We are in one of those moments where we are awash in debates over the failures of “the Democratic Party.” (I’ll explain the scare quotes in a moment.) It’s a conversation I enter with great ambivalence. Most of my commentary over the last twenty-odd years has been about trying to push Democrats to take more aggressive and forward-looking strategies for building political power, political coalitions and so forth. Indeed, I’ve been doing that for the last few months through my “Roe and Reform” crusade. But a huge amount of this debate is advanced by people who see the success of rightwing candidates as prima facie evidence of the failure of Democrats.
From one perspective, this is true. In a binary political system, for one side to win the other has to lose. But at a deeper level a lot of these people don’t want to accept or grapple with the fact that a lot of Americans really want rightist authoritarian government. It’s not just that Democrats didn’t run good enough candidates, or didn’t get behind Medicare for All or didn’t say clearly enough that they weren’t for Defund the Police. Disappointment with Democrats not being more progressive didn’t lead voters to embrace the right. A lot of people really want rightist authoritarian government.
How you combat that is, to put it mildly, quite complicated, especially in a country in which those with a consistent/coherent “liberal” politics are usually outnumbered by those with a consistent/coherent authoritarian conservative politics. That doesn’t mean conservatives are the majority. They’re demonstrably not. But that imbalance makes center-left political groupings (“the Democrats”) structurally more reliant on more middle-of-the-road, less ideologically consistent voters. That makes their coalitions more unwieldy and fragile.
Indeed, this understates the challenge. Many people talk about satisfying or addressing the needs of the Democrats’ base. But the Democrats don’t have a base, at least not in the sense that Republicans do. Probably 60% to 70% of Republicans’ base is made up of white, Christian conservatives. As big societal groupings go that’s a highly coherent and ideologically and ethnically homogenous group. The closest Democrats have to such a group is African-Americans, but they make up somewhere between 20% and 25% of the party’s voters. To the extent the party has a “base,” it is made up of African-Americans, white liberals, Hispanics and other ethnic minorities, cultural/sexual and religious minorities, women (especially single women) and other historical out-groups. This “base” doesn’t actually think or want anything because it is made up of a handful of groups that are quite distinct and often want different things — or at least, do not all want the same things.
Too many people, looking at a bleak political reality, want to believe that it was obvious how to avoid it, or that it could have easily been avoided if it weren’t for a thing out there called “the Democrats.” This is a congenial approach to things as it gives a very clear thing to be mad at. It presents us to ourselves as powerless and gives us a grievance. But the reality is that the Democratic Party is a mix of issue organizations, outsider demographic, cultural and ethnic groups, labor and various political entrepreneurs running their own mini-political machines. This may seem to some like excuse-making. And when some people say it, perhaps it is. But the reality is that the Democratic Party is just a conglomeration of the people in the country who have broadly center-left political views. The best critique of Democratic leaders generally is that these structural/coalitional factors in American politics breed and select for a general timidity, one born in having to hold a heterogenous mix of groups together and on a single page. That is something everyone has to work against. But you can only work against it effectively if you know where it comes from and that it stems from something very real — something that can’t simply be argued away.
Here I’ll speak up for my own little pet idea. Apart from the substantive importance of passing a Roe law, this is an issue where there is very broad majority support. It’s something virtually all Democrats agree on. That is a way you can win elections. If you can win an election with a promise and then deliver, that is the kind of action which empowers a political party. It begins a virtuous cycle of follow through, a tether between political engagement and tangible outcomes. That is particularly critical now because as much as anything else Democrats are suffering from a profound demoralization — the force that breeds the climate of intra-party acrimony we discussed above.
I hear a lot about how you can’t build coalitions or political power with contingent one-off victories. That’s wrong. You don’t build political power by thinking about it. You do it by winning. Winning political fights builds political power. The whole idea of “political capital” that is tapped down by doing things or taking on big fights is wrong.
At the end of the day it is up to our collective ability to organize, strategize, vote, advocate to build a better country. Come up with an idea. Push it. Think concretely about where change is possible and how to nudge it forward. There are no saviors out there to pull any of this together for us.