In the run-up to the 2016 election, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) dismissed the possibility that Donald Trump’s popularity with rural and working-class voters spelled trouble for the Democratic ticket. “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia,” he proclaimed, reflecting the prevailing attitude within the party establishment. “And you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.”
One year after the election, it’s not clear that Democrats have learned their lesson. Many have deluded themselves into believing that Russian interference, and not the party’s abysmal failure to win over the working class, was the primary culprit in Hillary Clinton’s crushing defeat. Clinton herself has pointed fingers at Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former FBI director James B. Comey, while mocking former vice president Joe Biden’s suggestion that her campaign did not offer a vision for the middle class. But even as Democratic leaders have cleared the wreckage and begun to rebuild, there has not been a full and honest reckoning with what actually happened in 2016 or how the party can avoid the same outcome in the 2018 midterms.
In the absence of an official inquiry, a group of Democratic and progressive activists last week published “Autopsy: The Democratic Party in Crisis.” While the 33-page report covers a range of issues, it offers a particularly harsh indictment of the party’s self-defeating attempts to simultaneously please its billionaire backers and the working-class voters who make up the Democratic base. “Corporate domination over the party’s agenda — and, perhaps more importantly, the perception of corporate control over the party’s agenda — rendered the Democrats’ messaging on economic issues ideologically rudderless and resulted in a decline in support among working-class people across racial lines,” the autopsy states. “We live in a time of unrest and justified cynicism towards those in power; Democrats will not win if they continue to bring a wonk knife to a populist gunfight.”
Also last week, former Democratic National Committee interim chair Donna Brazile alleged that Clinton’s campaign was effectively given partial control of the DNC in a joint fundraising agreement (JFA) signed months before the primaries began. Brazile’s account has been disputed, but no one denies the underlying reality that disastrous mismanagement left the party desperate for cash. The JFA was also a product of a campaign finance system that is rotten to the core, as these agreements are often a way for parties to evade limits on individual campaign contributions. Ultimately, the controversy is a useful reminder that the DNC needs to act boldly to ensure that its primaries are more transparent and democratic. Without real reform, including the elimination of so-called superdelegates, the party will remain open to charges of “rigging” elections in the future.
Despite these reminders of the party’s ongoing failures, the past year has provided some reasons for hope. Since the election, it has been inspiring to watch members of a new generation find their voices and provide the bold leadership that Democrats desperately need. Progressive organizations including Our Revolution, Indivisible, the Working Families Party and People’s Action have kept activists across the country engaged and mobilized. Women have sustained the incredible energy that fueled the historic Women’s March in January, with thousands of potential female candidates expressing interest in running for office. Under the national radar, progressive populist candidates, many of them inspired by the Sanders campaign, have prevailed in state and local elections.
Amid the chaos in Washington, there have been a few positive developments in Congress as well. Progressive stalwarts in both chambers are ascendant. On core economic issues, the party establishment is slowly moving to the left. “Medicare for All” is now supported by an unprecedented number of Democratic lawmakers, including a number of likely contenders for the 2020 nomination. In addition, party leaders have indicated that reining in powerful corporate monopolies will be central to their platform in next year’s midterms, an important step toward leveling the playing field for American workers and consumers.
Yet, if they hope to avoid a repeat of the bludgeoning they suffered in 2016, Democrats will have to work harder to establish a clear, compelling vision of what they are for beyond opposition to Trump. They have to build and expand a cross-class, cross-racial coalition of voters in every part of the country. They have to demonstrate, through action, that they care more about defending the interests of workers than rewarding big donors or winning over supposedly moderate Republicans who have burned them in the past. Trump’s plutocratic agenda is a massive betrayal of the working-class voters who once believed he would fight for them. But it would be a tragic mistake for Democrats to assume, as they did a year ago, that Trump’s shortcomings alone will carry them to victory.
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