The Democrats are the oldest mass political party in the world. Established almost two centuries ago by admirers of Andrew Jackson, it was the first party to appeal to large numbers of working-class voters, the first to hold regular nominating conventions, the first to organize a network of partisan newspapers, and the first to reward its fervent loyalists with government jobs.
Yet, in politics, originality is no virtue. The Democrats have remade themselves several times over their long history. During the nineteenth century, they were a party of and for white men only. They rationalized the killing and forced migration of Native Americans and defended slavery until the Civil War made that impossible. Then they disenfranchised most black voters in the South and instituted a system that resembled an American version of apartheid. Democrats did welcome immigrants from all nations and faiths—except for the Chinese and Japanese, whom they condemned as degraded pawns of the rich. But, as advocates of the doctrine of laissez-faire, most party leaders also opposed federal aid to the poor and jobless. Democratic President Grover Cleveland intoned in 1887, “though the people support the Government, the Government should not support the people.”
Then, in the twentieth century, led by presidents named Wilson, Roosevelt, and Truman, Democrats took charge of building a modern liberal state. They enacted progressive taxes, regulated corporations, and encouraged workers to join unions. But not until the 1960s did Democrats finally repudiate their heritage of white supremacy and begin to actively recruit leaders and woo voters of every race.
The backlash against that overdue change turned the South into a Republican bastion. But it also sped the transformation of the Democrats into a cosmopolitan force—the default home of feminists, environmentalists, and LGBTQ people. Since the 1970s, pro-labor Democrats have clashed with pro-business ones, while white working people, the party’s traditional base, gradually moved rightward. By the time Barack Obama was reelected president, his most reliable constituents were prosperous urban professionals, mostly white, and black and brown men and women struggling to pay their bills. Four years later, neither end of this “dumbbell coalition” voted in sufficient numbers to elect Obama’s uninspiring, chosen successor.
As a result, the Democrats are in the throes of another remaking. Nearly all agree about one big thing: resolute opposition to Donald Trump and his Republican enablers and the need to focus on unseating the latter and humbling, if not impeaching, the former. But how to accomplish those ends and what policies to enact if Democrats succeed? The party’s established leaders in Congress and the red states tend to favor moderate candidates who might appeal to disenchanted (white) Republicans. Most grassroots activists embrace progressive, social-democratic proposals—and believe that Democrats who run on them will motivate voters, particularly young ones and people of color, who are cynical about the politics of playing it safe. Well-educated women and men with comfortable incomes fill the ranks of each group. In the current hyperpartisan environment, their economic status no longer leads them to oppose measures to redistribute the wealth.
The results of this fall’s election may provide strong evidence that one group or the other has the better case for where and how Democrats should move; more likely, they will keep the argument going into the 2020 presidential race and beyond.
For now, at least, the emergence of the most plutocratic, socially reactionary administration in modern history has settled one perennial dispute on the American left. Self-described progressives have their differences. But, since Trump’s election, they have overwhelmingly abandoned the fantasy of third parties, understanding that stopping the right requires running in and working with the Democratic Party. To set forth a vision of an egalitarian society remains essential, of course. But, to be effective, a visionary must also be a practical campaigner. To paraphrase a memorable sentence the first editors of this magazine wrote some sixty-four years ago: Socialism is the name of my desire; Democratic is the name of my party.
This special section offers seven provocative views by well-informed, passionate writers about the challenge Democrats face in rethinking what they want and convincing voters to trust them, once again, to govern in ways that will markedly improve their lives.
We begin with three critiques: Daniel Schlozman provides a sober analysis of a party in flux. The Democrats are no longer the party of Clintonite moderation but neither have they been able to unite around a common direction. Meanwhile, a “vast, Washington-centric Blob” continues to suck up money and spew out data that too often substitutes for a winning strategy.
Karen Nussbaum describes what millions of Americans told canvassers for Working America, the grassroots campaign arm of the AFL-CIO she initiated and led, about why they hate politics, at least the politics they have experienced. Both those who voted for Trump and those who loathe him despair that they “mean nothing” to the ambitious characters who so ardently compete for their votes.
Cristina Tzintzún argues that a major failing of the Democrats has been their inattention to mobilizing the young people who overwhelmingly favor their party but vote in much lesser numbers than do their elders. Based on her experience as an activist in Texas, she explains what it will take for the party to alter this self-destructive habit.
The next four pieces offer promising ways to make the party a vehicle for reversing the dominion of the right.
Harold Meyerson reports on the embrace of progressive economic stands, from a $15 minimum wage to employee participation on corporate boards, by an increasing number of Democratic politicians. They have yet to figure out a strategy to reach most working people with that message, however.
Deva Woodly describes how African-American activists and politicians, inspired in part by Black Lives Matter, are thrusting their perspectives to the forefront of party debate. Stacey Abrams’s campaign for governor of Georgia, she argues, might become a new model for how to run on an unabashedly progressive platform that inspires voters of color and young voters of all races who could turn red states like hers blue.
Mark Egerman and Sean McElwee show that such progressive candidates have already demonstrated the capacity to excite voters from all economic and racial backgrounds. Marshaling poll results, they criticize leaders of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for favoring centrists who inspire no one.
Finally, Kate Aronoff interviews key activists in Our Revolution about how they are seeking to build a durable organization on the foundation Bernie Sanders laid during his 2016 presidential campaign. She explains both the potential of and the obstacles to their plans.
The government of our country is currently being run by a cabal of shysters, thugs, and cultural revanchists who would return America to the Gilded Age if they could. That makes the debate among Democrats both as significant—and as perilous—as at any time since the 1960s, when the party broke from its racist past, only to see its president plunge the nation into an unjust war in Southeast Asia that devastated three lands and killed millions of their inhabitants. Now, as then, cynicism is not an option.
Michael Kazin is co-editor of Dissent.