Donald Trump has been sworn in as President. Liberals must contend with a united Republican government. For many on the left, myself included, the GOP’s overwhelming victory last November was a total system shock. I was so sure of our victory, so certain that the Trump campaign would end in historic losses for the GOP, tearing it down and leaving America a one-(Democratic) party state. In the end, my prophesying about a one-party state has come horribly, horribly, true. With the Trump presidency now official, the complacency and hubris which has come to dominate liberalism over the past few years has been shaken off. Over the inauguration weekend, three to four million people, about 1% of the United States population, marched in protest of the Trump administration. These early stirrings clearly indicate that there will be intense liberal opposition and resistance to the Trump administration’s rightist agenda. Without a plan of action, however, this energy will disperse and go to waste. The progressive movement, the Democratic party which it supports, and the liberal citizens who form the ranks of both, must have a strategy to reclaim power from the Trump administration and the Republican party before they are allowed to irreversibly damage our nation.
For at least the next two years (and realistically, given exactly how unfavorable the electoral map is for us in 2018, the next four years), the Democratic party will strictly be the party of opposition. We have less than a third of the states, minorities in the legislature and will likely lose the Supreme Court. For the foreseeable future, liberals will have very little practical influence over the direction of government policy. At face value, this is utterly disheartening, but there is a silver lining in that we are insulated from any blowback caused by the Republican Party. This is not the GOP of George W. Bush, this is a GOP whose existence has been spent entirely in an insurgency, rendering their actual ability to govern properly questionable at best. Should they repeal the ACA without a viable alternative, millions will likely suffer, and there will be no one to blame for their suffering but the Republicans. Being in the opposition presents a massive opportunity to the Democrats, as it allows us to score points simply by hounding the Republicans for everything that goes wrong. It is far easier to exact political profit from this position. We do not need to present any solutions, we simply need to hammer any and all policy failings home.
In order to implement such a strategy to its fullest potential, we need the right leadership. To that end, I strongly believe that moderate Democratic leaders need to stand aside and allow progressive warriors like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to act as the vanguard against Trumpism. I fully understand the irony of such a call, coming from a staffer of a stated moderate organization, but I nonetheless believe this to be the best course. While I may not necessarily trust Sanders in a position of genuine power (many of his ideas are rather loopy), there is no doubt in my mind that the man has a real flair for pointing out very real flaws in our government and economy. While many in both The American Moderate and the Democratic party are wedded to more traditional liberal economics, the simple fact is that this is a time of populism. If we are not led by individuals with mass appeal who are capable of tapping into the deep vein of popular discontent, we will be left in the dust by that master of populist theater currently inhabiting the Oval Office.
Viva La Resistance
Part of placing power in the hands of the Bernie-Warren wing of the party would inherently mean embracing a more bellicose approach to the Republican party. As it stands, the Democrats have shown some interest in adopting such an approach, as Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer sent the same letter to Majority Leader McConnell that McConnell used to essentially declare war on the Democrats at the outset of the Obama administration. Unfortunately for the Democratic party, in order to advance any policy under the Obama administration, congressional Democrats were forced to pass legislation which blunted the power of the filibuster, rendering it unusable against cabinet-level positions. While we may have weakened what would have been our strongest tool against Trump, the filibuster is far from impotent. On the contrary, it remains the strongest legislative weapon in the democratic toolkit, forcing Republicans to circumvent floor votes with parliamentary tricks such as budget reconciliation to implement their agenda. There is no doubt in my mind that I would like to see congressional Democrats show some spine in resisting the GOP’s regressive agenda. On the extent to which I would like to see this, however, I am conflicted. On the one hand, a large part of me would like to see the Democrats give the Republicans a taste of their own medicine, going full “Tea Party” on the GOP and gridlocking the government. While this would certainly be satisfying, I believe that such unthinking opposition would ultimately prove detrimental the Democratic Party and to the nation. There could be real opportunity to work with Trump, at the expense of the congressional GOP. Trump remains the most populist president ever, with views very out of sync with his own party. If Trump is serious about job programs and infrastructure development, then it would behoove the Democrats to work with him to make these happen. As a whole, I would say that Bernie Sanders nicely summed up what the Democrats’ approach to the next four years should look like when he released a statement:
“To the degree that Mr. Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country, I and other progressives are prepared to work with him. To the degree that he pursues racist, sexist, xenophobic and anti-environment policies, we will vigorously oppose him.”
The Proper Platform
Any party on the receiving end of an electoral defeat as brutal as last November’s must take some time for self-reflection. After such a rebuke, Democrats have been left wondering what exactly they can do to take the country back. In order to regain power, the Democratic party really must do two things. First, it must come to embrace economic populism, and second, it must de-emphasize the identity politics it has come to lean so heavily on. Embracing economic populism is not the most popular prescription among the staff of this publication,, but I believe it is a thoroughly necessary one. Hillary Clinton’s defeat can be directly linked to the defection of solidly Democratic Rust Belt states to Trump. In both Michigan and Wisconsin, Bernie Sanders defeated Clinton, showing the popularity of his populist plank. At the height of its power, during the New Deal, the Democratic Party was, by today’s definition, solidly populist, using a base of organized labor to maintain power for much of the period from 1933 to 1968. After the Reagan revolution swept the Democrats out of power, the party largely embraced neoliberal capitalism, complete with all the societal disruption that came with it. When a candidate with decidedly non-neoliberal views came along, they were unprepared to answer for the damages it had wrought upon middle America. Populist economics is clearly a winning strategy in the age of Donald Trump, and the Democrats will be left out in the cold if they continue to try and hold a neoliberal line which he has smashed. In the 1992 elections, the Democrats evolved, embracing neoliberal economics and capturing the White House. If we wish to do so again, we must embrace populism and turn it to the left, so it may actually pay electoral dividends for us.
A second element of any Democratic strategy needs to be the de-emphasizing of identity politics. Identity politics are not a good groundwork for a coalition, as they inherently lead to fractiousness and infighting. Such a focus on identity alienates the majority of voters in this country and dedicates resources that should be spent fighting Trump and the GOP to fighting each other. These identity politics have traditionally been both the bane and base of the Democratic party. From Nixon to Obama, the Republican party has found electoral success by portraying themselves as the party of Americans, and white voters have flocked to them. With the Democrats’ abandonment of organized labor, white voters have seen the Democrats as the party of minorities and special interests. This is not to say that identitarianism cannot work, but it does need an extremely charismatic political wizard, such as Barack Obama, to maintain it. Without a leader like Obama, the haranguing nature of identity politics simply cannot convince whites to vote Democratic. Hillary Clinton’s campaign leaned heavily on this identitarian rhetoric, and was duly punished by white voters in key swing states. Furthermore, identitarianism will inevitably create internecine fighting. Rather than unifying against a common enemy, left-leaning groups turn on each other. Just look at the backlash to the white feminism which powered the Women’s Marches across the country. Rather than uniting and harnessing this politically viable force, activists have taken to social media to attack the marches. This dulls the momentum of opposition movements and sidelines individuals otherwise disgusted by Trump who would like to be involved. The fact of the matter is that in order to lead this country, a party must have at least a plurality of white support. Left activists ignore this lesson at their own peril. This is not to say that the minorities’ struggle for justice should be ignored or sidelined; they will still form a key plank in the democratic platform, but 2016 has more than proven that they cannot empower the party on its own.
Shoring up the Bench
In the long term, the prospects of the Democratic party look grim. We have lost the vast majority of states, whose Republican governments will get a free hand to gerrymander to their hearts’ content in the 2020 census, solidifying their political power. From these state-based organizations, the Republican party has developed an incredibly deep bench of future leaders. The same cannot be said of the Democrats. Most of our potential standard bearers in 2020 will be on the wrong side of 75. While we have many national stars, there is just no one to replace them. All of this comes despite the fact that the Democrats are far more popular among younger voters than the Republicans. We simply need to capture more Governors’ mansions and state legislatures. Perhaps here is where we should focus our resources. Give the GOP Washington and focus on building up the base which will one day allow us to storm the halls of power. In less than two election cycles, unless we make serious and painful change, we may be institutionally locked out of power. If we lose big in 2018, we could set ourselves up for another decade of painful defeats and irrelevance.