More Than Just Opposition: Can the Democrats Stand for Something?
Is the Democratic Party a divisive force of opposition unmoored from any guiding principles? A majority of Americans say yes, according to a national poll that the Washington Post conducted in July. The lack of a singular leader feeds the festering charge that Democrats are adrift, desperately searching for a coherent message with which to approach the 2018 midterm elections. And the recent reveal of possible slogans—including a widely-panned one that reads “I mean, have you seen the other guys?”—has done little to convince the citizenry that the Democratic Party stands for anything beyond standing against Trump.
Part of this identity crisis stems from unresolved ideological dysphoria within the party, which has generated fierce contestation and splintered the Democratic coalition since the 2016 primary. Look no further than the chasm between Senator Bernie Sanders’ electrifying, left-wing campaign and the controversial selection of a center-left candidate who found herself more at home in the triangulating climate of the 1990s than in the populist climate of today. Far from uniting their big tent, the Democrats’ electoral loss last year has highlighted and heightened the contradictions between wings of contemporary liberal thought. It has also cast the very future of the party into grave doubt.
Every pundit and politician has a different prescription for the party’s problems, usually involving some alluring blend of open dialogue and outreach. But they offer these suggestions in the context of their preferred framework, which tends to take one of two forms. Clinton pollster Mark Penn and Trump supporter Andrew Stein, typifying the first route, order Democrats back to the center. “[R]eject the siren calls of the left,” they proclaim, “whose policies and ideas have weakened the party,” pointing particularly to the oft-derided “identity politics.” Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, embodies those calls of the left, urging the Democratic party, “in a very fundamental way, to change direction…[to] rally grassroots America in every state and to stand up to the greed of the billionaire class.”
The latter is, on the whole, more persuasive. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Sanders have discovered that a powerful economic appeal from the left can bring millions of new activists into the fold, upend the political status quo, and actually win votes from the white working class. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal was premised on precisely this idea. But while the Democratic Party of 1932 provides a roadmap for the revitalization of the economic bona fides of today’s Democratic Party, it also provides a warning. Roosevelt’s submergence of the “race issue” may have held together a fragile coalition of Southerners, organized labor, and progressive Republicans, but his hesitance to push ahead aggressively with civil rights withheld the innovations of his transformative project from millions of black Americans. It’s not enough, then, to fall back on the tenets of New Deal progressivism. After all, the country is different than it was in 1932. It’s more diverse, and its minority groups are more visible and outspoken than ever.
For this reason, alarmist centrists have it wrong. They assume that “identity politics” cannot coexist with “economic messaging” and that the Democratic Party needs to abandon the minority voters who constitute its most steadfast bloc in order to win back the white working class. Not only is it inconceivable—as a moral issue—that the Democrats should roll back their longstanding support for minority and women’s rights, it’s also a losing proposition. Penn and Stein’s assertion that the Democratic Party is “mired in political correctness [and] transgender bathroom issues” at the expense of electoral viability is mere smoke-and-mirrors.
The difficulty here lies in combining seemingly disparate threads of economic and social priorities into a simple and substantive political agenda for the coming years. Democrats should take note of their success in the healthcare arena, in which numerous Republican bills were defeated in the face of united and principled Democratic opposition. Their message operated on two levels simultaneously: an economic appeal charged that the Republican plans were nothing more than tax cuts for the super rich, and a social appeal made it known that the Democrats would accept nothing less than the enactment of health care for all and the maintenance of a robust safety net.
What might this approach look like as a slogan? Perhaps something like “For the Many,” the motto of the British Labour Party. With a progressive manifesto that promised both the return of economic expansion and the broadening of social inclusion, Jeremy Corbyn’s party turned the tables in a hostile political climate, reclaimed 32 parliamentary seats, and caused a meteoric rise in voter turnout.
In the past few days, the Democrats have unveiled the slogan “A Better Deal,” a concoction of economic populism infused with social liberalism that seems more repackaged than revamped. Only time will tell if the Democrats’ explicit invocation and modernization of FDR’s legacy can clearly articulate a sweeping and compelling vision for society. After all, a catchy phrase is only as meaningful as the core values that underlie it. And let’s not underestimate the “candidate factor”—the importance of fielding charismatic and authentic candidates who can rally the nation around those values.
The Democratic Party never expected to find itself in this predicament. If its stunning loss in 2016 contains a silver lining, it’s that the party will now be forced to look inward, to grapple with some hard choices that will define its trajectory and future in the American political landscape. I’m hopeful that a stronger party will emerge from this debate. But if Democrats truly want to win back the White House, the Congress, and statehouses and governors’ mansions to boot, they’ll have to do a lot better than “Have you seen the other guys?”