The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Donald Trump’s problems are making it too easy for Democrats to ignore their own

What do liberal Democrats stand for in 2016?

Hillary Clinton speaks in Columbus, Ohio, on Tuesday, June 21, 2016. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

If you’re a liberal Democrat, you could be forgiven for feeling pretty smug these days. Though the convention is still to come, Hillary Clinton, the standard bearer of establishment Democrats, is virtually assured of getting the nomination. She seeks to follow eight years of a Democratic president, and 16 years out of the past 24. With presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump beset by a hostile media and a skeptical-at-best GOP leadership — owing to his own inflammatory and erratic behavior — the safe bet is to assume at least another four years of a liberal Democrat in office.

And yet look below the surface, and you’ll find that liberal Democrats face existential problems — none more glaring than a fundamental question of identity. The question that must preoccupy the party if, as expected, it earns a third consecutive presidential term is simple but uneasily answered: What do liberal Democrats stand for?

It’s been easy lately for Democrats to define their party simply as “not the Republicans,” as the GOP has fallen deeper and deeper into a spiral of vicious nativism and empty demagoguery, epitomized by Trump. But the Republicans’ unique problems have obscured the degree to which Democrats no longer enjoy a coherent identity. To say that Democrats have become a party of the wealthy is simply stating a matter of fact. Democrats have made steady gains with the wealthiest income brackets over the past 25 years. Political contributions from CEOs of major corporations, once dominated by Republicans, have steadily moved towards the Democrats. Political observers like Thomas Edsall and Thomas Frank have been documenting the party’s transformation into the party of an economic and social elite for decades. These changes are epitomized by the Hillary Clinton candidacy, as Clinton — herself a fabulously wealthy woman — has been dogged by questions about her coziness with Wall Street.

All that makes the party’s traditional self-definition of economic populism harder and harder to maintain, given this capture by the wealthy. Could you call Democrats an anti-austerity party? A pro-labor party? A social democratic party? It’s hard to say yes to any of those. There are surely individual Democrats who are more vocal in calling for economic reforms, just as individual Republicans voice more moderate forms of economic conservatism. But the general trend, particularly at the top of the party, is towards comfort and connection with the financial elite.

Look at prominent Democrats like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy, New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker, or Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Each has, to one degree or another, criticized unions, pushed for lower corporate taxes and undermined public schools. Like Clinton, each enjoys cozy relationships with economic elites. And these aren’t random minor-league politicians, but the kind of prominent leaders who help define the party. The scraps between Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders in the primary have undermined the traditional economic definitions of the Democratic Party, as well. In the effort to defeat Sanders, Clinton and her surrogates in the media attacked single payer health insurance and free college tuition, two long-cherished goals of the American left. Clinton’s policy proposals are in general a strange patchwork, with a lot of populist rhetoric wedded to incrementalist reforms and the perpetuation of the status quo. It’s another indication of a party that does not know its own purpose.

The point is not to suggest that Democrats and Republicans are the same, nor is it to suggest that Democrats are just as bad as Republicans. The differences are meaningful. Democrats are far more socially liberal than Republicans, they maintain an at least nominal support for more human economic policies, and those distinctions matter. But the old rule about what matters in presidential elections — it’s the economy, stupid — still stands, and it’s unclear how Democrats will define themselves in those terms moving forward, after they no longer can afford to define themselves simply in relationship to Trump.

Meanwhile, the mess the contemporary GOP has put itself into generates overconfidence among Democrats when it comes to presidential politics. Consider Clinton’s path to the presidency. The former senator, secretary of state and first lady has been the presumptive nominee since at least the night of President Obama’s inauguration, and she enjoyed the backing of the entire Democratic political apparatus. Yet she struggled during the primaries: She lost 22 states to a 74-year-old self-described socialist from Vermont running without any support from the national party. In the general, she will face a reality television star who is uniquely prone to gaffes and scandals, who has faced massive internal resistance from his own party, who lacks the funding and infrastructure to wage a conventional campaign and who suffers from the worst unfavorable ratings in the history of presidential election polling. You can make an argument that Clinton will end up facing one of the easiest paths to the presidency for any non-incumbent in recent memory. This risks only deepening Democrat overconfidence.

Reflections on Bernie

That overconfidence is the flip side of how Democrats have responded to losing presidential elections: by finding excuses when they should be performing real introspection. Take the 2000 presidential election. It was a series of events perfectly designed to help the party evade self-criticism: the controversy over Florida, with its confusing ballots and hanging chads and Bush v. Gore, provided a ready-made pretext for Democrats to avoid considering what Gore stood for and how powerfully his message did — or didn’t — resonate with the American people. Compounding matters, Ralph Nader’s third party campaign gave Democratic elites an obvious scapegoat. The narrative of the 2000 election solidified seemingly overnight: the Supreme Court and a deluded idealist third party candidate conspired to hand control of the executive branch over to the Republicans.

But in fact, Gore and the Democrats had no one to blame but themselves. Gore served as vice president under a popular president in a time of peace and economic prosperity. His opponent, George W. Bush, was prone to gaffes and was considered unseasoned by many, lacking the decades of national political leadership that Gore could claim. He was still unable to secure the presidency. His campaign was rootless and erratic, seemingly uncertain of how to appeal to voters despite higher name recognition than his opponent. Worse, it’s hard to say in hindsight what the campaign stood for. “Saturday Night Live” ridiculed Gore’s repeated references to a “lockbox” for the country’s money, a tic that was emblematic of a staid campaign that never settled on a clear message. And despite the continued anger of Democrats today, far fewer Democrats in Florida voted for Nader than switched sides and voted for Bush. A healthier party would ask why the other major party poached so many registered Democrats rather than fixate on a much smaller number of left-wing protest votes.

Ralph Nader: Why Bernie Sanders was right to run as a Democrat

Sooner or later, the Republicans will rebound in the presidential arena. Democrats will have to offer far more than simply being the lesser evil. Yes, the GOP is in an unprecedented state of disarray. But politics is cyclical, and in a two-party system, neither side ever holds on to power for that long. Remember, the crushing defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964 was described in contemporary media as the death knell for political conservatism, but it helped pave the way for the Reagan revolution. Democrats are fond of arguing that the changing racial demographics of the country will ensure permanent political victory. This is almost a self-parody; to act as though simply sitting back and waiting will lead to victory is a sign of incredible overconfidence, the kind that tends to lead to crushing defeat. The Republicans will go through another period in the wilderness and will eventually emerge stronger and savvier, whether that happens sooner or later. Democrats cannot continue to be a party of populist rhetoric and elitist policy.

What makes this all the more frustrating, for a leftist like myself, is the very clear path forward that Democrats could take: to embrace the Sanders coalition rather than to revile it. Sanders won literally unprecedented margins among youth voters, crushing Clinton among the voters of the future. His message clearly resonated with a generation of people who have endured terrible economic conditions for their entire adult lives. A 74-year-old socialist secular Jew didn’t massively outperform expectations by accident. The underlying economic conditions of our country — spiraling inequality, massive student loan debt, no secure middle class incomes for those without college educations — are conducive to a much more muscular left-wing economic platform. And when could be a better time than running against a uniquely weak general election opponent? If this is not the time to take advantage of Republican weakness, then when?

Instead, during the primary process establishment Democrats have seemed to go out of their way to alienate and reject Sanders and his passionate base. The Democratic Party’s infrastructure has been consistently hostile, epitomized by Debbie Wasserman-Schulz, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee and the picture of today’s corporate Democrats. David Brock, conservative-operative-turned-Clinton-diehard, has acted as an attack dog for the Clinton campaign and may very well take a position of power in a Clinton administration. Reliable Democrat mouthpieces in the media like Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall and the Nation’s Joan Walsh have waged war on the Sanders campaign and its voters, using their publications and social media to marginalize them. Consistent champion of Clinton Joy Ann Reid ran a sympathetic portrayal of Al Giordano, a journalist who has promised to run a campaign to unseat Sanders for supposedly dividing the party. This is remarkable both because it cannot possibly be said to contribute to the effort to defeat Trump and because Sanders holds one of the safest seats in the Senate. Capturing the Sanders enthusiasm will require getting beyond this petty grudge-keeping.

Hillary Clinton won the primary, unambiguously and without cheating. It’s important for Sanders supporters to understand and admit to that. The question moving forward isn’t whether Clinton is or should be the nominee. The question is, what kind of party will the Democrats become in the decades ahead? Given the lure of big money donations and the elite capture of our political process, I’m not optimistic. If there’s hope for a renewed left-wing Democratic party, it will have to come from brute political pragmatism: in a country that serves the 1 percent, there will always be room for an unapologetically left-wing political movement. I only hope the Democrats recognize this before it’s too late.