Try as they might, Democrats will find no peace in the wilderness. Not while they refuse to reconcile the conditions that led voters to relegate them to a position of impotence unseen by Democrats in nearly a century. Rueful introspection is, however, unpleasant. Democratic elites appear disinclined to put their members through any more trauma than they’ve already endured. That’s a recipe for disaster. As a result, the Democratic activist class is leading the party by the nose into heedless courses of action they will soon regret.
Say what you will about the GOP’s post-2012 “autopsy,” the recommendations of which the party disregarded entirely in 2016. At least Republicans engaged in a critical self-examination, and not without cost. That document’s suggestions and the legislative course on which it set the party’s members in Congress arguably set the stage for a populist backlash personified in Trump. Mindful of that history, Democrats declined to perform any sort of public post-mortem on their party’s role in the demise of Hillary Clinton’s presidential aspirations. Behind closed doors, however, Democrats seem fully aware of their predicament.
Democratic apologists for Clinton’s campaign blame her loss on any number of boogiemen; Russia, James Comey, media, et cetera. All of these factors contributed in their own way to depressing the base of reliably Democratic voters, who simply didn’t turn out for Clinton in the same numbers that they did for Barack Obama. Therefore, the obvious solution to the Democratic Party’s conundrum is to reenergize the Democratic base. At least, that’s the story Democrats tell themselves. According to new research, though, the story is bunk.
As reported by McClatchy, a study conducted by the Democratic public relations and research firm Global Strategy Group found that the bases did turn out in 2016. It’s just that many of its members voted for Trump. “Those Obama-Trump voters, in fact, effectively accounted for more than two-thirds of the reason Clinton lost,” the report read. “[A]bout 70 percent of Clinton’s failure to reach Obama’s vote total in 2012 was because she lost these voters.”
It was New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall who foreshadowed the abandonment of the “white working-class” by Democrats in his prescient 2011 column, “The Future of the Obama Coalition.” In 2012, Barack Obama demonstrated that he did not need the blue-collar white voters who had made up the backbone of the New Deal coalition to win. The following two election cycles showed pretty definitively, however, that no other Democrat could replicate Obama’s coalition.
All this is terribly embarrassing for Democrats, and so they simply choose to ignore it. Acknowledging Hillary Clinton as the terrible politician she always was is just too much to bear. Conceding that Barack Obama sacrificed the party he led in the construction of his own personality cult is anathema. Convincing the Democratic Party’s activists that they cannot win national elections without the aid of a class of voters at whom they look down their nose is an unendurable insult.
As a result, Democrats are encountering the mirror image of the problem that vexed Republicans in 2013. Instead of leading their party’s voters in a direction they resent, Democrats are allowing themselves to be defined by their most radical elements.
Since the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, the party has found the enthusiasm commanded by its progressive members irresistible. The Democratic Party’s most celebrated personalities are self-identified progressives, but not necessarily self-identified Democrats. The chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee came down to a race between a progressive radical and a progressive populist—a race the progressive populist only just barely won. That chairman has since made it clear that the party he leads is no home for Americans who consider themselves, for example, pro-life, despite the fact that somewhere between 18 and 27 percent of Democrats would likely fall into that column.
This is a party that sees standing in schoolhouse doorways to block the entry of Trump appointees, destroying property, and scoffing at non-violent demonstrations as legitimate forms of “Resistance.” It is a party whose bitter luminaries reject even the pretense of reconciliation with the registered Democrats who broke ranks for Trump. It is a party that, when it tried to elevate a white southern Democratic former governor to repair its image among Trump voters, was laughed out of the room by the politically active celebrity left.
To their detriment, both the party’s elected leaders and its committee chairs are indulging the hyperbole that typifies the modern left. It defied all logic to force Republicans to confirm Justice Neal Gorsuch to the Supreme Court by triggering the “nuclear option.” Gorsuch, a qualified justice and an unassuming fellow, was not objectionable enough to inspire public revulsion over his nomination. By taking the late Antonin Scalia’s seat, his confirmation only maintained the existing ideological balance on the bench. But grassroots Democrats, embittered by Mitch McConnell’s successful strategy of refusing to hold hearings for Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee and seeing any compromise with Trump as capitulation to “fascism,” forced their representatives’ hands.
Now, having disarmed themselves in a theatrical display of pique for their hot-headed base, Democrats in Congress are ill-prepared in the event that a more consequential seat on the Supreme Court bench is vacated. That opportunity for the GOP may be just over the horizon. According to friends and associates, 80-year-old Justice Anthony Kennedy is looking to retire as soon as this summer. Kennedy is the Court’s “swing vote,” and liberals would sorely miss Kennedy’s centrism. But they will now be at a loss to do anything but grouse at the person Trump nominates to replace him.
To the objective observer, the GOP appears incapable of governing. In control of both chambers of Congress and the White House, very little consequential legislation has made it to the president’s desk. Democrats need only present themselves as a reasonable alternative to the GOP to benefit from the voting public’s natural suspicion of one-party governance. It seems that even this modest charge is too much for the Democratic Party in the era of Trump.