Looking Back to the Future of the Democratic Party

 /  Jan. 30, 2017, 7:56 p.m.


The election of Donald Trump as the forty-fifth president of the United States came as a wakeup call to Democrats across the nation. The party of Obama expected a clear victory under Hillary Clinton, the first female nominee of a major political party, but instead lost the Electoral College while winning the popular vote by over 2.8 million. This loss leaves Democrats with a severe need to rethink their party, platform, and strategy for taking back the White House and Capitol Hill in 2020.

The economy will be the biggest issue that Democrats need to address to attract voters. What the 2016 election taught the public is that Democrats believe that there is a binary choice between young, multiracial, urban voters and older, white, rural voters. This “choice,” however, is a complete misconception. There is no reason that the Democratic Party cannot represent every faction in a diverse nation. Economic issues resonate with people across party, racial, and geographic lines, from those with college debt to those who fear that their jobs will be outsourced to single mothers needing a tax break. If Democrats can return to their message (and Bernie Sanders’s main campaign message) that we need an economy that works for all Americans, they can make a comeback into the homes of Americans from rural Kansas to urban Brooklyn.

Aside from a revamped platform, Democrats need a new, equally important component to revitalize their party: a new party face. When a party holds the White House, the president is the de facto party face. Under Barack Obama, who has assumed that role for the past eight years, the party has seen historic losses across national, state, and local levels. Regardless of the cause of these losses, Democrats need a new face to rally behind candidates across the country and to counter Trump within the media.

The first Democratic star to pay close attention to over the next four years is the New Jersey senator and former mayor of Newark Cory Booker. He was high up on the shortlist for Clinton’s vice-presidential nominee, the position that went to Virginia senator and former governor Tim Kaine. Booker is known for his efforts to reach across the aisle, as exemplified by his good working relationships with Republican New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Republican senators like Ted Cruz. Booker had his biggest moment in the campaign season at the DNC with a keynote speech where he set a vision for a prosperous American future that contrasted with the divisive rhetoric of Donald Trump. Some are already comparing Booker’s speech to Obama’s landmark speech in 2004 that helped catapult him to the presidency four years later. Some pundits, like Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University, have hypothesized that if Cory Booker had been Clinton’s VP pick, then the 2016 election could have gone otherwise. Booker could have helped increase turnout among millennials and blacks, two major groups Clinton could have done better with. Regardless of his role passionately campaigning for Clinton, Booker will be a face to recognize for the next four years.

The next Democratic senator to look out for is Chuck Schumer, the new minority leader in the Senate. Schumer is taking over from Harry Reid of Nevada and is the new point person in the fight against Trump from the Senate. Schumer is a much more outgoing politician than Reid and can motivate Democrats through his energy and “upbeat attitude” as well as be a fresh face for negotiations with Republicans in a new era of American politics. Schumer has a long record of government service, having previously served as the vice chairman of the Democratic Conference, in the Senate for eighteen years, in the House for eighteen years, and in the New York State assembly. Already, Schumer is demonstrating his political prowess as the minority leader by using McConnell’s own plays against him. Schumer has vowed that the Democrats will block any of Trump’s “out of the mainstream” Supreme Court nominations, just as McConnell blocked Obama’s nominee to the court, Judge Merrick Garland, for nearly ten months. McConnell fired back to Schumer by saying that an obstruction to fill the empty Supreme Court seat would not be tolerated. The two have also clashed over nomination requirements for confirming Trump’s cabinet nominees, with Democrats asking Republicans to meet demands related to financial disclosures of the nominees, as well as the length and time of hearings. Schumer has gone as far as sending McConnell the same letter McConnell sent to then-Democratic Senate majority leader Reid in 2009, laying out requirements for the confirmation hearings of Obama’s nominees. Private talks between the two senators allowed Trump’s cabinet picks related to national security to be confirmed by the Senate on Inauguration Day after many weeks of tense debate.

An already prominent Democratic senator who became more important as a result of this election is Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Warren stands to make the Democratic Party the party of working Americans once again. She is already a well-known progressive who gives a voice to unions and calls out corporate greed in Senate hearings. Warren has already been having meetings with various groups (from Democrats in Congress to labor union leaders) that put on display her resolve to move the party left while addressing the economic issues that drove voters to Trump. In addition, Warren wrote multiple letters to Trump addressing the hypocrisy seen in his transition team full of billionaires, lobbyists, Wall Street bosses, special interest groups, and Washington insiders. His picks, she said, showed that he hasn’t “drained the swamp” as he once promised, but has instead brought the swamp to the White House. Expect Warren to be on the forefront of the opposition to any of Trump’s controversial decisions.

Of course, a conversation about the future of the Democratic Party cannot be had without mentioning one of the party’s most iconic figures, Bernie Sanders. Since the election, Sanders has devoted himself to moving the party back into the grassroots, working-class organization that it once was. Despite Obama’s historic presidency and the legacy that it will leave, Democrats have suffered losses across local, state, and national levels over the last eight years that the party must recover from. Now that Sanders is officially in the Democratic leadership, he has more influence within the party on top of his high national profile. Sanders’ new organization, Our Revolution, is meant to represent his next step in pushing the party in a more progressive direction after the shakeup that his candidacy caused. Our Revolution aims to unify the millions of new people who got involved after Sanders’ campaign, support progressive candidates at local and national levels with their campaigns, and inform the public on political issues and progressive stances.

The party will depend on players like Sanders, Warren, and Schumer to resist Trump through Congress and act as a check on him. So far, we’ve already seen action taken by Sanders, who blew up and printed out an old Trump tweet and brought it to the Senate floor. The tweet from Trump states, “I was the first & only potential GOP candidate to state there will be no cuts to Social Security, Medicare & Medicaid. Huckabee copied me.” Sanders used this as resistance in the midst of a huge Republican attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Schumer has also shown his willingness to fight an “out of the mainstream” nominee to the Supreme Court and refuse a hearing the same way McConnell did for Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland. Just as Republicans made a pledge to never compromise with Obama during his presidency and to make him a one-term president, Democrats need to do all in their power to stonewall Trump if they want to take back the White House four years from now. However, aside from just being uncooperative with Trump in the face of his unreasonable policy proposals and demands, Democrats need to open a new line of communication with the American public that cuts through Trump’s Twitter dominance and partisan news sources to shed light on his highly controversial presidency.

The battle over the DNC chair position will also have a major impact on the party’s future. After a DNC email leak revealed that former DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz actively favored Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders and in some cases tried to tarnish his campaign, she resigned and the party began its civil war. In the aftermath of the messy Russian leak of emails, the party needs a chair who can unite both its establishment and progressive wings.

With a saturated pool of extremely viable contenders, the next chair of the DNC will have to shape the party’s future and comeback, since Republicans now hold both houses of Congress, the White House, and a majority of state governorships and legislatures. The DNC chair is the face of the Democratic National Committee, which represents the Democratic Party nationally and supports candidates in every office, organizes, pays for ads, and monetarily supports state Democratic Parties. The chairperson is very important because members of the DNC don’t meet very often, so the burden of decision-making and execution falls on him or her. Among the important issues on which the DNC chair has a lot of sway are the presidential primary contest and debates and the organization of the national convention.

As of now, the highest contender for the position is Minnesota representative Keith Ellison. He is the first Muslim serving in Congress and has been backed by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Chuck Schumer, and Harry Reid. He is a progressive who has successfully avoided establishment politics and could be the glue the party so desperately needs. Former labor secretary Tom Perez has also thrown his hat in the ring for the chairship. He will essentially be trying to unite both the progressive and establishment aisles of the party: he appeals to the progressive wing as one of “the most liberal members of President Barack Obama’s administration.” Perez’s main weak spot is that he has limited elected experience despite his time in the labor department and Obama administration. Others campaigning for the position likely include New Hampshire DNC chairman Ray Buckley and Pete Buttigieg, a rising star and the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. On the other hand, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley and former DNC chair Howard Dean have dropped out of the race.

The last pivotal actor in the Democratic Party is Joe Biden. The former vice president from Delaware has already run for president twice, in 1988 and 2008, and has teased a 2020 run to challenge Trump. The issue was raised when a reporter asked Biden if he would run for office again, and he jokingly responded that he planned to run for president in 2020. Later on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Biden said that he is not not running, meaning that he wouldn’t rule out a run. Finally on Jake Tapper’s State of the Union, Biden made it clear that he has “no intention of running” but added that anything can happen in four years in the political sphere. When considering a run for this past presidential election, Biden decided against it even though he felt he would have been the best candidate for the issues that the nation is currently facing. Ultimately, he decided that a campaign was something his family couldn’t endure after the tragic death of his son Beau Biden from brain cancer. Biden has expressed his “embarrassment” about the 2016 campaign, citing its distasteful rhetoric and the fact that more time was spent focusing on emails and boorish behavior than on real issues. A poll from Public Policy Polling puts Biden as the frontrunner for the 2020 Democratic nomination at 31 percent support, ahead of Sanders and Warren. Whether he ultimately decides to run or not, Biden has promised to stay deeply involved and advocate for people and issues important to his heart.

On a different note, Democrats need to reconsider their focus on identity politics, as that may have cost them the election. Identity politics is when politicians appeal to people based on their particular background (in this case, Muslims, Latinos, African Americans, Women, LGBTQ+ people, etc.) in lieu of broad-based issues like the economy. By specifically calling on these groups and not on middle class white voters, the Democrats’ narrative makes those white voters feel left out and turn elsewhere. That is not to say that people’s identities are not important and that the Democratic Party shouldn’t focus on them; after all, the “Obama Coalition” of northern white voters, blacks, and Hispanics relied on Obama’s ability to connect with voters across racial, age, and geographic lines in ways that identity politics tries to achieve. Yet as Mark Lilla, a strong voice in the identity politics debate, puts it,Identity politics … is largely expressive, not persuasive. Which is why it never wins elections—but can lose them.” To win, a universal economic platform is required to galvanize each faction of the nation so that later, once in office, the party can aid each group and create progress without leaving anyone behind.

At the end of the day, the Democratic Party must shift to a more progressive, grassroots platform that advocates for the working people who elected Trump. The party needs to find a balance between the politics of race and needs of underrepresented minority groups and the economic woes of the white working class. Only time will tell if the party’s platform transforms enough to help it retake the Senate or House in 2018, and ultimately the White House in 2020.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

Zubair Merchant