What Democrats Should Do: Part I

In Next Generation Netroots, Chris Bowers and I argue that our era of zero-sum politics is not sustainable and the country will eventually break free of its present dysfunction. But we are less certain of what might replace it or when things will change. When we completed the manuscript in 2015, Bernie Sanders hadn’t yet surfaced as a movement leader and Donald Trump was firing reality TV participants rather than campaign managers, but the emergence of these two figures as the big surprises of the 2016 campaign is consistent with the two possibilities we imagined for the next political era: an alignment of progressive interests in a renovated Democratic Party or a far-right majority led by the reactionary forces currently swallowing the Republican Party. Although Democrats nominated an icon of the status quo, the Sanders campaign moved the debate in a progressive direction, and Hillary is the nominee of a party defined far more by Bernie’s agenda than her husband’s 90s-era triangulation. At the other end of the spectrum, Donald Trump is proving highly problematic as a general election candidate, but his reactionary politics has blown up what was left of the Republican coalition and threatens to define the party long after the election is over. On the left and right, the forces driving political realignment are advancing as Chris and I envisioned.

The hapless nature of the Trump campaign might suggest the left is winning the struggle over the direction of the country, but that would be a dangerously premature conclusion. Even if Democrats continue their string of assembling winning coalitions in national elections, they still need to figure out how to motivate their voters during the off years if they hope to assemble a lasting governing majority. And they don’t have much time to get this done. In 2018, thirty-six states will elect the governors who will serve in 2020 when the next census is held and legislative lines are re-drawn. This once-in-a-decade event was dominated by Republicans after they swept the Tea Party election of 2010 and is the reason why even a significant Clinton victory might not be enough to give Nancy Pelosi the speaker’s gavel. Democrats regard the redistricting process and the midterm election that will shape it as essential to breaking the Republican stranglehold on Congress, but if Hillary wins and Trump is vanquished, their voters who may be presently motivated to turn out because they see Trump as a threat will need a new incentive.

If Democrats have such an incentive they are keeping it to themselves. The Democrats’ presidential coalition draws heavily from voters who are disproportionately less likely to participate in off-year elections and the incessant political stalemate of the Obama years has hardly provided motivation to reverse this tendency. In one of the great ironies of this cycle, voters in 2016 could well return some version of the fractured status quo despite a clear desire on the right and left for something different. In a related irony, voters primed to cast affirmative votes for change find themselves instead voting against candidates they find unacceptable. And because both presidential nominees are held in such low regard, the outcome is bound to be interpreted as a rejection of the loser rather than an endorsement of the winner, even if the final result isn’t close. This, too, is a recipe for continued stalemate and acrimony as it gives the losing side grounds for undermining the winner. If Hillary is in the White House and faces a determined opposition, the resulting bitterness will weigh heavily on Democrats as their leaders plead with their voters to turn out in 2018.

Democrats could alter this dynamic if they had the legislative strength to get things done for their base. This could be accomplished with Republican congressional majorities chastened by a Trump defeat or with Democratic majorities in both houses of congress committed to addressing the concerns of people who can’t afford to write large campaign checks. I know these both sound like fanciful possibilities. The gerrymander should be airtight enough to assure that nothing changes in the House and the political system remains flooded with the money of big donors. But a shift may be possible because of how Trump and Sanders, the cycle’s two big change agents, have disrupted the political landscape. The failures of the Trump campaign have given Clinton an opportunity to make a play for majority status while the successes of the Sanders campaign have changed the political calculus for how Democrats would function in the majority.

Trump’s decision to run a general election campaign aimed at appealing to the same voters who nominated him has ceded unprecedented chunks of the electorate to Hillary, raising the possibility of a broad-based victory. Sanders’ ability to generate excitement for his political agenda has put sufficient pressure on Hillary to force her to embrace a range of progressive positions she did not hold at the start of the campaign, and if elected she will always be looking over her left shoulder. By speaking to the interests of base voters, Sanders has demonstrated how to energize the rank-and-file even when the hope of electoral victory has faded. Democrats need voters and enthusiasm if they are to establish a functional electoral and governing majority. Trump is providing them with the voters, and Sanders has shown them how to generate enthusiasm.

But Hillary has to take advantage of the moment. She should ask for a mandate on the grounds that Donald Trump’s Republican Party has for now disqualified itself as a viable governing partner. And if she gets that mandate she should move rapidly in Bernie’s direction with respect to economic policy and campaign finance reform. Asking for a mandate should be a fairly natural step to take and I would be surprised if Clinton does not begin doing it in the fall. Winning that mandate will be difficult. Moving to reform the process in the event of a mandate will be more difficult still, because powerful interests internal to and affiliated with her party will resist. However, the effort is necessary if Democrats are serious about taking advantage of the opportunity in front of them and tipping our divided politics permanently in their direction. Later in the week, I’ll have more to say about what taking these steps might look like.