As a sometime Democratic activist I've lived through three bitter Presidential defeats. The first two I was able to explain as a series of assorted candidate missteps and systemic factors, like corporate money or voter suppression. This time, my efforts to comprehend Trump's win have crystallized in a very different way. Far from original, but nonetheless painful: The Democratic Party lost this election widely, and has reached a new low in influence, partly because it has lost clarity and credibility on its governing philosophy. This failure goes far beyond individual candidates' baggage, including Hillary's, to all levels of the Party. In voters' minds, the Democratic brand has gone bust. In this two-part piece I reflect upon these loses and the state of the Democratic party's future.
Many factors led to Trump's election and Democrats' widespread losses, including several forces far outside the Party's control. Confirmed reports of Russian-sponsored hacking and fake news are of monumental concern. The fact that center-left governments across the world are falling to right-wing partisans shows that the forces and failures are clearly not confined to the Democrats. There is much blame to go around and this reflection does not pretend to allocate it accurately. My goal is to address one of the many things that need to change: the Democratic Party itself.
I. Misreading the Losses and Wins
My first big defeat, Gore 2000, was immeasurably bitter, and not only because we felt that fate took the election away from us. Ralph Nader ran a campaign that decried the influence of corporatism and money in politics. We saw Nader more as grandstanding than a serious argument because we saw the contrast with Bush as utterly stark (sound familiar?). To this day, we believe Bush's actions as President confirm the absolute invalidity of Nader's claim that there wasn't a "dime's worth of difference" between Bush and Gore. We had fought our way back from being far down in the polls, overcame a huge money gap and poor debate performances, and countered media that played right into Karl Rove's brilliant hands. By the end we had united a skeptical Democratic coalition and, on the last weekend, we were surging in the polls. After our non-defeat, we blamed the media, which repeated Gore's minor gaffes and caricatured him endlessly; Ralph Nader and his followers; a fundraising system stacked against us; and yes, our own share of early tactical missteps. But even in the depths of tragedy, we were proud of the vision Gore offered and what the campaign had accomplished.
The Kerry-Edwards defeat was also tough. We could not blame underfunding for our loss. Despite the growth of a new progressive wing within the Party led by Howard Dean, the modern Democratic coalition was as united as I'd ever seen it. No Ralph Nader, no deep battles over the wording of the Party platform, no feuding former candidates. Exit polls had Kerry winning the Presidency up until the actual returns came in. We told ourselves afterwards we needed a little less patrician a candidate, a little better ground game, a little less voter suppression. We were just a few tactical whispers away.
Today it is now easy to see that the Party missed the message from Dean's new generation of activists. We all laughed at his brilliant line that he was "from the Democratic wing of the Democratic party," but after his campaign everyone forgot that a growing group of Democrat voters felt left out of economic progress. We assumed that, with Howard Dean as Party chair, we'd included Dean's message inside the tent. This same uncritical view lulled me into seeing Obama's 2008 victory as a sign that the Democratic Party birthed a new generation of leaders who embraced an activist, populist government. Obama significant progress on nearly all fronts was stalled by an opposition whose open hatred of the President, and government itself, left it content to block absolutely anything to deny any victory. Through my rose-colored glasses, I blamed Obama's limited accomplishments on the same tactical factors that narrowly cost us Presidential victories. What was the point of attempting bolder, more progressive policies certain to be blocked by the scorched-earth opposition?
Those same rose-glasses convinced me that Americans of right mind would not reward a party that brazenly destroyed civility and cooperation. Democrats were trying to heal financial crisis, expand health care, defend civil liberties, or protect the environment. Obama-era strategy to propose moderate, centrist policies produced almost no result, and did not feel like Obama's bold, activist government we voted for.
II. Defeat Number Three
The great recession's toll enabled Bernie Sanders' battle cry for the soul of the party to take the same pulse of the electorate that Trump would later ride to victory. That pulse was now so strong as to nearly defeat one of the most experienced, well-connected, and well-organized candidates in modern history. Democrats ultimately chose what we thought was the political center.
Did choosing Hillary doom the election? I think that's too easy an answer. I am of the opinion that every Democratic candidate who lost knows the economy has tilted badly against ordinary Americans. Alan Johnson of the New York Times noted that Hillary spoke with great clarity about this: "Most Trump supporters, she said, 'feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they're just desperate for change.' In key states, not enough voters believed Democrats were rationally more likely to improve economic fairness but believed a business man who lies, has no government experience, and spewed unimaginable, hateful views.
I could tell myself that we just chose the wrong messenger, laden with too much establishment baggage and personal negatives. I could tell myself a unique bunch of tactical factors again led us to this loss. Demographics is destiny, and with just a little harder work and a better messenger we'll get 'em next time.
Not in my view. We have to face the fact that, over five cycles, the Party allowed its brand to deteriorate to the point where we are simply losing our say in government even when the majority of voters just voted for our candidate. Democrats had two terms to deliver on Obama's one-word mantra and instead ended with monumental gridlock and an economic recovery that - incredibly - restored the incomes of the upper classes much faster and stronger than it helped the bottom 90%. Who would vote for more of this?
This is the core of the party's failure.
Since the election, much has been written about the warning signals that the Party did take to heart. Progressives were back in far larger numbers in the Sanders campaign, coming within an eyelash of winning. Our terrible performance gave Trump an opening to seize the narrative that ordinary Americans were losing out due to trade deals, immigration, crime, and all sorts of factors laced with lies and completely devoid of rational solutions. Yes, there will be hell to pay for this false and hate-filled message. But we have to own the fact that we gave him the opening, and we have to take it back.
Look for part 2 on this topic.
© 2016 Peter Fox-Penner
The views expressed in this article are strictly those of the author.