As we move into the second half of Donald Trump’s first year as president, the lists of unprecedented things—from Trump’s seemingly limitless lies, to the tally of bizarre actions by his cabinet members, to the volume of leaks from the White House that appear to require the tensile strength of a fire hose—the greater and more curious development may be the Democratic Party’s abject failure to seize the moment and bring anti-Trump energy to bear on consolidating power. Not since anti-Viet Nam War movement and Watergate in the late 1960s and early 1970s have so many Americans been apoplectic about our national leadership. And yet, the Democrats, Progressives, Liberals, Berniecrats, or whatever name is claimed, seem bereft of a compelling plan to exploit the craziness that has metastasized throughout the lymphatic system of the Republican Party.
Earlier this month the Democrats, led by Senator Charles Schumer of New York, attempted to brand a new plan with the slogan “A Better Deal.” The announcement was so lame—so painfully weak and inauthentic—it reminded me of Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis’ fateful 1988 ride on top of a tank wearing a helmet meant for a much larger man. Further, it mirrors Trump’s transactional disposition in an attempt to suggest the Democrats can out-Trump Trump. The ultimate irony may be that the Democrats need look no further than the Republicans to learn how to win; yet they are so addled by their inability to look beyond narrow self-interest in favor of a big inclusive narrative, so reluctant to work within the political system to harness its power, and so intoxicated by years of throwing back shots of nihilism that they may squander this generational opportunity Trump has so assiduously delivered.
The lack of a tight, compelling, and over-arching narrative that provides a large tent to attract enough people to truly affect change is the first and probably the most egregious failure of the Democratic Party today. Democrats are adept at listing all the things they want, but weirdly deficient in their capacity to articulate those needs within a belief system—a narrative based in why (as opposed to what, how, where, and who). Their many attempts to bring like-minded people together often quickly devolve into a resource competition between particular interest groups concerned with economic inequality, healthcare, environment, immigration, women’s rights, etc. The Republicans on the other hand have, for decades now, wrapped themselves in ideas and beliefs rather than dialing too far down into the detail of policy until, of course, they assemble enough power to implement change. This strategic disposition has served the Republicans very well: they control the majority of state houses throughout the country, and all three branches of our Federal government. Their narrative has the American flag as its central symbol—they own patriotism even while many of them barely qualify as more than lapel-pin patriots. They speak of beliefs, not wants or desires; of a limited role for government, of fundamental values that emanate from the Constitution (and the Bible), of a country that sets the example for the world as opposed to the Democrats who compile lists of grievances in search of “a better deal.”
This Democratic penchant for issues rather than ideas is deeply ingrained in the DNA of the Party and on display recently by one of their standard bearers, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, at the meeting of Netroots Nation progressives in Atlanta on August 12th. She ticked off her list of popular progressive issues then struggled (and failed) to place them within an inclusive over-arching narrative, or vision, astonishingly borrowing Trump’s tired trope that “the system is rigged!” as her preferred punch line. She railed against a common target of Democrats—the evil of corporate power—even while a more abhorrent evil, neo-Nazis and white supremacists, were marching and killing in Charlottesville, Virginia. She managed to touch every special interest in the room while fundamentally failing to provide them with a reason to come together under a transcendent value system that might unite them in something more than hating Trump, power, and wealth. She may have improved her own political prospects for 2020, but she did nothing to move the Party onto stronger footing. She and Senator Schumer are squandering the opportunity provided by Trump.
The second strategic failure of the Democrats has also reached legacy status: the propensity to fight a system from the outside rather than penetrating it and accessing its power to achieve transformative objectives. Michael Tomasky, columnist for The Daily Beast and editor of Democracy: a Journal of Ideas summarized this condition best recently in The New York Times where he argued,
One key difference between the right and the left in this country has been that the right has worked an inside game while the left has mostly remained outside the system. That’s how it has been since the late 1950s, when the modern conservative movement was first organizing itself and its leaders made the conscious decision to work within the Republican Party. The Republicans of that time were full of centrists and liberals. It wasn’t a club die-hard conservatives wanted to join, but they did. They decided rather than fight the power, they wanted to become the power. And, of course, they have.
Meanwhile, Democrats are not only unsure of what to call themselves today, they easily succumb to the simplicity of factions—of self-identifying with what they want in the moment rather than a larger ideal—unable and often unwilling to find common ground within their own party, by and between their many myopic, and frankly selfish, leaders. This is exacerbated by another anti-system sentiment that perpetually keeps power beyond their grasp: low voter turnout among 18-44 year-olds. This modality is highly unlikely to provide a path to power within a system that will endure well beyond the life of their current concerns and desires.
The third strategic impediment to the success of the Democratic Party is its penchant for nihilism. While the Republicans proudly espouse an exemplar strain of exceptionalism—that America is the chosen land for people who themselves have been chosen to lead the world to a better place—the Democrats tend to wallow in a nihilistic broth of self-pity. Jimmy Carter became (in)famous for his “national malaise” jeremiads, and was subsequently easily defeated by the sunny disposition of Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” that offered Americans absolution from the sins that concerned Carter. Occupy Wall Street may have been the movement that established the residency of this condition in the modern Democratic Party. Begun as a leaderless movement with no particular objective other than raising awareness of economic inequality and revealing that Wall Street is governed by (surprise!) greed, their followers accomplished nothing in terms of change but painted the Party as a home for downtrodden Millennials who believe they have no chance of success in a game that is—wait for it, of course—rigged! Perhaps this is a revelation for some, but people are not generally attracted to negativity and cynicism. Rather, people want to be associated with winning teams; they want to be for something—proponents—rather than against everything—opponents. It’s much more fun to have the ball and play offense than it is to look at others playing with the ball and hoping someday to join in the fun. Republicans understand this, while Democrats, to their great peril, find bewildering comfort in whipping themselves with the repudiation that accompanies failure.
The nearly six thousand Indivisible groups around the country, representing the new progressive core of the Democratic Party, took their initial organizing framework from the playbook of the Tea Party. That proved to be a wise adaptation from a group that has become a stronghold within the Republican Party. Democrats, Progressives, Liberals, and Berniecrats would do well to revisit other strategic aspects of Republican success to capitalize on what Trump hath wrought for the GOP. Tactics follow strategy, not the other way around. Ignoring these lessons may produce the unthinkable: Trump’s second inauguration.