It’s now just a bit over a month since Election Day, and I’m starting to be seriously concerned about the possibility that the U.S. might become a one-party democracy.
Therefore this is an open letter to Democrats; the country needs you to get your act together. Yes, ideally I personally would prefer your place in the two-party Duverger equilibrium to be taken by the Libertarian Party, but there are practical reasons this is extremely unlikely to happen. The other minor parties are even more doomed. If the Republicans are going to have a counterpoise, it has to be you Democrats.
Donald Trump’s victory reads to me like a realignment election, a historic break with the way interest and demographic groups have behaved in the U.S. in my lifetime. Yet, Democrats, you so far seem to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Indeed, if I were Donald Trump I would be cackling with glee at your post-election behavior, which seems ideally calculated to lock Trump in for a second term before he has been sworn in for the first.
Stop this. Your country needs you. I’m not joking and I’m not concern-trolling. The wailing and the gnashing of teeth and the denial of reality have to end. In the rest of this essay I’m not going to talk about right and wrong and ideology, I’m going to talk about the brutal practical politics of what you have to do to climb out of the hole you are in.
We need to start with an unsparing assessment of that hole.
First, your ability to assemble a broad-based national coalition has collapsed. Do not be fooled into thinking otherwise by your popular vote “win”; that majority came entirely from the West Coast metroplex and disguises a large-scale collapse in popular support everywhere else in the U.S. Trump even achieved 30-40% support in blue states where he didn’t spend any money.
County-by-county psephological maps show that your base is now confined to two major coastal enclaves and a handful of university towns. Only 4 of 50 states have both a Democratic-controlled legislature and a Democratic governor. In 2018 that regionalization is going to get worse, not better; you will be defending 25 seats in areas where Trump took the popular vote, while the Republicans have to defend only 8 where Clinton won.
Your party leadership is geriatric, decades older than the average for their Republican counterparts. Years of steady losses at state level, masked by the personal popularity of Barack Obama, have left you without a bench to speak of – little young talent and basically no seasoned Presidential timber under retirement age. The fact that Joseph Biden, who will be 78 for the next Election Day, is being seriously mooted as the next Democratic candidate, speaks volumes – none of them good.
Your ideological lock on the elite media and show business has flipped from a powerful asset to a liability. Trump campaigned against that lock and won; his tactics can be and will be replicated. Worse, a self-created media bubble insulated you from grasping the actual concerns of the American public so completely that you didn’t realize the shit you were in until election night.
Your donor advantage didn’t help either. Clinton outspent Trump 2:1 and still lost.
Your “coalition of the ascendant” is sinking. Tell all the just-so stories you like, but the brute fact is that it failed to turn out to defeat the Republican candidate with the highest negatives in history. You thought all you had to do was wait for the old white men to die, but anybody who has studied the history of immigration in the U.S. could have told you that the political identities of immigrant ethnic groups do not remain stable as they assimilate. You weren’t going to own the Hispanics forever any more than you owned the Irish and the Italians forever. African-Americans, trained by decades of identity politics, simply failed to show up for a white candidate in the numbers you needed. The sexism card didn’t play either, as a bare majority of married women who actually went to the polls seem to have voted for Trump.
But your worst problem is less tangible. Trump has popped the preference-falsification bubble. The conservative majority in most of the U.S. (coastal enclaves excepted) now knows it’s a conservative majority. Before the election every pundit in sight pooh-poohed the idea that discouraged conservative voters, believing themselves isolated and powerless, had been sitting out several election cycles. But it turned out to be true, not least where I live in the swing state of Pennsylvania, where mid-state voters nobody knew were there put Trump over the top. Pretty much the same thing happened all through the Rust Belt.
That genie isn’t going to be stuffed back in the bottle. Those voters now know they can deliver the media and the coastal elites a gigantic fuck-you, and Republicans know the populist techniques to mobilize them to do that. Trump’s playbook was not exactly complicated.
Some Democrats are beginning to talk, tentatively, about reconnecting to the white working class. But your real problem is larger; you need to make the long journey back to the political center. Not the center you imagine exists, either; that’s an artifact of your media bubble. I’m pointing at the actual center revealed by psephological analysis of voter preferences.
That center is far to the right of what you would prefer. For that matter it is rather to the right of where I would prefer – but facts are facts and denying them isn’t going to help. You Democrats need to think about what it takes to be competitive on a continuum where Fox News is barely right of center, Mitt Romney was an out-of-touch liberal, and as near as I could tell the politician who actually nailed the psephological center in 2008 was none other than Sarah Palin.
If you do not do this thing, you will continue to lose.
Again, I emphasize that I am not issuing an ideological prescription here. I am not arguing in this essay that the present Democratic platform and strategy is wrong in an abstract moral sense, but rather that that it has become suicidal practical politics. Trump has dynamited almost every connection it had to winning elections, and smarter Republicans than Trump will take the lesson going forward.
Before I get to suggesting some changes, I want to point out that the results of the dominance Republicans have already achieved are going to make your problems even worse than they look now. Those problems don’t end with not having a farm team. State-level control means the Republicans will largely determine redistricting in the 2020 census. Their ability to pass voter-ID laws will surely hurt you as well.
I also need to point out that you shouldn’t count on Republican failure to save you. Yes, I know Democrats tell themselves Republican “hard right” policy actually implemented will alienate so many voters that they’ll come running back to your party. But you also thought Hillary was inevitable and how did that work out for ya? Trump’s popularity has risen as his program becomes clearer. You need to be positioned so that you can cope with outcomes other than catastrophic disenchantment with Trumpian populism.
So, what can you do?
The most obvious thing is that you have to stop contemptuously dismissing the largest single demographic segment of the American electorate. Because believe me, they noticed. So did their wives and children.
This has larger implications than you may yet understand. It’s not just that you need to take any Democrat who uses the phrase “angry white men” out to the woodshed and beat him or her with a strap until he/she wises up. The whole apparatus of racial and ethnic identity politics is turning in your hand, reversing (like your old-media dominance) from an asset to a liability.
(Just to drive the point home, the gender card doesn’t work any more either. Trump is a feminist’s worst nightmare. He won anyway. He came close enough to winning the entire female vote to trigger bitter post-election denunciations of American women in general by feminists – which pretty much epitomizes the sort of reaction that isn’t going to help you.)
Your best plausible case is that the minority groups you counted on passively fail to add up to a winning coalition in the future, as they did this cycle. Your worst – and increasingly likely – case is that white people now begin voting as something like an ethnic bloc. This is, after all, how you’ve been teaching other ethnic groups to play the game since the 1960s.
You will not prevent this development by screaming “racism!”. Here’s a hot tip: people you dismiss as retrograde scum will not, in general, vote for you. In fact, one of the things you Democrats most urgently need to do is banish “racism” and “sexism” from your political vocabulary.
While these words point at some real problems, they are also a trap. They lead you to organize your political pitch around virtue-signaling, exclusion and demonization. That, in turn, can be successful (though repulsive) politics when it’s used against a minority to mobilize a majority or plurality. But you’re in the opposite situation now. You were trapped by your own privilege theory. You demonized a plurality of American voters, and in return they gave you Trump.
If you continue to do this, you will lose.
It is irrelevant whether an actual plurality of American voters actually are as racist and sexist as you think. They don’t think they are, and they’re fed up with being hectored about it. This isn’t 1965, and your ability to tap into a substratum of guilt by white people who deep down know they were in the wrong is gone. What that same move brings up now is resentment.
Speaking of virtue signaling, another thing you need to give up is focusing on peacock issues (like, say, transgender rights) while ignoring pocketbook problems like the hollowing out of middle-class employment.
Again, this advice has nothing to do with the rights or wrongs of individual peacock issues and more with a general sense that the elites are fiddling while Rome burns. For the first time since records have been kept, U.S. life expectancy went down during the Obama years, led by a disturbing rise in suicides and opiate addiction among discouraged unemployed in flyover country. A Democratic Party that fails to address that while it screws around with bathroom-law boycotts is willfully consigning itself to irrelevance.
Many of Trump’s “pro-working-class” policies are objectively terrible; a new wave of trade protectionism is, for example, bound to have dire long-term consequences. But that doesn’t matter, in a political competitive sense, until you Democrats have something to answer him with.
Right now, you have nothing. You have less than nothing, because your instinctive solution repels the Trump plurality. They don’t want welfare, they want jobs and dignity and a modicum of respect. (And, just as a reminder, not to be dismissed as retrograde racists and sexists.)
Now we need to talk about guns.
This is a more particular issue than I’ve touched so far, but it’s one that cuts straight to the heart of the self-alienation of the Democratic Party from the political center.
Again, I’m not going to address the rights and wrongs of gun policy here, just its practical political ramifications. A quarter century ago Bill Clinton – who is as shrewd a practical politician as has ever operated in the U.S. – warned his fellow Democrats that pushing gun control was a sure way to lose more voters than it gained. They ignored his advice and got shellacked in the 1994 elections.
Today voter support for personal firearms rights is at an unprecedented high. This is revealed both in polls and in the wave of state-level liberalizations of concealed-carry laws. One of Trump’s most popular first-hundred-days promises is nationwide concealed-carry reciprocity. From the fact that gun control was slow party suicide in 1994 we can deduce that it’s even worse practical politics today.
And yet, the Democratic Party line is still hostile to gun rights, and less than six months ago its leaders and captive pundits were talking up Australian-style gun confiscation.
If you continue to do this, you will lose.
The Democratic line on gun policy is a perfect symbol of everything that has become disconnected about the party. It reads as corrosive disrespect for middle-Americans who like their firearms, think of themselves as a nation of armed citizens rather than cowering subjects, and use their guns responsibly. It reeks of class warfare, urban elites against flyover-country proles. It’s disempowering, not empowering. It is, in short, a perfect focus for anti-Democratic populist anger.
Here’s what I’ve been building up to:
You Democrats don’t just need to reform your gun policy, you need to reform your attitude towards the voters to a place from which your present policy looks as vicious and absurd as it does to them.
You Democrats don’t just need to reform your rhetoric about racism and sexism, you need to reform your attitude towards the voters to a place from which your present rhetoric looks as vicious and absurd as it does to them.
It’s all of a piece. You’ve forgotten how to be the party of the people. Trump was the price of that forgetfulness. Now, you need to relearn it, for all our sakes.
The alternative is that something like the Republicans, or possibly worse, dominates American politics for the foreseeable future. I don’t want that, and you should fear it more than I do.
So get your act together now.