The Democratic Party in the second year of the Trump presidency is simultaneously remarkably united and notably amorphous. At its best, exemplified in the tenacious fight to save the Affordable Care Act (ACA), airy pronouncements have given way to determined organizing. Radicals and moderates are playing the inside-outside game in the service of a common goal: to limit the damage from Trumpism and unified Republican control, and to claw back a majority. And yet, even if the 2018 midterm elections deliver Democrats the House of Representatives and enough power in state capitols to stop Republican gerrymanders after 2020, the Democratic Party’s legitimacy crisis—its inability to articulate a coherent politics—remains acute. Without such a politics, the energy of our moment will dissipate, and with it the possibilities for real change when Democrats take back Washington. The historic barriers to moving American politics leftward have not disappeared. But they can be pushed back if Democrats formulate a powerful, collective vision.
The rise of coherent national parties is something new under the American political sun. In the nineteenth century, loyalties to mass parties ran deep. But they were locally rooted. And organizationally robust parties often did a poor job translating electoral victory into meaningful and distinct policies. The party system seemed little more than what a coalition of state parties could agree on. The Republican Party, from its founding in 1854 through the Radical years and the end of Reconstruction, never figured out how to marry its free-labor ambitions for the polity with a political system still based on the distribution of patronage. And the Democratic Party in its New Deal heyday was a complicated mixture of unions (including the newly organized workers of the CIO), urban machines, and Southern Democrats anxious to develop the region but not to disturb Jim Crow.
The situation has now been reversed. Politics has become thoroughly nationalized. Presidential nominations are in the hands of voters, bypassing the chieftains who once controlled powerful state delegations. The sole exception, the Democrats’ so-called superdelegates, have never, since their arrival in 1984, been decisive in choosing a nominee and seem likely to get their wings clipped for 2020. Voters respond more to national trends than to local conditions. Party identification drives American politics—but party loyalty, in the older sense that voters proudly displayed their party allegiance rather than acting out their antipathy to the opposing team, has atrophied.
Republicans have found other sources of common purpose. The mythos of the conservative movement, from Goldwater through Saint Reagan, long fit the bill. And when denunciations of Donald Trump’s apostasy proved insufficient to deny him the nomination, Republican elites loyally stood by their nominee, while ethno-nationalism and the appeal of a leader promising that “I alone can save us” filled the gap.
Democrats have no such common reservoir of shared resolve. When they talk about their party, mainstream Democrats oscillate between two tendencies. One is accommodation to the party’s many stakeholders—or, as detractors would see it, particularistic pandering. This is the ground on which “identity politics” stakes its claim. A party with a demographically diverse coalition tries to stitch together support from the priorities of its constituent parts. And because most Americans are, as Lloyd A. Free and Hadley Cantril observed half a century ago, “philosophical conservatives” but “operational liberals,” Democrats’ defense of everything from Social Security and Medicare down to the smallest grants-in-aid is rooted in the actual doings of government.
The question, then, is what exists beyond the particulars. And there lies the Democratic commitment to a common good. There are no hard political choices, just a commitment to self-evidently sensible solutions. In his years on the Daily Show, Jon Stewart served as the patron saint of this view. Barack Obama spent eight years in the White House, in an ever-more partisan environment, still devoted to the idea that reasonable people could agree on how to solve the country’s problems. Obama’s conspicuous failure to party-build extended beyond the disastrous tenure of Debbie Wasserman Schultz at the Democratic National Committee. He twice dismantled formidable campaign operations that had rallied armies of volunteers and did nothing to shore up the threadbare state parties, now barely able to keep the lights on.
Still more important, Obama failed to explicate a specifically partisan vision. Only once, at a pep rally to stiffen the spines of House Democrats just before the passage of the ACA, did Obama express that vision of a politics rooted in commitment to a party. “Something inspired you,” he told his fellow Democratic politicians, “to get involved, and something inspired you to be a Democrat instead of running as a Republican. Because somewhere deep in your heart you said to yourself, I believe in an America in which we don’t just look out for ourselves, that we don’t just tell people you’re on your own.”
Nor did the rest of the Democratic establishment come to the rescue. Efforts to imitate the financial juggernauts on the right foundered on just these same shoals as they, too, failed to express a coherent vision or to build grassroots power. The Democracy Alliance (DA), a collection of interest groups and rich donors set up to resist short-termism and fragmentation spread its cash thinly and widely. Rather than pushing a clear partisan or ideological vision, its donors (whom it calls “partners”) choose among their favorite groups, which have ranged at various points from the left-liberal Economic Policy Institute to the center-hugging Third Way.
The consequence has been to pump more money into the vast Washington-centric Blob. See this Blob as a whole, grasp its shapeless shape, its formless form, its headless body. It spreads far and wide: groups promoting particular issues or causes, many of them with members only on paper or no members at all; media, guided by profit and celebrity at least as much as by ideological or electoral goals; policy experts in think tanks, themselves scrounging for grants and shadow-boxing with other policy actors; consultancies and staffers hoping for a share of all the money sloshing through the system. The rise of Big Data, with ever-more opportunities for campaigns to spend money on political-staffers-turned-consultants claiming some special sauce to reach some target population has added yet more layers to the problem.
This permanent party has largely removed the old conservatives, ancestral Democratic survivors from older party alignments. They never entirely acclimated themselves to the New Deal, still less to the transformations in liberalism that followed in the 1960s. Many were Southerners, but not all. This year, a bill on banking designed to loosen various pieces of the Dodd-Frank Act did win support from fifteen Democratic senators. But on the most consequential votes of 2017, every single Democrat in both chambers of Congress voted to save the ACA and to oppose the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The creation of a liberal party heralded in Franklin Roosevelt’s ill-fated “purge campaign” of 1938 has, however incompletely, come to pass.
In 1896, William Jennings Bryan, a Democrat from Nebraska, ran for president on a fusion ticket with the Populist Party. This cartoonist from a Republican magazine thought the “Popocratic” ticket was too ideologically mismatched to win. Bryan did lose, but his campaign, the first of three he waged for the White House, transformed the Democrats into an anti-corporate, pro-labor party (Library of Congress)
On social issues, the big storms are largely over. Dan Lipinski, a machine hack from Chicago who inherited his House seat from his father, hung on in his 2018 primary, but he is a relic; only three Democrats in Congress support bans on abortion after twenty weeks. The same story goes for LGBT rights and, increasingly, guns, as the National Rifle Association ill rewards Democrats who toe its line, and careens further into white nationalism.
What is still up for grabs, however, is the character of the liberalism that remains. Here the questions prove harder. The other great transformation in the Democratic Party, in line with center-left parties across the rich democracies, has been in its electoral base. It once relied on the support of the white working class; today, its base is primarily African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and well-educated whites. That shift accelerated in 2016.
With that last demographic transformation came a shift in power toward upper-middle-class professionals. The New Democrats who emerged sought to jettison the outmoded, dirt-under-the-fingernails laborite politics that, in their view, had kept the party from winning the White House and left it mired in stale dogmas. The “Atari Democrats” of the 1980s like Paul Tsongas and Gary Hart pushed this view first and Bill Clinton synthesized it when he won the White House.
But the manifest failure of that project since the Great Recession has vastly weakened, if not destroyed, it. Hillary Clinton, under pressure from Bernie Sanders, spent the 2016 nomination season walking back her husband’s policies, and some of her own past statements, most infamously her 1996 reference to “superpredators.” The party’s platform edged back toward statements for full employment and aggressive antitrust enforcement that had been absent for decades. In the wilderness, Democrats, and the would-be presidential candidates especially, have moved toward a job guarantee and, beyond simply protecting the ACA, to Medicare for All. These are the core unfulfilled promises from the Democratic agenda of 1945. Now, at last, they are back.
For decades, the two storylines of where the Democrats were going, the party sort and the retreat from labor-liberalism, ran in opposite directions. Now, the ideological stories run together even as the fissures in the Democrats’ multiracial, cross-class coalition pose deep dilemmas for the party. To be blunt, we have remarkably little real-world evidence to answer the critical question of just how much redistribution a party that substantially relies on the upper-middle class can accomplish, or how it can go beyond lifestyle liberalism to battle against the historical injustices that stratify Americans’ life chances. Predictions from the sixties about “the new class” do not answer the real partisan questions.
The same practical difficulties that have long beset liberal and leftist reformers who want to sweep away the accumulated grab bags that make up American social policy still hold. It is one thing to favor universal policies. It is another to pay for them—or to accept still more debt. And winning support for universal policies means taking on the various giveaways to the affluent that have accumulated over the decades, many the product of bipartisan coalitions, from 529 college savings plans to the Home Mortgage Interest Deduction. None will go quietly. How much Democrats can squeeze the financial interests of their big donors on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley poses the same sorts of questions.
With unified Democratic control in Washington, in 2021, or 2025, or whenever, will come choices that go beyond undoing the damage done. Windows for fundamental reform close quickly in American national politics. The next Democratic president will almost certainly not have a working left majority in either chamber, let alone both of them. What will get accomplished: universal healthcare or child care, sentencing reform, full employment, or a sustained attack on climate change? Even if the center of gravity in the party moves decisively leftward, the range of possible outcomes from Congress, dependent on senators from red states, may not—particularly if the legislative filibuster survives.
There is simply no hard-and-fast substantive issue where “the base” and “the party,” or else “the insurgents” and “the establishment,” come down on opposite sides. What’s at stake, instead, is the harder-to-define mainstream of the party. When everyone’s a pragmatic progressive, then nobody is. The Democratic establishment’s embrace of the “progressive” label makes the task harder. Liberal funders’ checklists and litmus tests ill-designed for the contexts in particular states and districts neither push as hard as readers of this magazine might wish, nor allow for nuance where conditions demand. The left wing of the possible, in Michael Harrington’s venerable phrase, means picking up on, and in turn soft-pedaling, different strands in different places.
Optimists can point to the brutal intraparty war that has not happened. Dazed and shell-shocked after Trump’s victory, Democrats of all stripes expected bloodletting. Some bitter primary fights notwithstanding, their worst fears have not come to pass. A party in dire straits has, for once, not followed Morris Udall’s old quip that when Democrats “assemble a firing squad, we usually arrange it in a circle.” The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has, to be sure, thrown money behind already well-funded candidates, typically bland moderates (with a conspicuous preference for small-business owners), over scrappy leftists. But such moderates are far to the left of the Blue Dogs Rahm Emanuel championed in 2006 when he ran the DCCC.
So, it’s important to step back from the personalities and not to overemphasize the significance of who gets to succeed Nancy Pelosi or even who runs against Trump in 2020. Presidents and, especially, leaders of parliamentary caucuses find themselves hemmed in by larger forces, whether the hard facts of securing legislative majorities (or supermajorities), or else subtler coalitional pressures, whether delivered by voters, lobbyists, or donors.
In the short run, partisan enthusiasm can deliver results. If 2018 is a Democratic wave, it will be from just such a story—compounded when enthusiasts pound the pavement. In the long run, however, politicians and the forces behind them do not yield unless pushed through the particular confluence of movement influence and partisan power. For decades, left analysts excoriated the timid Democrats, and explained, to quote Frances Fox Piven from 1991, that they were “unlikely to yield or adapt unless assaulted by protest movements.” The insight is correct but insufficient. Worker militancy on the jobsite, in an old trope in American history, need not lead to pro-worker candidates’ victories at the polling place. Unless radical moments sustain themselves in formal organization, their moment is over when the window for legislation opens up. Insurgents, from Populists in the 1890s down through Occupy, have learned as much—and, as it built itself as a political force, so did the labor movement after passage of the Wagner Act.
Our era of fifty-fifty politics, with its close elections and its cycles of over-promising and under-delivering, will not go on forever. The pendulum will eventually swing left. If it takes a while, then Democratic bloodletting will resume, and the challenge to fix the damage will prove more pressing. Nevertheless, the Democratic Party, for all its frustrations, its old and rickety procedures, and its propensity to squander easy advantages, is our best and only hope in the vital task of building a multiracial democracy that can provide a good life to all.
Daniel Schlozman is Joseph and Bertha Bernstein Assistant Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of When Movements Anchor Parties: Electoral Alignments in American History (Princeton University Press, 2015).