The Democratic Party is in crisis.
We’ve been defeated in all levels of government, from state legislatures all the way to the presidency. The Democratic Party, under the status quo, cannot stay relevant in politics. Therefore, we have two options: we can move left and radicalize or move right, towards the center. And, unless we choose the latter, the party will see its power and influence continually slip away.
The Unsustainable Status Quo:
The Democratic Party was dealt a decisive blow in the 2016 election—an election that was supposed to be a Democratic wave. The Democrats are now the weakest they’ve been since 1928, according to the RCP Election Index. As Democrats we now need to be honest with ourselves. We are the losing party. Democrats only have joint control over the legislatures and governorships of six states: California, Oregon, Hawaii, Delaware, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. The Republicans, on the other hand, have joint control over twenty-five states. The Democrats failed to retake the Senate despite facing a favorable map and now are the minority party with forty-eight senators to fifty-one Republican senators (fifty-two once the runoff election in Louisiana, which is likely to go to Republican, is decided). Considering that the 2018 Senate elections will have a particularly bad map for Democrats, the party really needed a strong pickup in 2016. Furthermore, the Democrats are still in the minority in the House with only 194 seats, while the Republicans have 241. Then, in perhaps the biggest upset, Hillary Clinton—the most qualified presidential candidate in modern history—lost the presidential election to the least qualified. She even lost states that were supposed to be part of her so-called “firewall,” like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. The question is not whether the Democrats need to change, but what they need to change.
Choice 1: “Corbynization”
For evidence on what not to do, the Democrats have to look no further than our former colonial ruler and longtime ally, the United Kingdom. Since the Labour Party in England elected the far-left Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, it has been in shambles. Corbyn is very unpopular with the public (he has a 24 percent overall approval rating) and divisive among his own party (48 percent of Labour Party members disapprove of him). He is, indeed, far less popular than Theresa May, the leader of the Conservative Party and current prime minister of England, who has a 55 percent approval rating from the public and an 81 percent approval rating within her party. Why does the Conservative Party in England seem to have it together while Labour is in shambles?
The answer is simple. Jeremy Corbyn’s vision for Labour is radical and unelectable. Often times it seems as if Corbyn is trying to sabotage the Labour Party when he expresses his dislike for the British monarchy, which has an approval rating three times his own. Corbyn’s other unelectable actions include criticizing special forces shooting to kill terrorists and refusing to sing the national anthem. He is a radical who advocates high taxes and high spending and takes unpopular positions on seemingly everything.
Corbyn’s impact on the Labour Party is so bad that many people are openly talking about the future of the United Kingdom being a one-party government. Labour’s turn left has only resulted in a more conservative United Kingdom with unchecked Tory rule. Jeremy Corbyn is what the Democratic Party in the United States desperately needs to avoid.
This is our first option. We can “Corbynize,” with far-left-leaning leaders like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren as our flagbearers. We would then embrace raising taxes, increasing government spending, and pursuing a timid foreign policy while the American middle class increasingly abandons us and votes Republican. We will then continue to lose elections and continue a descent into irrelevance. 35 percent of the country is moderate, so a sharp left turn would be political suicide for the Democratic Party. Or, we could choose a second option: moving to the center.
Choice 2: The Center: A Return to Rationality and Victory
Democrats can turn their losing party into a winning one by moving to the center. In the 1980s the Democrats faced another crisis—in electoral doldrums with apparently no way out. The Democrats, according to a recent discussion at the University of Chicago with Bruce Reed, the former chief of staff to Joe Biden, were continually losing elections because “they were defending the indefensible.” Though I admire the principles of Bernie Sanders and his wing of the party, I fear he is defending the indefensible and, like the Democrats of the 1980s, will drag the Democratic Party down with him. To solve its current crisis, the Democrats must adopt the solutions they used to end their string of political defeats of the 1980s.
Becoming a broad, moderate party incorporating common-sense legislation is our second option and is the course we desperately need to take. We would embrace free trade, accept that some aspects of our life are better left to the free market, and back strong foreign policy. We can recover by embracing the center like Bill Clinton did in 1992 and take back control of the government. Some may complain that winning back the government is meaningless if you’ve compromised on too many liberal principles. But either the Democrats soften on liberal principles or they elect Trump to a second term.
Even though economists agree that trade deals are beneficial and 58 percent of the American people generally support trade deals, the Democratic Party has been loath to admit this truth. Hillary Clinton, before Bernie Sanders came along, did support free trade, but unfortunately Sanders’s populist message forced her to veer left and speak out against it. This is not to say that if Hillary Clinton had supported free trade that she would have won the election, for as we all know the election was incredibly complicated, but rather free trade is a common-sense issue that the Democrats really need to come out on the right side of if they are to end their current crisis. As Democrats, we should support welfare, but also work to help get people off welfare. We should invest in clean energy, but also recognize that we can’t go green instantly and that energy alternatives like fracking are actually good replacements for coal.
Furthermore, a successful and victorious Democratic party of the future needs to spread past liberal enclaves in New England and the West Coast and work its way into states and districts that are not stereotypically liberal. The Republicans are great at this, building a broad base of senators and governors in states that one would think would be purely Democratic. Even Vermont, the home state of Bernie Sanders, just elected a Republican governor. While we do have a North Dakotan Democratic senator and a Democratic governor of Louisiana, more Democrats in red states are how we as a party can win. To accomplish this, we must be broad and encompassing. On the national scale we can win by poaching independents and maybe gaining a few Republican votes, while securing the Democratic base. But, when it comes to red states, Democrats will often have to adopt Republican principles to win, and that is okay. Jim Justice, an extremely moderate Democrat, just won the governorship of the red state West Virginia. Justice, like many West Virginians, is pro-coal. While some Democrats may be appalled by the concept of supporting coal, we must accept that to win some red states, we must take on positions contrary to the platform of the Democratic Party. Because, while Justice may be pro-coal, he is also pro-Obamacare and that is a message Democrats can get behind. So those in the Democratic Party who want to move radically left and ostracize moderate and right-leaning Democrats, while having a more homogeneous message will create a losing party. Just as Corbyn only helped Tories, a Democratic shift to the left would be Trump’s greatest gift.
Conclusion: Adapt or Die
According to some, the Democratic Party does not face a bleak future. Clinton did win the popular vote by a projected 2 million, after all. Yes, the Democratic Party is a growing party and will only get bigger as growing minority populations in red states like Georgia, Arizona, and even Texas will begin to turn those states blue. This argument has a few flaws, though. For one, while Clinton did win the popular vote in the presidential election, the Democrats lost both the House and the Senate, so they are clearly not a winning party. Furthermore, Clinton’s popular vote lead is only because of large states like California that voted overwhelmingly for her. She could win all eighteen million registered voters of California and still not win the election; that’s just the way our system works. Also, while some states may be turning blue, it is unlikely that they will have turned blue by 2018 and 2020, crucial election years if the Democrats are to halt Republican control. A move towards centrist policies does not have to be permanent, but is essential at the present time. The fact remains that in two years the Democrats will face a tough election and if they are to win, they must embrace the center.
Most importantly, we as a party must learn from others’ mistakes. We must avoid becoming radically left-wing in our frustration and instead seek to build a broad coalition of Democrats. On a national level, we must move to the center, implementing common sense and electable policies. At the local level, we must adapt and build a broad coalition from progressive Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts to the extremely moderate Jim Justice of West Virginia. Our thirty-fifth president, John F. Kennedy, said it best in his inaugural address: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” The Democrats should not change out of fear, but rather out of a firm belief that if we make these changes we will emerge as an electable and thus victorious party.
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