The Democratic Party is heading in the wrong direction. For months now, activists — as activists are wont to do — have seized the high ground and pushed the party further and further to the left. First Medicare for all and free college tuition — the defining issues of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign — became litmus test issues for aspiring party leaders. Then came the idea of a government guaranteed job for all. A few weeks ago, in the face of tragedy at the southern border, the cry went out for the elimination of ICE. Now, with the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and the prospect of his being replaced by a younger, more conservative jurist, packing the Supreme Court has emerged as a solution to what ails the party.
Democrats need to step back consider two things as they blaze their path forward. First, the Blue Wave that so many are counting on to sweep the nation this November is not written in stone. The Democratic Party advantage on the “generic ballot” has been cut in half from its peak levels late last year. Indeed, one long-time Republican campaign strategist commented to me this week that GOP internal polling suggests that if the election were held today, they would keep control of the House by five or six seats. Second, the vision of children being taken from their parents and disappeared into a bureaucratic wasteland, and the prospect of Amy Coney Barrett being appointed to replace Kennedy — putting overturning both Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges within striking distance for the “religious liberty” crowd — should stand as stark reminders that in this historical moment winning is the singular imperative for Democrats, and it is highly debatable whether a surge to the left is a step in the right direction.
The emergence of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as the new paragon of the Democratic Party has contributed to the distorted perceptions of the political landscape that have gripped many Democrats. The 28 year-old Ocasio-Cortez is an impressive political newcomer, and her take-down of Congressman Joe Crowley was the most startling loss for a national party leader since House Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor was defeated by David Brat four years ago. Nonetheless, despite the excitement her success has engendered, Ocasio-Cortez’ victory as a self-proclaimed democratic socialist in a deep blue district in the Bronx — in an off-year race that had 11.8% turnout — should offer minimal, if any, implications for Democratic Party strategy going forward.
Most of the American electorate does not identify as Democrats — much less democratic socialists. While slightly more Americans identify as Democrats than Republicans, that does not make Democrats the majority party; it simply makes them — at best — the plurality party. In contrast, far and away the largest political cohort in the country is the nearly half of Americans that identify as Independents. Faced with this electoral landscape, one might imagine that one party or the other would seek to temper their respective party’s push to the edge of the political spectrum and focus instead on moving to the center, but that is not the world we seem to be in. The Republican Party’s commitment to Trumpism is now complete, while leading Democrats appear to have decided to turn their backs on the political center and pander to the activist progressive wing of the party.
Two decades ago, Ralph Nader took the Democratic Party to task just as activists are today, when he famously derided the notion that there was any material difference between the Democratic and Republican parties. “The only difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush,” Nader commented before the 2000 presidential election, “is the velocity with which their knees hit the floor when corporations knock on their door… It’s a Tweedle Dee, Tweedle Dum vote.” Nader, of course, went on to throw his hat in the ring, and arguably threw the election to George W. Bush, as Nader’s 97,421 votes in Florida overwhelmed Bush’s 537 vote margin of victory.
One might have thought that seeing two wars launched and two conservative Supreme Court jurists appointed by Bush over the ensuing eight years would have taught Democrats a lesson, and tempered their urge to seek a savior on the left, but just sixteen years later Bernie Sanders took Democrats down the same path. Like Nader, Sanders was a political independent who embraced the Tweedle Dee, Tweedle Dumperspective on the national political parties. And, as with Nader, one can argue that the 20% of Sanders supporters who chose not to vote for Hillary Clinton in the general election because she failed the test of doctrinal purity, tipped the balance for Trump. The difference this time is that despite losing to Hillary in the primaries — and despite her winning the popular vote nationally — it was Sanders who emerged from the 2016 contest as the undisputed winner on the Democratic side. Today, the curmudgeonly grandfather figure is leading a movement of youthful zealots who imagine that by pursuing his progressive agenda they will redeem the Democratic Party, even as they ignore the very real risk that they will simply assure its continued minority status.
Lest Democrats are letting their anger delude them into thinking otherwise, that is the objective reality of what is at stake. Right now, Republicans hold not just the White House — and thus the privilege of making Supreme Court nominations and dictating ICE policies and practices — but the Senate, the House of Representatives, 33 of 50 governors, both legislative chambers in 32 of 50 states, and a tightening grip on the Supreme Court. To put it in even more stark terms, the GOP is just two states short of being able to call a Constitutional Convention and seek to enshrine its political priorities in the U.S. Constitution; and don’t think for a minute that possibility is lost on Republican strategists. So much for the demographics is destiny notion that is supposed to portend the Democrats being the majority party for decades to come; if there is a political party in America that is slipping into irrelevance, it is not the Republicans.
It feels like we are watching a slow-motion train wreck. One week after another, Donald Trump hands Democrats issues around which they might build a broad-based political coalition. One week he is actively destroying the alliances that have been central to America’s post-World War II leadership in the world, while the next week he is cozying up to dictators — petty and otherwise. His growing trade war has conflated Canada with China, and has had the unintended consequence of torching the agricultural sector. Trump’s attacks on foreign automakers at a rally in Greenville, NC marked the highpoint in political irony, deafness or hubris — take your pick — as Greenville-Spartenberg is the home to BMW America, where the German automaker builds SUVs that it sells across the globe. When Trump vilified Harley-Davidson on Twitter a few weeks ago for responding rationally to his tariffs, he demonstrated to corporate America the risk of a president who is willing to use his bully pulpit and regulatory powers to settle political scores. And then, of course, there is his administration’s treatment of asylum-seekers and their children, which has marked a fundamental assault on American notions of decency.
Just at the moment when one might imagine that a trans-partisan political response to Trumpism would be so easy to assemble — after all, a large subset of Americans must be yearning for a government that evinces a modicum of integrity, pursues reasonable and moderate public policies, provides desperately needed leadership against the rise of nationalism across the world, and does not assault their notions of integrity, fair play and decency one day after the next — the Democratic Party has chosen instead to turn its back on the political center and chart what could be a path to its own destruction. Nate Silver summed it up the other day, when he commented that “The notion that moderation wins elections more often than not isn’t going to persuade many people after 2016, even though it might happen to be true. The mostly young Democratic activists who are pushing to abolish ICE feel like the Democratic establishment totally misunderstands politics and are responsible for the Democrats’ electoral predicament.”
Progressive Democrats may be convinced that a majority of the country think the way they do; that if given the chance, a majority of Americans would vote for their agenda, despite the fact that just two years ago a majority of Democrats chose not to. Those who are inspired by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ inspirational words should take note of the fact that her victory was hardly a robust endorsement of her democratic socialist platform: Her 57% winning percentage in an election that had 11.8% turnout means that only 6.7% of eligible voters in her district actually cast a ballot for her.
Nate Silver may be right that young progressives don’t want to hear that moderation wins elections, but they — and aspiring party leaders pandering to them — should consider the alternatives. Given the Trump administration policies — and what the future could look like if Republicans gain rather than lose ground in the fall — even progressive Democrats might conclude that this time around, to paraphrase Vince Lombardi, winning isn’t everything, it is the only thing.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit: Why Federalism is Not Just For Racists Anymore.”
Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out Jay’s political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.