Democrats are famously squishy consensus-seekers. That must change. In the age of Trump, it's high time for them to show some backbone and pick big, nasty — and yes, often unwinnable — fights against Republicans.
To wit: Soon after he took office earlier this month, new Democratic North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced his desire to unilaterally accept ObamaCare's Medicaid expansion, which had been rejected by former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and later enshrined in law as illegal by the state's assembly. It was a shrewd political move: Cooper forced Republicans to defend not accepting billions of dollars in a program mostly funded by the federal government to pay for health care for hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians — some of whom will die without the expansion. Good luck with that.
Now, from a legal perspective, Cooper's battle may very well be unwinnable. A federal court halted Medicaid expansion until Trump takes office, and the new Congress and administration are planning to demolish ObamaCare anyway. But in loudly declaring his intention to accept Medicaid expansion, the very moderate governor of North Carolina provided a roadmap for progressive Democrats across the country to combat unprecedented levels of Republican strength.
Bipartisan consensus is dead. Hillary Clinton's push to build a grand coalition of progressives, centrists, and conscientious Republicans failed miserably, as Republicans largely came home to vote for Trump. Meanwhile, the party that made "obstructionism" its Obama-era mantra survived consistently atrocious approval ratings of its congressional majority and rode a better-than-expected Trump performance to unified control of government.
A whole lot of Americans clearly wanted conventional politics to implode in 2016. But that doesn't mean they're going to be happy about what's coming next. Not only is Congress historically unpopular, but Trump is as well. And Trump's wild unpredictability pushing against Paul Ryan's insistence on turning life-or-death public services into coupons is going to provide plenty of dysfunction within the Republican Party.
Democrats can capitalize on that dysfunction within the conservative movement — if they show some spine. With what little power progressives and Democrats around the country have left, they need to drop the pretense that Americans want a government that works together and instead capitalize on this dysfunction on the right by picking huge, public fights about what we want the future to look like.
These fights start with Democratic lawmakers making a concentrated effort to support and show solidarity with the grassroots. During the special session in which vast powers were taken from Cooper, some Democratic legislators made it known, in press conferences and interviews with the media, that they were behind protests at the assembly. That's a good start, but a better way to show it would have been to adopt the same tactics themselves. The House Democrats' sit-in last year, after all, showed a willingness on the part of Democratic legislators to fight (even if the bill they were protesting for legitimized an arbitrary, ineffective, and racist no-fly list).
Democrats also must be willing to fight Republican policies through the courts. The Obama administration's executive orders — on immigration, on transgender rights, and its Clean Power Plan — were all derailed after challenges by Texas and other conservative states. Democrats need to embrace that same use of the courts; states like California — which is retaining former Attorney General Eric Holder for the purposes of suing the Trump administration — New York, and North Carolina (which now has a Democratic attorney general and governor) can derail or at least temporarily halt the Trump administration and Congress' most draconian measures.
Democrats are going to lose a lot of these fights; after all, the Supreme Court will be conservative after Trump's nominee is confirmed. But to wield any sort of political power, Democrats need to show an unwillingness to comply or negotiate with any part of the Republican agenda that's antithetical to their values. Whether this means through the courts, in protest, the bully pulpit, or elsewhere, Democrats must shed their reputation for being squishes in search of bipartisan consensus.
Democrats around the country who have any sort of power — governors, state legislative leaders, and so on — have to make the case that their ideas are better than Republicans'. It won't be enough to just talk about why Trump's ideas are bad. Sooner or later, Democrats at large are going to have to get on board with a progressive platform that tackles the flaws of the Affordable Care Act and whatever comes after it, the erosion of the safety net, climate change, and college debt.
It sounds obvious, but if Democrats want to change their position and effectively combat the hardline conservatism that has taken control of the federal government and the majority of state governments, they're going to have to persuade people to vote for them. In the meantime, they have to make the most of the tools they have at their disposal with the knowledge that if they don't fight this powerful right-wing movement every step of the way, there's not much hope for the rest of us.