The Wall Street Journal had a story today about Bernie Sanders supporters winning numerous state-level party positions as Democrats search for a way out of their deep wilderness. This might have major consequences as the party selects a national chairman on Saturday.
“It is absolutely imperative that we see a major transformation of the Democratic Party,” Mr. Sanders said in an interview with the newspaper last week. The party has “to do what has to be done in this country, to bring new energy, new blood.”
I find it interesting that Bernie Sanders, who carried so much damaging-and-false right-wing water against Hillary Clinton in the primary, is so interested in the Democratic Party. He didn't even become a Democrat until late 2015. At least Barry Goldwater, who took over the GOP in 1964 and began its long journey into today's hardcore extreme right organization, was a lifelong Republican.
The simplistic state of play has the Sanders-Elizabeth Warren "populist" wing of the party against the "old guard," denigrated as "corporate Dems" by the insurgents. In reality, the situation is far more complex and I don't see an easy way forward.
Despite President Obama winning two national elections, the Democrats lost hundreds of seats in state legislatures and ultimately both houses of Congress. As FiveThirtyEight reports, "At the beginning of Obama’s term, Democrats controlled 59 percent of state legislatures, while now they control only 31 percent, the lowest percentage for the party since the turn of the 20th century. They held 29 governor’s offices and now have only 16, the party’s lowest number since 1920."
Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016 by 3 million (very legal) votes. But that didn't translate into an Electoral College victory, much less Democrats making gains in Congress or statehouses. Back to the insightful FiveThirtyEight article:
The problems of the party were...ones of isolation from core constituencies. Digital proximity through viral inspirational videos shared on increasingly polarized Facebook and Twitter newsfeeds is not the same as old-fashioned press-the-flesh politicking. “We didn’t do any of the grassroots work over the eight years that Barack Obama was president,” (Howard) Dean said of the party under a leader who had once been a community organizer. Organizing For America (later Organizing for Action), the project intended to rally the president’s supporters primarily around health care and the Affordable Care Act, was, in Dean’s estimation, “a huge mistake.”
In bringing Obama to power, Democrats understood the importance of not just his proud progressivism but his distinct identity and the certain mythology that would come to surround him. He was a candidate who not only had the right message for the party, but who seemed anointed by the political gods.
Clinton, although highly qualified and, in my mind potentially great president, did not have these gods with her. Particularly in a country where a large number of white voters were increasingly distraught by a black man in the White House and the prospects of a woman there. Of course, James Comey, vote suppression, and Russian intelligence played substantial, perhaps decisive roles in Clinton's loss.
The challenge for the Sanders insurgency is that the United States has never had much of an appetite for a left-wing party. The liberal consensus collapsed over Vietnam and the turmoil of the 1960s. I've made this point in the comments before but it requires restating. Bill Clinton's "Third Way" didn't appear as a sinister "neoliberal" sellout of the Democratic Party. It was the only way to win the White House after the shellackings of George McGovern (1972), Walter Mondale (1984), and Michael Dukakis in 1988 — all good liberals. Jimmy Carter won in 1976 thanks to Watergate and being a Southern conservative. And Clinton still needed an assist from Ross Perot and a recession.
If anything has changed since Bill Clinton won, it is that our politics have moved even further to the right. Blame rising ignorance, talk radio, Fox "News," Breitbart, racial and cultural grievances of whites, and a much more sophisticated ground game by the GOP — backed by big money and corporate interests. I have yet to be convinced that Sanders' style "populism" can turn this around. Almost every week, sometimes more than once a week, I am treated to a loud lefty protest in safe blue downtown Seattle. I have two reactions. First, why aren't they willing to protest in the red rich areas and fill up the jails, as the Civil Rights Movement did? Second, flip some red legislative and congressional seats and I'll take them seriously.
In addition to the Democrats' years-long inattention to building and maintaining local and state political machinery, the party faces other challenges.
Like the Republican Party of old, it is a traditional mass American political party. Thus, it is constituted by liberals, centrists, and conservatives. Winning came from the grubby, difficult work of politics, including compromise, deals, and building coalitions. FDR's coalition included old-time Progressives of the TR-Wilson era, big-city bosses and machines, immigrants, and Southern segregationists. Messy stuff, until one assesses what Franklin Roosevelt achieved for all Americans.
This is the opposite of the purity demanded by the Sanders faction. Incrementalism, deal-making, compromise — especially when the country is so closely divided and when many interests are at the table — is dismissed as selling out. What to do? "A political revolution!" Unless you're prepared to meet the other side on the field of battle, I don't know what that means. (And remember, in Weimar Germany the Nazis beat the communists). The revolution slogan is not a political program.
Meanwhile, Democrats stand for inclusion and tolerance. These are noble ideals. But it means every Democratic rally will have prominent LGBTQ triumphalism and Black Lives Matter grievances, and that's a turnoff to a large number of voters. Trump beat Clinton among non-Hispanic whites by 21 percentage points. The Democrats won't abandon its ideals, and good for them. Bernie would no more have abandoned this than Hillary. But it makes winning harder. Non-Hispanic whites make up the largest voting bloc. It hasn't voted majority Democrat in many years, but more of it appears to be moving solid red. Promised salvation from demographic change might take a long time, especially with vote suppression. And the profusion of lies dressed up by the phrases "fake news" and "alternative facts" could produce a multi-culty GOP majority anyway. Divide and rule.
The socio-cultural-demographic dynamics create another devilish dilemma. Democrats are in the political minority in most states — especially the small ones. This, even though more votes overall have gone to Democrats at the presidential and congressional level. Here the Constitution and our other governmental structures are on the verge of committing national suicide or self-destruct. Last year, California had more registered voters than the population of 46 states. It gets only two U.S. Senators. New York City alone had more people than Alaska, Montana, North and South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming. But the latter have 14 Senators (almost all Republicans) vs. two for New York state. The problem goes beyond the Senate. After last November, Republicans have total control of 25 states, the Democrats four (and might soon lose Delaware). This carries consequences for redistricting (gerrymandering), vote suppression, and, soon, the ability to speed through constitutional amendments.
Finally, the Democrats have done a lousy job of telling voters their story, why they are the party that saved capitalism, created the social safety net that your white grandmother depends on, brought electricity and jobs to the red states, fought the Cold War shoulder-to-shoulder with a saner Republican Party, etc. etc. Is it too late to try?
I will make one fearless prediction: If the Democratic Party makes a hard left turn nationally, it will lose. I wish it weren't so. But this actually is a center-right country. If the Bush-Cheney revels didn't change that, nothing will.