Don’t be ridiculous: There is every good reason to point fingers for the political mess in which America finds itself. And, yes, some of those fingers of blame must be pointed at the circle of insiders that—for lack of a more appropriate term—“leads” the Democratic Party. How, in a year when the Republicans nominated a scandal-plagued grifter for president and then became a party divided against itself, was it possible to lose everything to the four horsemen of the electoral apocalypse: Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Mitch McConnell, and Paul Ryan? The Republicans don’t even like one another, yet for the first time since 1928, they have won an open presidential contest, the House of Representatives, and the Senate. They also control the vast majority of governorships and state legislatures, which have the power to deny democracy (and screw the opposition party) via the corrupt process of redistricting.
In a two-party system of the sort that the United States is stuck with, what we just witnessed is the political equivalent of a baseball shutout. And because the Democratic Party has, since the days of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, assumed a growing measure of responsibility for defending America’s tired, its poor, its huddled masses yearning to breathe free—however miserably particular Democrats may have met that responsibility at critical junctures in our history—the Democratic establishment’s failure in the 2016 election has left tens of millions of our most vulnerable fellow citizens at the mercy of Republican plutocrats who imagine that a nation of immigrants can close its borders, that food stamps are too costly while tax breaks for corporations are a necessity, that senior citizens don’t work long or hard enough, and that the essential work of government is the redistribution of wealth upward to billionaire oligarchs. Americans with a conscience must be morally outraged at Trump and the cruel hoax that is contemporary “conservativism,” but they should be equally outraged at a Democratic establishment that is so disengaged, so incompetent, and so indebted to elite campaign funders that it is incapable of guarding against crisis.
WikiLeaks e-mail dumps revealing that Democratic National Committee insiders and the permanent party establishment tended to favor Hillary Clinton offered little more than a reminder of how elites in both parties operate. What was new was the revelation of the extent to which Democratic careerists rejected warnings about the anger over inequality and injustice that were advanced not just by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, but by Clinton-aligned progressives like New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. Party leaders were slow to speak to the disenchantment and desperation that develop with expanding inequality and contracting opportunity; they resisted a full embrace of an economic-justice politics that might have maintained or even expanded the majority coalition established by Barack Obama. At too many turns, they settled for the narrow promise that “we’ll never be as nasty as the Republicans.” (The Clinton campaign’s closing motto, “Love Trumps Hate,” offered a creative play on the GOP candidate’s name rather than a what-we’re fighting-for message.)
Hillary Clinton finished with around 48 percent of the vote—three points less than Obama in 2012 and five points less than Obama in 2008. And in a year when Democrats should have taken the Senate and erased much of their disadvantage in the House, the party made no meaningful progress.
There are structural realities that provided Republicans with advantages in 2016: an Electoral College that allows the loser of the popular vote to win the presidency; the extreme gerrymandering of congressional districts, which eliminates meaningful competition; a corrupt campaign-finance system that encourages billionaires to buy elections; assaults on voting rights; a news media that has abandoned journalism in the chase for clicks and ratings. But the point of a political party is to recognize the challenges posed by a dysfunctional system, strategize about how to overcome them, and implement those strategies at election time. If a party cannot do this, what possible point is there for its continued existence?
The answer should be obvious: There is no point to the continued existence of this Democratic Party. It must change, or be replaced. And since no major party has been replaced since Henry Clay’s Whigs, it is time to recognize the need for a reformation of the Democratic Party—one that transforms it every bit as thoroughly as in the 1930s (when FDR aligned with a burgeoning labor movement and the independent progressive movements that had left the Republican fold in states like Wisconsin and Minnesota), and in the period from the late 1940s to the early ’60s (when the party finally acknowledged a duty to follow Hubert Humphrey’s call, at the 1948 Democratic convention, “to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights”).
The next Democratic Party should bear no more resemblance to its current self than FDR’s New Deal party did to the party that nominated corporate lawyer John Davis in 1924. This doesn’t mean that the next Democratic Party can abandon its best self, as a party that has evolved into an ardent champion of LGBTQ and voting rights—and it is now evolving as a party that supports immigrants’ rights and questions mass incarceration. But the Democrats must abandon the “Third Way” compromises with the corporate class that cause voters to believe Democrats and Republicans swim in the same Washington swamp of crony capitalism.
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Interim DNC chair Donna Brazile, who did her best to steer the party following the mid-campaign meltdown of Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, says Democrats must now “begin a long and arduous task of rebuilding.” If the party tries to rebuild itself along all-too-familiar lines, that effort could well fail.
Gallup polls show that an overwhelming majority of Americans want a third party because the current two don’t do an adequate job of representing them. The Democrats have an opportunity to fill that void, to become the new party that Americans want. “This is a watershed moment for us, not for the Republicans,” says Jim Hightower, the former Texas secretary of agriculture, who once won elections in a red state as a progressive populist. “We have the opportunity. We can’t squander it with more of the same.”
So how do the Democrats get it right?
§ Recognize what just happened. A reality-TV star making his first run for office took over the Republican Party and then won the presidency by attacking corporate corruption and race-to-the-bottom trade deals. Trump’s final two-minute television ad adopted the language of the left, decrying “a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth, and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.” Of course, Trump is a political con artist whose populism embraces crude nationalism, xenophobia, and racism. But he has illustrated the potential of an economic populist message. The next Democratic Party must grab that language back, align it with policies designed to achieve economic and social justice, and amplify the message so that it’s heard by Americans eager for change. “Progressives warned repeatedly that Republicans could outflank Democrats on trade, jobs, Wall Street, and corporate greed—and they did,” explains Stephanie Taylor, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “This race should not have been so close, and Democrats will lose in the future—over and over—if they don’t go through a serious ideological shift and follow Elizabeth Warren’s lead, fighting against the rigged economy in a truly authentic and real way.”
§ Become the party of structural reform. For the second time in 16 years, the Democratic nominee for president has won the popular vote and lost the presidency to an Electoral College that was created to thwart democracy. The Senate remained under Republican control because billionaires flooded key races with money. Democrats gained no traction in House races due to gerrymandering. Voter-suppression schemes made it harder for people to vote. Former White House counselor Bill Curry argues that voters are hungry for “a mass movement for public integrity and democracy.” He’s right, and Democrats have every reason to lead that movement—even, or especially, if it requires them to abandon the practices and associations tied to the current corrupt system. The party has to make reform of the political process central to its mission.
§ Pick a side and stand your ground. The party of FDR cannot lie to itself any longer. It must become an explicit and effective anti-austerity party. On the morning after the election, former New Hampshire legislator Deborah “Arnie” Arnesen observed that “Bill Clinton’s New Democrats were incinerated last night.” She’s right when she says that the party must abandon its current bankrupt strategy: “sleeping with Wall Street, multinational corporations, [and] insurance companies” while imagining that “wage-starved workers with enormous bills and debts, evaporating opportunities, disappearing pensions, [decaying] schools and deteriorating infrastructure wouldn’t notice they were overlooked and forgotten.” The DNC must overcome its centrist caution, its addiction to big-dollar fund-raising, and an obsession with data that invariably leads the party to fight the last election rather than prepare for the next one. The DNC must become a source of fresh ideas, with strong research and policy departments, and it must campaign on behalf of the party’s progressive platform. To do that, it must embrace dynamic leadership with an intersectional vision like that of Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison, one of the contenders for the DNC chair. The Democratic National Committee must be connected to the party’s congressional caucuses, which cannot merely oppose Trump; Democrats in Congress must join in communicating a clear alternative vision not just about economics, but about the society that is to come.
§ Get out of town. While the DNC and congressional leaders must oppose Trump and Trumpism in Washington, they must also do so across America. The party must renew its commitment to a 50-state strategy, like that of former DNC chair and Vermont governor Howard Dean. Look at the maps not just from this presidential election, but from the Senate races: The party lost hundreds of rural counties that once voted Democratic. There are many reasons for this, including Trump’s awful appeals to xenophobia and racism. But the fact is that the Democrats neglected farm country, small towns, and small cities, which have been devastated by the deindustrialization that resulted from the trade policies ushered in by Bill Clinton and his New Democrat cohort. The party must appeal to the whole of America, with a vision that tells voters how their circumstances will improve when Democrats are elected. If a political party cannot do this, then it has no reason for being. But if it can, then it is no longer merely a party: It is a movement that, by transforming itself, will have every opportunity to transform America.