How the Democratic Party can rebuild

It's time for genuine, credible populism

Can the Democrats get their act together after a devastating election?
(Image credit: REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

The Democratic Party is a smoking crater. Despite winning more votes at the national level, and more votes for the House of Representatives, the party has lost the presidency, Congress, 69 percent of state legislatures, and 33 governorships. Republicans are only a handful of state houses away from being able to amend the Constitution on a party line vote.

What is to be done? A mood of despair permeates the many liberals I know who are talking and writing about the result. Hillary Clinton was a decent candidate running against a deranged, racist maniac who lied constantly and endlessly about everything. Perhaps the thing to do is hope that after four years of Trump looting the country, America will have wised up to the con.

That is a luxury we can't afford, at least if we care about trying to preserve the world biosphere and civilization in anything like its current state. I suggest that the only reasonably promising route forward for the Democrats is full-throated social democracy, with the full complement of race, gender, and LGBT-specific protections. It's the only way to restore enough of the working-class white votes won by Obama without losing margins among black and brown voters.

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As I wrote earlier this week, Clinton's loss was extremely narrow, resting on only a handful of votes in three Rust Belt states. Many factors could have plausibly tipped the balance: FBI Director James Comey's letter, Republican vote suppression, Clinton's stunningly incompetent tactics and uninspiring campaign, and her lack of appeal to the working class of all races. Remove any one of those and Trump probably wouldn't have made it over the top.

Now, I should admit that I did predict a Clinton win. I blindly trusted the poll aggregators, and that made for some really bad calls. Just about everyone in political writing (with a few exceptions) needs to eat some crow, and I'm no exception.

However, back in April 2015, I also argued that Clinton was disastrously misjudging the politics of the presidential race. I suspected she would pitch her campaign largely to the money seats, and run on fiddly little tax credits instead of strong, simple, universal social programs. I thought she would do this out of some combination of not wanting to alienate the donor class and genuine ideological commitment.

That prediction panned out unfortunately well. But in hindsight, the argument against running such a campaign is even stronger than it appeared. Back then, I argued that Clinton might take a hit in fundraising, but that it wouldn't be a big deal because political spending isn't worth nearly as much during presidential campaigns. But Bernie Sanders' campaign shows that with a credible social-democratic agenda, you can raise staggering sums from millions of small donors. He was quite competitive with Clinton money-wise, and indeed surpassed her in some periods.

Conversely, Clinton's insider ties to Big Finance deeply harmed her. Taking millions of dollars to give secret speeches to banks, then refusing to release the transcripts, looks (and probably is) horrendously corrupt. Democrats' coziness with big corporations, especially the Wall Street swindlers who wrecked the economy, is hurting them coming and going.

What Democrats need is a set of policies and personalities that will mobilize a hard core of committed activists. And again, if the Sanders campaign is any indication, strong, universal benefits — tuition-free college for everyone, single-payer coverage (or the nearest thing to it) for everyone, retirement security for everyone, and so on — coupled to an anti-corruption message, cricket-bat regulation of Wall Street, all sold by a credible candidate, inspires fervent enthusiasm.

People like benefits that are simple, guaranteed, and easy to access. Conversely, ObamaCare is disliked in part because its most visible part, the exchange system, is an obnoxious pain in the neck. Means testing is bad policy and worse politics; the way to make sure billionaires don't benefit unduly from social programs is by hiking their taxes.

As part of this, Dems should also shed their preening "wonky" self-presentation. Hillary Clinton had a whole office stuffed full of policy experts churning out papers on everything under the sun, and it was all for naught. Remember that the point of campaigns is to set values and priorities, not lay out hugely complicated policies that do little but flatter the campaign's sense of its own expertise. How many people were swayed by Clinton's last-minute plan to make the Child Tax Credit somewhat more refundable for certain parents? I'd wager it was in the triple digits at best.

That's not to say that realistic ideas are bad, or that one should be deliberately dishonest, but that the time for drilling down on the minute details is after the election is won.

Genuine, credible populism will also help Democrats with some of their other problems. Vote suppression, for example, often works by making voting a huge pain in the neck, not explicitly illegal. Democrats need real enthusiasm and institutional structures like unions (which will be addressed in the final entry in this series) and pro-democracy nonprofits to help people turn out in the face of these headwinds.

Finally, there is the issue of specific concerns around race, gender, religion and so on. I have not dwelt on this much because I take it as axiomatic that Democrats cannot abandon these constituencies. Some have suggested that perhaps Democrats should ditch identity concerns so as to better pursue white voters, like Bill Clinton did when he attacked a black female rapper and oversaw the execution of a mentally disabled black person in 1992. But not only would it be morally monstrous to abandon minorities at this time (Trump surrogates are already defending a proposed registry of Muslim immigrants by referencing Japanese internment camps during World War II), the country is far more diverse now than it was 24 years ago. Any capitulation to social conservatism risks bleeding off non-white votes the party cannot afford to lose — and besides, all you need to win the presidency at least is a handful of white voters in a few key states. Democrats must abandon neoliberalism, not social justice.

Therefore, the new party leadership, both formally and in the figurehead sense, should be diverse and committed to left populism. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and especially Keith Ellison (who looks to be a lock as chair of the DNC) are excellent choices. They are the most credible populist voices that simultaneously demonstrate that the party has a place for everyone, even white men. Indeed, they are where the party's coalescing center of gravity already is now that the Clintonite wing has completely discredited itself.

The best place to start is by a scorched-earth opposition against the building Republican plan to destroy Medicare and replace it with some sort of voucher system. It's probably impossible to save ObamaCare at this point, but Medicare is immensely popular, and old people vote more than any other age demographic. Trump, by contrast, is already horrendously unpopular. Once it becomes clear that his "Make America Great Again" shtick is a complete fraud, Democrats should be able to do extremely well promising to protect and expand social insurance.

This is the third article in a four-part series on the Democratic Party. Read the first article here, the second article here, and the final article here.

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