school of thought focuses more on Trump’s racial appeal and argues that Clinton lost because many (most?) of the people who voted for Trump were racist. They liked his screeds against Mexicans and Muslims and supported him because of his promises to crack down on refugees and illegal immigrants. Trump’s nativism and ethno-nationalism were, on this view, a feature, not a bug for many of his voters. To the extent that Trump is a “populist,” it’s a distinctly race- and identity-based populism, similar to movements on the resurgent European far right.

Prescriptively, this second school of thought tends to emphasize the importance of the Obama coalition to future Democratic success. Because Trump’s populism is centered around white grievance, Democrats can’t hope to win on that ground without compromising their core values. Rather, they need to reaffirm their appeal to young people, socially liberal professionals, racial and ethnic minorities, the LGBTQ community, and other parts of the coalition which helped propel America’s first black president to the White House. The is essentially a variation on the “emerging Democratic majority” thesis.

Thus the debate is often reduced to an argument between “economic populism” and “identity politics.” But there are a number of complicating factors. For instance, how important were FBI director James Comey’s comments or Russian hacking (and possible collusion with the Trump campaign) to the election’s outcome? Was Hillary Clinton merely a bad campaigner with some ethical baggage, but whose message was fundamentally sound? Should Democrats take a stance of unbridled opposition to Trump and all his works, or are there areas of potential compromise, like infrastructure spending? To what extent can or should Democrats reach out to moderates and disaffected conservatives to create a popular front of resistance to Trump’s breaches of political norms and constitutional values?

What is perhaps least surprising is that, despite all the hand-wringing, navel gazing, and chin-stroking, people have largely ended up reaffirming views they already held before the election. People who liked Bernie Sanders think the Dems need to be more of a Bernie Sanders-type party. People who liked Hillary Clinton think that the mainstream liberalism of Clinton (and Obama) remains the best approach. Centrist Democrats (there are still a few) think the Obama era resulted in liberal overreach and that the party needs to move back toward the center.

It’s worth noting that there are reasons for being suspicious of both the main positions, at least if you take them as silver-bullet solutions to what ails the Democrats. A couple of examples: this article splashes some cold water on the demographic argument for an “emerging Democratic majority,” while this one marshals evidence that left-wing populism isn’t necessarily a straightforward answer to the right-wing version.

A lot of the debate, however, comes across, to me anyway, as somewhat academic. Almost indisputably, the Democrats are both more ideologically homogeneous and more left-wing across the board than they were the last time they were the opposition party. During the Bush years, Democrats were still a rather diverse mix of centrists and populists, social liberals and social conservatives/moderates, and foreign policy hawks and doves, and it’s not hard to find examples where Dems crossed the aisle to support Bush’s policies.

By contrast, the Democratic Party of today is more consistently liberal than, arguably, at any point in modern history. For instance, it has embraced not only full equality for gay people, but transgender rights–something that would’ve been virtually unthinkable ten years ago. Similarly, economic centrism–budget cutting, deregulation, etc.–has been, if not exiled from the party, at least rendered much less respectable. Economic ideas once relegated to the lefty fringes–like single-payer health care and a universal basic income–have enjoyed a resurgence of interest. Sanders and fellow populist firebrand Elizabeth Warren are two of the most visible leaders of the Senate Democrats.

Moreover, resisting the Trumpian GOP’s depredations on the safety net and the constitutional order has, so far, rendered some of this moot. Virtually all Democrats agree on the things they oppose: repealing the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank, a punitive and discriminatory ban on people entering the country, gutting the regulatory state and administrative agencies, “building the wall,” attacks on the press, mollycoddling white nationalists and other “deplorables,” etc. etc.

This being the case, Ed Kilgore may be right that, at least going into the 2018 midterms, the Dems’ best bet is accentuating the negative. Come 2020, they’ll have to come up with an appealing positive message (and candidate!) that can speak to Americans’ hopes and offer a vision of a better country. But I’m not persuaded that this will require some grand ideological decision for one side or the other of the post-election debate. The Democratic party is probably not going to become a socialist-workers party, but it has become (and will likely to continue to become) more economically populist than it was over the last several decades. The economy isn’t working for large swaths of people, and Democrats need to come up with policies that speak to that. The party is also likely going to continue to be a more socially liberal party–one that champions the inclusive vision of American nationhood that was, in my opinion, one of the most appealing parts of Hillary Clinton’s campaign message. Getting the mix right enough to win elections and make positive change is more a matter of pragmatic politics than high principle. (And that’s all assuming the Republic is still standing four years from now.)

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