early and often

Democrats Need a Vision. Fast.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer

On Thursday evening, Democrats are staging a spectacle. The House committee investigating the attack on the Capitol will broadcast its findings on prime-time TV — except for on Fox News. The committee has conducted over 1,000 interviews and reviewed 140,000 documents, according to Roll Call. It’s a mammoth task born of necessity. The people have a right to know what the committee has uncovered. There is no harm, then, in the broadcast, and it may even accomplish some good. Yet there’s more to politics than spectacle. The hearing has its limitations. Not only is it unlikely to persuade conservatives, for whom January 6 was either a minimal event or an expression of patriotic fervor, but it is unlikely to excite the base or bring new voters into the fold. That will take work, and it’s not clear the party grasps the task in front of it.

In recent comments to Politico, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont cut to the heart of the matter. “You really can’t win an election with a bumper sticker that says: ‘Well, we can’t do much, but the other side is worse,’” he said, suggesting that the party make an affirmative case for holding on to power, “a Newt Gingrich–style ‘Contract with America,’” as Politico put it. The democratic socialist raises a strong argument. It’s not enough for Democrats to portray the GOP as a threat to democracy, even though this is certainly a true statement. They need to explain what exactly they’ll do with the power they want if they stand any hope of not being wiped out in the midterm elections.

That case has not been forthcoming. It has not always been clear what Democrats stand for exactly. The party’s big-tent ethos prevents it from staking out a coherent identity. Its neoliberal commitments strand it in a morass of means-testing and personal responsibility and incremental achievements. Party moderates contribute to the problem, as Sanders pointed out. “Say to the American people: ‘Look, we don’t have the votes to do it right now. We have two corporate Democrats who are not going to be with us,’” he said, referring to senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Both senators tanked President Biden’s sweeping Build Back Better agenda, and while Manchin argues that his conservative politics are simply what his voters want, there’s a deeper story at work.

Sanders called Manchin and Sinema “corporate Democrats,” and this again brings us closer to the truth. Neither moderate senator delivers on policies that would help their constituents prosper; they’re constrained not just by pragmatic political reality but by more cynical commitments that prevent them from moving in a progressive direction. Manchin’s hostility to climate policy isn’t simply due to the terrain of his state — he makes money from coal. For the party to challenge corporate power, as it must do, it must challenge the moderates in its own ranks.

That seems a world away from the January 6 hearing, though the causes are more deeply linked than they first appear. The GOP’s antipathy for democracy is based on a low view of the American people. As successive Republican administrations have repeatedly demonstrated, the party’s opposition to the expansion of the vote — and, more recently, to the peaceful transfer of presidential power — is bound up with its opposition to welfare, to climate policies, to gun control, to health-care reform. Republicans rule for elites; they do not govern for all. A Democratic contract for America could easily emphasize these points and, in the process, cast the differences between the parties in sharp and necessary relief — as long as the party is willing to hold its own stragglers to account.

Whatever the January 6 hearing presents to the nation on Thursday night, it will offer some insight into the threats faced by our democracy. But a glimpse isn’t the same thing as a vision. Democrats need the latter, and fast, if they are to stand a chance in the midterms or beyond. The base needs something it can believe in, something worth voting for, and without Donald Trump as a foil, fear is insufficient turnout fuel. Democrats can and should offer something to excite voters to action, and that means ideas. Elections may not hinge on policy, but promises do matter. People know their salaries aren’t stretching as far as they once did. They know they can’t afford health care. A savvy political class would address voters where they are and offer something positive in return for power. That’s the minimum any party should do to earn its place in government. Democrats don’t have much longer to act. The time for visionaries is now.

Democrats Need More Than January 6 Hearings to Save Them