There is opportunity in chaos. As Democrats contemplate the 2020 campaign, they should recognize that Donald Trump has shattered longstanding political alignments, giving them the chance to reassemble the pieces to form a lasting political majority.
Doing this will require setting aside incremental thinking and embracing a platform of economic and social justice that would have been unthinkable in 2016. The objective should be to animate base voters while appealing to the significant slice of the electorate that moved toward Democrats in 2018, especially in suburbs across the country and among the non-Evangelical white working class. It would mean discarding the false choice between mobilizing base voters and persuading unaffiliated voters—and doing both. It would mean abandoning incrementalism in favor of a platform that suits the moment. It would mean nominating a charismatic candidate able to run a national grassroots campaign without relying on money from interests that would oppose redistributing wealth. It would mean framing the next election as a popular mandate for a new direction rather than simply a rejection of the status quo. And it should start now, with Nancy Pelosi’s House Democrats passing legislation they know will fail in the Senate as a down payment on what the party will do in two years if given the opportunity to make good on their promises.
The disruption Trump has caused to the political process makes bold thinking possible. Indeed, in a political system that dances to the leisurely rhythms of the nineteenth century, bold thinking is only possible in rare moments like this, when chaos reigns and the public is hungry for action. Trump himself has provided Democrats with the opening they need to advance the economic portion of a progressive agenda. Largely lost in discussions of the 2016 election is how Trump ran for president as an economic populist as well as a nativist. Remember when he was going to protect Medicare and Social Security, guarantee health care for everyone, and create jobs through government investments in infrastructure? If you don’t, it’s because, with the exception of trade, he ignored those refrains in favor of a (now unpopular) congressional Republican agenda of upward wealth redistribution. Democrats can claim the space he abandoned.
What would such an agenda look like? There are many possibilities, and they poll well. Medicare for all. Raising the minimum wage. An expansive clean energy plan that creates jobs and combats global warming. Student loan relief. Infrastructure reform. Progressive taxation to fund expensive programs equitably. Variants of these and similar ideas could be packaged as components of an economic justice platform which could dovetail with a social justice platform featuring a humane immigration policy, prison reform, a new voting rights act, election reform, treating gun violence as a public health emergency, and the like.
This list is suggestive, not exhaustive. The exact mix of policies and their packaging will be determined by the outcome of the nomination process, but it will by its nature contain ideas which are sure to be opposed by the outside interests that have long dominated party politics and by party elites who either do not want to advance this agenda or fear they will lose voters if they try. Risk-averse Democratic leaders may contend that an agenda this big will be near impossible to sell to the country, and the legislative process could never absorb it should the party win and try to enact it.
In ordinary times they would be right. But Democrats can plant big ideas in 2020 because Donald Trump has already plowed the field for them. Outside his base, he has become the poster child for a corrupt system and a political party invested in its own survival and the interests of the upper reaches of the one percent. Republicans under Trump are a rotten tree trunk of a party, and a savvy Democrat should be able to knock it over and offer the electorate something we haven’t tried yet, a change of direction that rejects both Republican corporatism and Democratic incrementalism.
I can practically hear some of my readers expressing well-placed skepticism that Democrats would be willing to do anything bold. Recent history presents sufficient reasons for doubt. At the same time, events have a way of shaping choices, and there are strong signs from the midterm campaign just passed that Democrats who take risks will be rewarded. In Texas, Georgia and Florida, charismatic Democrats who ran and narrowly lost campaigns in exceedingly difficult territory provided a road map for what a national grassroots campaign of mobilization and persuasion could look like. This model will almost certainly be given a test drive in the presidential primaries, aided by rules changes that boost the early influence of large states like Texas and California and decrease the power of elite super delegates. In the hands of the right candidate, during a moment of crisis, an agenda like this can excite the Democratic base and appeal to suburban and non-Evangelical white working class voters. That is a recipe for an electoral mandate on which to build a lasting political realignment.