The committee drafting the 2016 Democratic platform voted to remove a reference to Donald Trump because, as Indiana member Carli Stevenson explained, “This is our aspirational document.” Stevenson got it exactly right. The candidates and strategists planning this year’s Democratic campaign—not just Hillary Clinton’s historic presidential run, but fights for control of Congress and statehouses across the country—must keep the word “aspirational” in mind as they gather in Philadelphia on July 25–28.
It will be tempting for top Democrats—in a year when the Republican Party, which long ago steered itself out of the political mainstream, is veering off a cliff with Donald Trump—to simply say “We’re not them” and expect to reap an electoral windfall. But if the volatile 2016 campaign has taught us anything, it’s that the cautious calculations so favored by political insiders do not work anymore. Americans want something bolder and better from their politics. And if Democrats don’t put better on the agenda, too many swing voters might go for Trump’s “billionaire populism” and the slightly more managed extremism of GOP contenders for the Senate and House.
When polls show that 67 percent of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction, it’s not enough to rip on the guy who’s shouting the loudest about changing course. Nor is it enough to promise continuity, even when the outgoing Democratic president is personally more popular than anyone seeking to replace him. Divided government and gridlock, the controlling influence of big money, and the toxic intersection of celebrity candidates and a ratings-obsessed media have fed the anger of an electorate that has repeatedly signaled its eagerness for radical alternatives to the status quo. Consider this: No avowed democratic socialist in US history has won as much support in a presidential race as Bernie Sanders did in 2016. Americans may not be fully prepared for the cooperative commonwealth that Eugene Debs envisioned, but voters are a lot more interested in political revolution than the elites imagine.
That certainly doesn’t mean the country longs for Trumpism, a crude species of demagoguery that inspired former John McCain aide Mark Salter to ask Republicans: “Are we in such dire straits that we must dispense with civility, kindness, tolerance, and normal decency to put a mean-spirited, lying jerk in the White House?” But Democrats must aspire to more than just beating Trump. They must take the lessons of the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote, recognizing that when mainstream parties do not offer a coherent response to fear and uncertainty in an age of rapid globalization, deindustrialization, and automation, politics can rapidly turn divisive, even destructive.