I’m trying not to use the term “Democratic Party” generically these days, and here’s why:
There is most certainly a specific institution called the Democratic Party, and that institution performs some absolutely essential tasks.
But the Democratic Party and the Democratic Electorate are vastly different things. And when we ask “What are the politics of the Democratic Party?” our conversations rapidly veer right off the rails.
Even if you set aside the larger “Democratic Electorate” for a moment, describing the Democratic Party is very much like the parable of the blind men describing an elephant. That’s because the the party itself is truly a coalition of all sorts of competing (and sometimes conflicting) agendas. Our activists’ primary motivations range from sustaining technocratic globalism to advancing the rights of narrowly defined communities.
Since such priorities are never more than partially aligned, I think of the Democratic Party as a coalition. And if party activists are a coalition, then the nature of the Democratic Electorate is REALLY gonna be dicey.
In other words: You can’t win the Presidency with just “True Democrats.” You must build a larger tent, and True Democrats know it. That’s why the Party allows Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent, to run for its presidential nomination. The alternative is a third political party and perpetual Republican control of the White House.
And here’s the conundrum: As happy as those True Democrats are to have his voters, they just never seriously considered Sanders a threat to win their nomination. So here we are.
I’ve spent years observing, covering, and participating in Democratic politics, and from my limited blind groping around this strange beast, I’ve formed this impression: The only seismic change in the Democratic Electorate since Nixon’s racist “Southern Strategy” flipped white Dixiecrats to the GOP in 1968 is the ongoing rise of Gen X, Millennial and Gen Z voters.
Remember: During the 40 years between 1968 and 2008, Democrats held the White House for just 12 of them. Carter won his single term in 1976 — barely — thanks to Watergate. Both of Bill Clinton’s terms were directly attributable to third-party candidate Ross Perot.
Why? Because while Nixon capitalized on Southern white anger, Ronald Reagan redefined the GOP as a national party founded upon a particular notion of white identity. Since white people made up roughly 75 percent of the American electorate during this period, Democrats survived by taking policy positions IN RESPONSE to Republican majorities. Stick a pin in this one, because we’re coming back to it.
But since the dawn of the 21st century, changing American demographics have challenged this political status quo. The election in November will be the first in our history in which the white share of the electorate will dip below 70 percent. More significantly, the two youngest generations in the electorate are the most liberal ever measured by pollsters.
It’s not yet clear whether this is good news for the Democratic Electorate, but it does highlight a couple of significant truths about our so-called two party system:
- The GOP’s nationwide voter-suppression policy targeting participation by younger people and minorities is an absolute requirement for its survival, and;
- When we talk about the Democratic Party’s “establishment,” we’re describing a vaguely defined group of longtime party leaders, insiders and donors whose education in American politics came during decades of perpetual white Republican majorities.
It isn’t true that people NEVER change their fundamental beliefs — it’s just exceptionally rare. What’s more common is that people keep their beliefs, but adapt to changing environments. In politics, that environment is defined by rules, resources and the electorate.
So the changes are mixed: The electorate is drifting to the left, but the rules (think voter suppression and Trump’s partisan DOJ) and the resources (think Fox News, dark money and unregulated microtargeting) favor the GOP.
Which leaves both the Democratic Party and the Democratic Electorate in a sort of historical limbo. Not only are its voters somewhere to the left of its leaders, those voters are demanding policies based on Democratic principles — not a compromise strategy based on triangulating off some old GOP platform plank.
If you favor the notion of setting a path based on building a bold new political majority that pays no heed to white Republican nonsense, you’re more than likely a “progressive.” There’re aren’t many within the Democratic establishment.
If you believe it’s impossible to govern without constructively engaging America’s traditional power centers — from corporations to mass media to churches and establishment academia — you’re probably “centrist.” Which is a THOROUGHLY problematic term.
Center compared to what? Because the GOP’s hard-right turn from Nixon to Trump has been utterly disorienting for everyone.
On the one hand, many of Nixon’s social and economic policies were well left of Clinton’s, and for the most part, Obama governed within the Clinton range. On the other, several solid analyses that I’ve read make the case that even this year’s “centrist” Democrats favor “progressive” polices.
So what are we talking about, really?
I suspect it boils down to the most interesting unresolved question in American politics: Given the mixed trends in American demographics and electioneering, is the Democratic Electoral majority’s best path to power a “turnout” race, or a “run to the middle” race?”
In theory, one could do both things — particularly with a Democratic coalition that is uncharacteristically united in its opposition to Trump. Realistically, however, that’s a tough trick to pull off in a presidential year.
Remember the 2018 midterms? Democrats regained the House, picked up governors and state legislators, and would have won back the Senate in a “normal” Senate Class election. This Blue Wave rose so high because Democrats got the best of both worlds. Motivated by anti-Trumpism, Democratic turnout broke all records. But with no Democratic Presidential candidate at the top of the ticket, the usual Republican negativity flopped.
Progressives won seats. So did Centrists.
Between now and November, the GOP and its propagandists are going to savage the Democratic nominee with crazy-ass negative ads and relentless Hannity storylines. It will affect the outcome. That’s a given. The question is: Will it be enough?
That’s why the main argument for a “run to the middle” race feels so pragmatic. The closer the candidate is to America’s political center, the more likely they are to pick up “white undecided voters.” This is Clinton Era “common sense” Democratic politics.
But outside the establishment pundit class, it’s unclear whether this is even remotely reliable advice. Remember, this isn’t a “moderating” electorate, but a polarizing one. Older, whiter conservatives aren’t mellowing: They’re dying. And those younger voters who turned out for Obama but distrusted Hillary Clinton? They’d only participating in the Democratic Party to prevent a third-party fracture. Some are questioning whether the compromise is worth it.
This drives Democrats my age nuts, but I think my generation is missing the point. As usual.
In purely relative terms, Democrats in their 50 and 60s are doing pretty well. Screwed by the Republican transfer of wealth and power to the 1 percent? Absolutely. But not NEARLY as screwed as the younger generations. The system is TAKING our stuff. Younger voters don’t HAVE any stuff.
Which, by the way, is why I don’t consider myself a member of the Democratic Party, even though I still call myself a Democrat. It’s the party we have, not the party we’ll need.
I admire the skill and tenacity of the Democrats who kept the party viable during that dark era, but these old establishment lions are sorta like Moses, peering down into a Promised Land he could not enter. A new era of center-left majorities — if it ever arrives — will require leaders with the credibility to speak to and for a new movement.
But that’s just me. To our establishment, Progressives who demand tax policies and workplace rights supported by Republican President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s aren’t “True Democrats.” And to Progressives sick of our compromised status quo, anyone who favors compromise of ANY kind isn’t a “True Progressive.”
Which makes me a middle-aged man without a party, basically.
Anyway, this sort of strict “Republican In Name Only” orthodoxy worked for the GOP, with its unitary “White Christian Business Party” identity. But it’s a tremendous vulnerability for a fragile coalition. And if I can see that, you can bet that everyone on the other side of the chasm is already planning around it.
My use of the word “chasm” should telegraph my suspicions. I doubt that there’s a meaningful (i.e. “decisive”) center in American presidential politics now. This makes me receptive to the notion that modern candidates who start their campaigns on the left and stay there through the general election have a legit shot. And who knows? They might even make our system democratic again.
But I’m not convinced that’s true. Like everything else in Trump’s America, we’re off the map, navigating by swirling stars partially obscured by dark and threatening clouds