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Why Hoping for a Big Democratic Win in 2018 Could Be a Death Trap for Progressives

There's no pathway to power outside party politics — but let's try to avoid being delusional.


Last week in this space, I suggested that liberals and progressives who dreamed of a “blue wave” in the 2018 midterms, a Democratic House majority in 2019 and the impeachment of President Donald Trump shortly after that were deluding themselves, and that this quest for multiple species of unicorn was destined to end badly. Was I shamelessly trolling Salon’s core demographic? Heavens, no.

I received what might diplomatically be described as a wide variety of responses. In fairness, plenty of readers agreed, even if many of them wished they didn’t. I got a couple of emails from people close to the Democratic Party who thought I was probably right, and at least one from someone who worked on Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Then there were the gleeful responses from Trump-supporting “conservatives” (as I’ve said before, at this point that word is a meaningless term of art) who congratulated me for my intellectual courage in admitting defeat and bowing before the glorious MAGAness of the New Order. “It’s gonna be a long seven and a half years for the libtards,” someone actually wrote. I resisted writing back to say: Yeah, maybe. But your tone suggests that you already suspect they won’t be so fun for you either.

Mostly, of course, I got comments and emails from liberals eager to discuss all the ways I was harshing their mellow, poisoning the well, misjudging the passion and commitment of the resistance and generally full of crap. Perhaps the most salient criticism was that while I had argued it was a waste of time to channel the energy of the anti-Trump resistance into the sluggish and confused Democratic Party and the doomed symbolic struggle of the next electoral cycle, I had entirely avoided saying what the left-liberal-progressive cadres should do instead.

I can only agree: I didn’t answer that question because I don’t know the answer. What I do know, or at least fervently believe, is that American democracy is in a state of profound and potentially terminal decay, and that if President Donald Trump is the most glaring symptom he is definitely not the cause. Of course I don’t know for sure what will happen in the 2018 midterms, but I can see no possible outcome that makes everything suddenly OK again, and I think investing too much hope in a flailing political party, a rigged congressional map and a miracle comeback is a really good way to drain the Trump resistance of its power and meaning.

But beneath that contentious position lies a deeper gulf of perception that isn’t exactly about the divide between left and right, or about the reductive Bernie-Hillary faction fight that continues to divide the Democratic Party and the broader left coalition. It’s more about how screwed we are, and whether there is some available path that leads from here back to what I heard Jeb Bush, on a lovely New Hampshire morning a year and a half ago, plaintively describe as “regular-order democracy.” There’s a paradoxical, upside-down quality to the way this question is perceived at the moment, which could benefit from a little unpacking.

First of all, the decadent state of democracy is obvious to many or most Americans, who have manifested that awareness in various ways: the decline of party identification; widespread apathy and non-participation; the startling success of both Trump and Bernie Sanders, who in previous electoral cycles were respectively known as Herman Cain and Dennis Kucinich. But for the political and media castes allied with the failing two-party system — who have viewed the deluded and deplorable masses with a mixture of pity, contempt and anthropological curiosity — this decay must be denied or minimized, depicted as a transitory phenomenon that will soon be corrected through the application of politics as usual. In this sense, Nancy Pelosi and Paul Ryan are not on different sides. They are on the same side.

OK, wait, hold on. I’m not saying there is no difference between Republicans and Democrats, or that it wouldn’t be preferable to have one group in power rather than the other. It would be especially insulting to make that claim in the week when Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris climate agreement, apparently because he didn’t enjoy being sneered at by Europeans at the NATO summit, and only a handful of Republicans have raised mild objections. But faced with an unexpected and unprecedented situation, both Republicans and Democrats are effectively flying on autopilot, and using the same outdated map of the political landscape.

What I mean by saying that Ryan and Pelosi are on the same side is that they share the same set of misguided assumptions. Ryan and the rest of the GOP leadership have desperately tried to spin Trump’s flukey, hand-of-fate election victory as a mandate for standard-issue right-wing Republican policies, which on some level they must understand is completely ludicrous. Pelosi and company, on the other hand, will argue that the remedy for Trumpism is to be found in exactly the same awkward, anti-ideological, coalition-management politics that have rendered the Democratic Party so hollowed out, rootless and demoralized over the past decade or so. (I stayed away from the negative buzzword “neoliberal” … except, wait, no I didn’t.) That’s not quite as ludicrous, but it’s close.

My argument is not that Democrats and Republicans represent the same policies and outcomes, since that’s clearly not true. But they represent the same possible universe of policies and outcomes, in a historical moment that demands the dramatic expansion of that universe, if not its destruction. Sanders nearly became the Democratic nominee by promising a sweeping and (perhaps) wildly unrealistic program of major structural reform to both American politics and the American economy. Trump became the Republican nominee and then the president by promising white people a fantasyland version of 1954, except with iPhones, Buffalo Wild Wings and lots of nudity on television.

It’s not drawing any moral or political equivalence between those utopian visions to recognize that they both represent attempts to expand the realm of the possible, which has proven so disappointing to so many people. So while I am reluctant to deliver prescriptions, I suspect the task of the anti-Trump resistance, or indeed of anyone who seriously hopes to redeem or renew American democracy, lies in that terrain: Expand the realm of the possible, without losing all contact with political reality. It’s a daunting task.

To be clear, I do understand that many people who are working toward a hypothetical Democratic victory in 2018 hope to do just that. They are fighting on multiple fronts at once: They want to elect more (and better) Democrats to office, inject the party with renewed energy and purpose and also build coalitions and networks that stand outside partisan politics. It’s an honorable, rational and ambitious strategy, quite likely the best available under the circumstances. And you never know; it might work.

Salon contributor Peter Dreier, who is a professor of politics at Occidental College, sent me a thoughtful response along these lines, which I’m quoting with his permission. He agrees that even if Democrats win back the House in 2018, “that’s not the kind of systemic reform we need to fix the economic and political system — such as campaign finance reform, stronger voting rights, updated labor law reforms, single-payer health insurance, a more progressive tax system, etc., as I’ve noted elsewhere. On the other hand, I do think that it is necessary to neutralize Trump from doing any more damage and creating any more suffering — and likewise with [Vice President Mike] Pence, should Trump leave office before 2020.”

Dreier also thinks that gerrymander-skeptics like me (and former Salon editor David Daley) are underestimating the potential for a big Democratic win, and that even with the current congressional map 40 to 50 Republican House seats could be in play next year. He continues:

The big dilemma — which you point out in your article — is whether the current groundswell can translate into a powerful progressive movement inside and outside the Democratic Party.  That’s what I also wrote about in another piece in American Prospect, where I suggest that the three goals of the current wave of activism should be (1) stop Trump from doing more immediate damage, (2) win back the House in 2018 and the Senate and White House in 2020, and (3) build a sustainable progressive movement around a progressive issue agenda. There’s no way to know if the activists in the various issue movements, on their own or in partial collaboration with the Democratic Party, can pull it off. This an example where human will (agency), talent, perseverance and similar traits make a difference. It isn’t inevitable. But it is possible.

Dreier and I have both been around long enough to have experienced various attempts at progressive insurgency within (or alongside) the Democratic Party, going back at least as far as the Jesse Jackson presidential campaign of 1984. So my caution or cynicism comes with some history behind it. As Dreier admits, this plan to reconfigure political reality may not work — and I believe it’s exceedingly unlikely to work right away. So the immediate danger is that if the Trump resistance pins its hopes on a history-shaping blue tsunami in 2018, but Democrats pick up only, say, a dozen House seats — a strong result under the circumstances, but one that leaves Republicans in the majority — the emotional and psychological letdown will be tremendous.

Another, more insidious danger is also present, win or lose: the deeply rooted Democratic tendency toward what I would call the politics of complacency, in which a symbolic election victory becomes the be-all and end-all of the political process rather than the means to an end. That happened most clearly with the election of Barack Obama in 2008, and before that with the election of Bill Clinton in 1992 — two presidents whose ascension appeared to signal a major political realignment but whose administrations turned out very differently in practice, it’s safe to say, than many of their progressive or liberal supporters assumed they would.

What lies beneath that politics of complacency is another unsettled question that the Democratic Party is nowhere near resolving: Does it possess any core ideology or clear sense of mission, and whom does it represent? That was the focus of a fascinating column last week by Thomas B. Edsall of the New York Times, who is always a must-read and here finds a new way to slice and dice the data that undergirds the Democrats’ current internal faction fight.

Edsall argues, with considerable evidence, that the loss of working-class whites to the Republicans has been critical, but not because that group should have some sacred status or is entitled to racial coddling. With half its onetime class base stripped away, the Democratic Party is now an unstable coalition of affluent, coastal whites and lower-income people of color, whose economic interests will inescapably come into conflict. Affluent white Democrats may avidly support full civil rights and oppose discrimination, at least in concept, and may be willing to pay higher taxes for a perceived social good. But it will be difficult or impossible to advocate for significant economic redistribution or social restructuring in a party whose donor class largely consists of private-school parents, luxury-car purchasers and owners of multiple million-dollar homes.

Many readers interpreted last week’s article as a brief in favor of the Bernie-flavored left-wing insurgency within the Democratic Party, and against the centrist, Clintonite establishment. That’s understandable; I made no secret of my rooting interest last year, and Democrats seem doomed to re-litigate that dispute over and over until they actually win something. But I genuinely didn’t mean it that way. I don’t claim to know what strategic formula or what kinds of candidates are likely to win in 2018 and beyond. Nor do I think anyone else knows: The data points are few and scattered.

In fact, I tend to think both sides in the Democratic civil war have made valid points about the other, even at their most unfair and stereotypical. Some Sanders supporters really did come off like old-time “vulgar Marxists” who saw racial and gender justice as ancillary elements of the class war; some mainline Clintonistas appeared to view America’s violent economic inequality as a distant and theoretical matter that could be addressed through inspiring rhetoric and improved mortgage regulations.

So here’s the paradox of the anti-Trump resistance: The Democratic Party represents its only possible pathway to political power, but also represents a potential death trap. Winning the House in 2018 and the presidency in 2020, as Peter Dreier says, are desirable but not sufficient goals — and the former, in my judgment, remains close to impossible. (Dreier didn’t even mention impeachment because there is no realistic scenario where that happens — unless, as I said last week, the Republican leadership decides to dump Trump for its own reasons.) Indeed, I’m about half inclined to argue that Democrats are better off not winning some razor-thin congressional majority next year; it might be superior long-game strategy to let Paul Ryan twist in the wind a bit longer.

Dominant forces in the Democratic Party, which to this point remains disorganized, directionless and desperate to catch the wind of resistance in its sails, will be eager to turn that “desirable but not sufficient” equation upside down and make winning elections the only goal. To make that mistake again — to surrender to the politics of complacency in a time of national emergency — could be fatal, not just for the Democratic Party but for democracy.

 

 

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