Democrats, Let’s Talk
Here’s a tough truth to swallow for Democrats- our legislative agenda is irrelevant in 2017. It will be, as a practical matter, in 2018 as well. We don’t control the Senate. We don’t control the House. We don’t control the White House. We don’t control many state houses. In some states, like North Carolina, we have Democratic Governors who face veto-proof assemblies full of Republicans. All of the in-house fighting that we are doing- single-payer vs. the ACA, $12 vs. $15 minimum wage, free college vs. debt-free college- are all irrelevant. We’re not going to be passing them on any meaningful scale, anytime soon. All of this fighting over the degree to which we’re going to be progressive is fighting over nothing, a fight over bread crumbs in a game where we are playing defense, and have been since 1994, with very little exception.
So while we’re in the wilderness, trying to figure out a pathway back to power in 2018 and beyond, let’s start by taking our vitamins, and acknowledging who we are as a party. We are not a “white liberal” party in 2017, we are not the party of poor whites even- blue collar whites have largely turned against us. The base of the Democratic Party is African-American women. Most of the remainder of the party is filled out by minority populations- African-American, Latino, Jewish, Muslim, LGBT, women, and Asians, to name a few. These people are the center of the Democratic Party. They are our coalition’s main partners. The party must continue to represent these voters in policy, rhetoric, and deed.
Here’s a little painful reality though- our coalition of voters is not enough to win and govern. Yes, Democrats have won the popular vote in every Presidential Election since 1992, besides 2004, but in that time, Democrats have held the House for just six out of 26 years, and the Senate for 11.5 years out of that same 26 year span. We don’t control many state houses and governorships, in fact we’re almost at a point where the GOP could ram through Constitutional Amendments. The Democratic base is too concentrated in major urban areas, which are too concentrated in large, blue states, and it puts Democrats at a disadvantage with our system of Congressional districts and an electoral college. This will only get worse. By 2040, 70% of the country will live in 15 states, and be represented by just 30% of the U.S. Senate. In other words, the geography and political system we have disadvantage our base, and we’re in no position to change the Constitution to rectify that.
What I am saying to the Democratic Party is that our base is too narrow. The idea that we can be a liberal social issues only type of party won’t work. The idea, recently pushed by the incredible (I’m a fan) Joy Ann Reid, that we can just focus on urban areas, won’t work. The issue is not that the rest of America is all “racist/sexist/backwards/ignorant/whatever other insult you want here,” but that large groups of potential Democratic voters, people not happy with Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, or the GOP at-large, don’t feel like we say anything relevant to them. The Republicans, for all of their ridiculous faults, put forward a pretty straight forward agenda that includes things that at least seem on the surface to apply to swing-voters, such as tax cuts. Democrats have lots of things to offer these voters, but don’t seem to make them a priority. Hillary Clinton spent a lot of time campaigning in Philadelphia, but not much time campaigning in Wilkes-Barre, Stroudsburg, or Bethlehem. Those areas cost her a victory in Pennsylvania, and the election. Did Hillary Clinton have great things to offer them, like worker re-training and increased access to apprenticeship programs? Yes, she did. Was that what ended up being at the center of their voting agenda last November? No it wasn’t. We can blame these voters for their priorities all we’d like, but we must at some point confront the reality that we didn’t go to them, or make them at all an important part of our coalition. If you don’t seek someone’s vote, you really shouldn’t expect to get it.
Inevitably, criticizing Hillary’s campaign leads back to the debate between those who think Bernie Sanders is our lord and savior, and those who want nothing to do with him. “Berners” will point at Hillary’s failure and suggest that a move to the left by the Democratic Party would win back these people. They argue that Barack Obama governed as a centrist, and it weakened our hand with “down-scale” whites. They argue that the party needs to embrace big, bold populist progressive ideas, like free health care and free college. Unfortunately for them, facts get in the way of a good story too. Bernie Sanders lost to Hillary Clinton in last year’s primary, by over 15%, because our base preferred her. Then, a number of candidates and causes such as Russ Feingold (WI Senate), Zephyr Teachout (NY Congress), and single-payer health care at the state level (Colorado) all lost in the 2016 General Election. That trend continued in 2017, with Keith Ellison (DNC Chair), Heath Mello (Omaha Mayor), Rob Quist (MT Congress), Tom Perriello (VA Governor) and others all losing their races while embracing the Bernie message. While it’s very abundantly clear every day that Hillary Clinton’s message didn’t win in 2016, the Bernie message has a record of losing that is clear at this point.
The internal fight in the Democratic Party, as I stated above, is largely an irrelevant one that was created to generate Twitter traffic and cable news work for DC-based operatives. Outside of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, almost no one else would call Barack Obama a “centrist” President- not Republicans, Independents, or the “Hillary Wing” of the Democratic Party. Regular voters are rejecting Democrats of all stripes- whether you want to call them progressives, liberals, socialists, neo-liberals, moderates, or whatever. They aren’t doing this because they disagree with us- they agree with Democratic positions on health care, infrastructure, the environment, schools, and nearly everything else. They’re doing this because we’re not speaking to them. They’re doing this because they view us as ineffective. They’re doing this because they view us as weak. They’re doing this because we’re more interested in being “right” in an argument about whether the minimum wage should be $12 or $15, rather than helping people through government service. Look, the Democratic Party’s problems are not just of the Presidential variety- we’re not winning anywhere but in urban, local elections. This “progressives vs. moderates” fight is popular inside the Democratic Party’s activist base, but it is not really playing out in the rest of America- we’re just losing there. We’re not losing because people love Trump and the GOP either, we’re losing because we’re losing.
So- where do we go? Do we throw out all of our values and give up? Do we pick a losing side among a bunch of losing sides of the internal fight? Do change somehow? I have a few thoughts:
- Broaden our appeal- What I’m saying here is simple, the base isn’t going to make us a governing party for a very long time, if ever. This means we have to step outside of our “base” issues with what we talk about, and put forward some relevant plans to more people. I’d start with progressive tax reform to help the middle class, and putting forward a budget that shifts our priorities from weapons (the Pentagon doesn’t even want) and war, to education, infrastructure, housing, and yes, health care.
- Curb the power of organized interest groups- Interest groups exist to push their agenda, which is often times far more narrow than what a political party needs. Right now, the most powerful forces in the Democratic Party are interest groups. If a bunch of groups, all of whom have a more narrow agenda than the party at large, are running the show, you aren’t going to have a “big tent” to attract enough voters to win.
- Pay Attention To Your Base- Criminal Justice Reform. Women’s Health Care. Immigration Reform with a path to citizenship. Voting Rights. These are not optional issues for Democrats, and we must be ready to go to the mat to fight for these issues in the same way Republicans are willing to on guns, tax cuts for the wealthy, and de-regulation. Represent those who faithfully elect Democrats. This isn’t identity politics, it’s responsive governance.
- Campaign reform- Let’s be clear here, the TV consultant driven campaign budget is a dinosaur that needs to die. I’m not saying we need to stop spending on television, I’m just saying that it needs to take a much smaller share of the pie. Turnout is key to the Democratic Party’s chances of victory, and it’s time to re-direct more of the budget into “ground game” operations, both in our base areas and the suburbs. You have to be present to get the votes of the people- TV isn’t the same as being present.
- Pass Stuff, Dammit- There are states where Democrats do have control. There are states where this year’s elections could give Democrats control. If Democrats want the public to believe we can govern, then govern. If you can’t pass $15 minimum wage bills and have to pass $12 ones, do it. If you can’t pass a $400 billion single-payer health care bill, and instead are pushing through a Medicaid buy-in for rural counties, do it. Don’t get to “no,” because you can’t agree on exactly what “yes” looks like. Take the best you can get and keep working onward. Don’t shoot your vulnerable members who aren’t with you on everything- take what you can get done and do it.
- It’s time for a change- I love a lot of the leaders of the Democratic Party, but it’s last call time. Our front-runners for President in 2020 are all old. Our Congressional leadership is old. Our state parties are generally run by people on their way out, people gripping to power for dear life, who aren’t really looking to the future, or for the best interests of the party. It’s time to move on. All good things come to an end.
- Embrace new medias- Where are people? They aren’t all on TV. In rural, farming areas, you are smarter to buy radio than any other media (it’s cheaper and farmers listen during the harvest). Social media may not be as quantifiable, but it’s hard to argue that it’s not the future of campaigns. Just as JFK re-made elections by using television, Donald Trump did the same with Twitter. Democrats need to get on the ball here, we’re way behind him.
- Run Better Candidates- In my estimation, we’ve run a lot more people who can’t win in recent years, and a lot less electable candidates. Put up candidates who look like their district. Put up people with similar education backgrounds, income bases, and life experiences to the people in their districts. Yes, that means you’re running some candidates that interest groups and the base doesn’t like. I would refer Democrats to 2015’s Louisiana Governor’s race, when we ran someone who fit the state- and he won.
These are just a few suggestions, a starting block of sorts for the party. I get it- some people are going to hate some or all of my suggestions. I would suggest that while they have a valid position, that thinking is part of the problem. Saying, “well we just need to be more militantly the way I feel” is a prescription for disaster. The country is not buying what we’re selling right now. The country is not buying the Hillary wing’s prescription, nor is it buying the “Berners” ideas. In fact, they aren’t even seeing a difference. This problem didn’t start with our 2016 candidates, nor does it end with them. They didn’t lose us Governor races in Michigan and Ohio, state legislative races in Pennsylvania, Senate races in Iowa, or any of the other 1,000 or so races around the country. Yes, voter suppression and gerrymandering had a part in that too, but we can’t pretend that we’re going to end that over night. We’re going to have to win first, and then pull America along to our ideas and vision for the future. That will take a lot more work than calling each other socialists and neo-liberals.