Back in 2010, Mitch McConnell said “Our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny Barack Obama a second term.” I remember thinking back then how short-sighted, myopic and petty that sounded. Really? Not a vision for the country, or a policy position, or even a personal agenda? Just Obama’s demise?
Clearly, the tables have turned. We now have a President with a very different agenda and potentially dangerous ideas for the country. The all-out onslaught by the Trump administration has left us reeling, scrambling to protect the institutions, policies and people we hold dear. The left has been #resisting with unprecedented levels of energy, and it’s been working shockingly well so far. But I fear that success is not going to last, because it’s not enough to just be against whatever Trump is for. The left, in only fighting whatever Trump has put on the table, has allowed him to set the agenda. That needs to change. We can’t keep playing his game: we need to go back to our principles and craft our own, new vision for what our country should be.
There’s no clear idea competing with Trump’s simple message
Fundamentally, politics is a battle of ideas. In spite of Trump’s incoherent speeches, his disregard for the facts or his obvious personal flaws, his idea for the United States has resonated with enough people to propel him to the Presidency. The Clinton campaign was not as clear about its idea for the country, beyond continuing what the Obama administration started. Remember her slogan, what was it? Stronger Together? Or was it Love Trumps Hate? Compare that to Make America Great Again or Obama’s Yes We Can, which eight years later is still stronger. Slogans are not the same as a cohesive idea, but still. Clinton didn’t have that clear, simple message.
Since the inauguration, the message problem has gotten worse. The contours of the progressive agenda have been drowned out by a resounding “not Trump”. The broad left has never been more unified on any one topic than its dislike for the current President. It’s natural at this point in the election cycle to focus on resistance, but powerful movements are almost always defined by what they are for, not what they are against. Operating without that competing idea has many perils:
- We’ll allow Trump to set the agenda. As long as we’re only resisting, we’re waiting for the Trump administration to launch another attack. Not only will we be always on the defensive, we’ll limit our imaginations to a reality within the boundaries of Trump’s world.
- We’ll lose. The chips are stacked in favor of the party currently occupying the White House and dominating both houses of Congress. Even with unprecedented levels of participation, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to effectively resist every move.
- We won’t heal a deeply divided country. If we are to take steps to mend the deep tears in our political fabric, we cannot be defined by what we are opposed to.
Winning this war is not impeaching Trump. That has its own problems. Winning is not about seeing your opponent bleed. Winning is far grander: channeling unprecedented levels of activism into an idea for our country that not only combats the corrosive policies we’ve seen, but can lead to a permanently better future. That idea will create lasting good well beyond the next four years.
… But what if we don’t have four years?
I’ve heard the argument that the damage Trump can do in four years will fundamentally and permanently alter our system of government, presenting an existential threat to the American experiment. That’s possible, and it’s why we must continue to forcefully resist moves by the Trump administration that push the boundaries of the governmental checks and balances we have in place. There will be policy changes put in place that not everyone likes. He can do that; he’s the President. But our system is also designed to limit the damage any one President can do, as long as the system works. We do need to make sure the system works.
A New Greatness awaits, but we need to define it
I’m surprised that more politicians who oppose Trump haven’t articulated clear messages about how to advance a progressive agenda in our current system. Perhaps they’re just as taken aback by the Trump assault as the rest of us are. Even so, we need to start thinking about the good that can be done on climate change or education or women’s rights or LGBTQ+ equality, even on the state and local levels. Much of that will be about preserving Obama-era policies into the current administration, but even that effort would be reinvigorated if we reminded ourselves why we wanted them in the first place.
Thankfully, we’re not without guidance for what that vision could look like. While Democrats need to think long and hard about their message, the race for DNC Chair has evoked some powerful discussions about where we go next. Establishment candidates Tom Perez and Keith Ellison have both made cases for the future of the party, Perez emphasizing voter rights and Ellison fronting social justice. But my favorite articulation comes from South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, whose Letter From Flyover Country both emphasizes the deep goodness of many progressive policies but also acknowledges that the Obama era left many feeling abandoned. It emphasizes the beliefs in protecting freedom, family, fairness and the future — I won’t repost the entire letter here, but read it. It’s good.
The reality is that we all want to Make America Great. Whether it’s already great or not depends on your perspective; many of our fellow Americans don’t think so. Hillary’s version of Greatness was clearly insufficient. Trump’s version is a nostalgic return to a mythical Old Greatness that isn’t going to work in today’s world. We do need to resist the Trump agenda, especially when that agenda threatens the structure of the democracy we hold dear. In addition to resistance, we must also define the inclusive, moral, powerful New Greatness for this country that we want to see beyond these next four years. That New Greatness will not only carry us through an inevitably difficult Trump administration, but well into the future. It’s difficult to think that way right now, but it has never been more necessary.
This story originally appeared on Medium. Check it out here.