Like a welterweight boxer knocked into a stupor by an unexpected right hook to the side of the head, the Democratic Party has spent the eight months since the 2016 presidential election stumbling around the ring, trying to shake off the shock of losing to an amateur pugilist like Donald Trump.
For the first few months, it looked as if throngs of grassroots and online activists might take the lead in showing a way forward for the Democratic Party. But the energy fueling mass protests has understandably dissipated and been channeled into important policy battles (especially the seemingly endless succession of bills in the House and Senate that aim to repeal and sort-of replace the Affordable Care Act). Meanwhile, the most militant members of the left spend inordinate amounts of time fighting among themselves online about who is sufficiently woke enough to bring about nothing less than the abolition of capitalism, race, and gender.
Now, at long last, the Democratic establishment has finally pulled itself together, (mostly) stopped blaming the party's significant electoral problems on Russia and James Comey, and begun to formulate a message that it will take into the 2018 midterm elections.
That's the good news.
The bad news is that the message — and its accompanying slogan — is anodyne, focus-grouped, consultant-generated pablum.
Don't get me wrong: The policy proposals that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) lists in his New York Times op-ed announcing "A Better Deal for American Workers" are fine, as far as they go: a minimum wage hike; a $1 trillion infrastructure plan; paid family and sick leave; tax credits to get small businesses to "train workers for unfilled jobs." The problem is that these ideas (and vague talk of beefing up antitrust laws, "rebuilding rural America," and "changing our trade laws to benefit workers, not multinational corporations") are embedded in … precisely the same message that Democrats have run on since Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign in 1992.
Has any Democrat with national ambitions run for office over the past 30 years without promising a "strong, bold economic program for the middle class and those working hard to get there" (presumably in contrast to the lazy poor people who aren't working hard)? Without throwing a few punches at vaguely defined "special interests"? Without assuring voters a little defensively (and unconvincingly) that the party isn't about "expanding the government" or about moving "in one direction or another along the political spectrum"?
Well, there is one Democrat with national ambitions who ran for office without rehearsing center-left cliches. And he did astonishingly well against a candidate strongly favored by the same party establishment that's spent the past six months drafting the ideas that made up Schumer's op-ed.
This Democrat, of course, was Bernie Sanders.
That he was an independent who became a Democrat solely for the purpose of running for president and spent a good deal of time on the stump railing against the party's choice to succeed Barack Obama as president is just one reason why he should be treated as the party's de facto leader and its presumptive presidential frontrunner — and why he should have been the one to craft and deliver the party's message heading into the midterms.
The U.S. remains in an unstable moment of partisan realignment. Both parties are contending with populist, anti-establishment insurgencies. If President Trump had combined his anti-immigrant and protectionist message with a refusal to lower upper-income taxes, a push to fix and improve ObamaCare instead of repeal it, and a good-faith effort to strengthen supports for struggling (and sometimes drug-addicted) working-class voters of all races, he might have transformed the Republican Party into the kind of "people's party" he's sometimes spoken of — and in the process persuaded a significant number of Sanders-style populists to abandon the Democrats and come on board.
But of course, Trump has done nothing of the sort. His populism is almost entirely rhetorical, confined to conspiratorial Twitter outbursts about "fake news," and combined with policies as plutocratic as anything Americans have seen since before the New Deal.
That creates a huge opportunity for Democrats to exploit — but only if they can convincingly demonstrate that they are the country's true populists and not just a party of slightly nicer plutocrats. One way to do that is to speak more concretely and precisely about which "special interests" the party plans to confront. Sanders left no doubt about his targets, regularly denouncing the bankers and Wall Street financiers who were responsible for the economic meltdown of 2008, most of whom were bailed out by the government and walked away richer than ever. But Schumer can't convincingly take on those special interests because he's one of their leading champions in the Senate and benefits handsomely from providing that protection.
That's not populism.
And neither is offering a tepid "better deal for American workers." Populism is a politics of anger. It needn't escalate to violence. It shouldn't tear down institutions that can be reformed in productive ways. But it does need to channel the passion for justice and give voice to justified resentments. That will sometimes mean lashing out at people, groups, classes, and established leaders. One way to do that is to propose policies that don't need to be labeled by party leaders as "strong" and "bold" because they so obviously represent dramatic breaks from the status quo.
In this respect, Sanders' proposals to break up the biggest banks, provide universal health care, and make college tuition free were quintessentially populist in content as well as style. Had he won the presidency in 2016, political realities and limited resources would have forced Sanders to prioritize among these and other goals. Compromises would have needed to be struck. But those who voted for him would have known exactly where he stood, and what he would choose to do if he could. That would be the ground from which he began to work toward a compromise, not a position that already represented a pre-emptive capitulation to the other side, which is what Democrats have been doing ever since they made their peace with the Reagan revolution.
Sanders isn't the only person capable of forging a formidable populist message for the Democrats between now and 2020. Elizabeth Warren could probably do just as well, maybe even better. Joe Biden has populist potential, though he'd be hampered by his very long history of working within the very establishment he would need to place in the crosshairs of his campaign. Others may prove even more potent messengers.
More important than the person is the message itself. Both parties have neglected too many of the needs of too many Americans for far too long. One party or the other will remake itself as their unapologetic champion. The Democrats need to ensure that they're the ones to do it.