Why the Decimated Democrats May Turn Left

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Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

This isn’t the story we were supposed to be writing.

The story was supposed to be that the Republican Party had become a failed state consumed by civil war: Donald Trump had heightened the contradictions between its base and elite, hastened the onset of the party’s demographic doom, and helped elect another President Clinton. Now Paul Ryan must scramble to stave off a coup, while Trump foments insurrection from his own far-right news network, and millions of socially moderate white suburbanites stare into their bathroom mirrors and sigh, “I guess I’m a Democrat now.”

But Trump won.

And without the immense power (and glamour) that comes with the White House, Democrats no longer have any distraction from their fundamental weakness at all other levels of government.

Since President Obama took office, more than 900 Democratic state legislators have been ousted. In January 2009, the party occupied 29 governor’s mansions. Today, it lays claim to 15. The GOP — the party that was supposed to be headed for a great crack-up — holds 33.

In 24 states, Republicans control the Executive branch and both legislative houses. Of course, they now enjoy the same trifecta in Washington, D.C.

But Democrats have lost more than power. They’ve also lost their faith in demographic destiny.

If the Trump campaign’s only goal had been to poison the GOP’s brand with as many nonwhite voters as possible, it’s hard to see what they would have done differently. And yet, Tuesday night, Trump did marginally better than Mitt Romney with African-Americans and Latinos. Meanwhile, without the charismatic first black president on the ballot, turnout among black and millennial voters fell to a point where it was unable to overwhelm the GOP’s gains among working-class whites in the Midwest.

And the party has lost its leadership. The Clintons have been forced to the sidelines. Barack Obama and Joe Biden will soon join them in civilian life. No one has ever used the words soul of the Democratic Party and Chuck Schumer in the same sentence.

Finally, the Democrats have lost their playbook for responding to these kinds of losses. Since at least the Reagan Revolution, the party has reacted to national rebuke by moving to the center. But in Trump’s America, the center does not exist — and perhaps, it never did.

Trump didn’t run against big government. He ran against corrupt elites, corporate-driven trade deals, political correctness, and nonwhite immigrants. While his fiscal agenda — beyond a massive infrastructure package — is supply-side boilerplate, he spent much of the campaign suggesting that he planned to raise taxes on the rich, provide universal health care, and get special-interest money out of politics.

Can anyone maintain a straight face while arguing that Hillary Clinton lost because she distanced herself too much from Wall Street, didn’t offer a comprehensive plan for getting serious about the debt, and failed to embrace market-driven solutions to social problems?

Well, other than Matt Bennett, co-founder of the shockingly still existent Third Way think tank, who told USA Today that Trump’s election proved voters don’t care about inequality because, “If they cared, they would not have elected the guy with the gold-plated plane.”

In fact, 27 percent of white voters who backed Trump hope he will pursue “more liberal” policies than Barack Obama did, according to exit polls.

So, there doesn’t seem to be much basis for the idea that Democrats can find political salvation by moving right on fiscal policy. But clearly, they’ve isolated themselves from the silent majority on immigration, right?

Wrong, per CBS News:

Exit poll voters were asked whether most illegal immigrants working in the U.S. should be offered a chance to apply for legal status or deported to the country they came from. Fully 7 of 10 voters said they should be allowed to apply for legal status … Among those who favored giving illegal immigrants a chance to apply for legal status, one in three voted for Trump.

Trump also won 35 percent of voters who believe “international trade creates jobs.”

In the face of these befuddling facts, the only people in the Democratic Party with a coherent narrative of how to move forward — and a national base of support — are Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Their story of what went wrong is simple: Trump, per Sanders, “tapped into the anger of a declining middle class that is sick and tired of establishment economics, establishment politics and the establishment media.” But instead of channeling that anger toward real, progressive solutions for the middle (and working) class’s legitimate problems, Trump directed it toward the most vulnerable people in our society, as right-wing populists always have.

Clinton failed to counter this appeal, because she refused to embrace populist, class politics. While she adopted an economically progressive platform, she didn’t center her campaign on an economically progressive message.

She lost the Midwest because she failed to energize younger voters and win a significant share of the white working class — precisely the demographics that responded most enthusiastically to Sanders’s message during the primary.

In an era of widespread distrust in America’s governing institutions — and widespread disdain for the financial industry — Democrats’ path to power cuts away from Wall Street and toward a populist grassroots movement. They don’t need to compromise on social liberalism. But they do need to reclaim their identity as the party of the working man and woman, and center their message on economic populism.

There are no small number of quibbles one could have with this narrative. (Trump did, ultimately, cop to wanting to cut taxes on the rich and won anyway; his supporters were better off than Clinton’s, and sociological research suggests they were motivated primarily by cultural resentments; Clinton still won the popular vote, and very well could have won the Electoral College if she’d concentrated her resources in the Midwest, instead of trying to expand the map into Arizona; it’s hard to draw any sweeping conclusions from a race as idiosyncratic as that between a woman under FBI investigation and a famous reality star, etc … ).

But, for the moment, it’s the only coherent story Democrats have about what went wrong — both with the Trump race, and with the party’s broader, state-level decline — and how everything can be made right, again.

Per Politico:

No party leader calls have been set to map out a plan ahead, and no signal has come from the White House or from Clinton’s team about what comes next. The phone lines were silent, only slowly picking up, and escalating to a fever pitch as the defeated nominee prepared her morning speech and interim DNC chairwoman Donna Brazile sat on the silent 9:00 Acela from New York to Washington.

“I don’t know who’s in charge. Who would email me?” said one state party chairman when asked if he’d heard from other party leaders.

The upcoming DNC leadership election is expected to be cast as a struggle for control of the party’s future. For now, the party’s Sanders-Warren wing appears best positioned to win that civil war.