By Brandon Brooks
It’s no secret that the Democratic Party is undergoing an existential crisis. Republicans control the White House, and the majority of governors’ mansions and state legislatures. Worse still, any hope that the Democrats might regain control of one chamber of Congress has been undermined by a series of losses in the recent special congressional elections. It is not difficult to understand why some would conclude that the prospect of staging a major comeback in next year’s midterm elections is unlikely.
To some extent, these concerns are well-founded. The 2016 presidential election was a startling reminder of the Democrats’ weakness at both the state and national level. This shellacking has left the party at a critical crossroad, compelling it to choose between retaining its traditional center-left ideological orientation or embracing the sharp leftward pull of its populist wing, led by self-proclaimed democratic socialist, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
From the latter’s perspective, Donald Trump’s victory serves as a testament to Sanders’ foresight. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that the Democrats would have won had he been their presidential nominee. Sanders himself has doubled down on his assertion that the party must make radical changes to its platform in order to remain competitive in future elections, calling for an ambitious legislative agenda including a single-payer healthcare system and tuition-free public colleges and universities. Yet, as the Democrats ponder how to move forward, now appears as good a time as any to assess the limitations of Sanders’ populism.
For starters, the Sanders campaign was unable to bring together a broad, inclusive political coalition, as President Obama did in 2008 and 2012. Sanders’ ability to appeal to millennial and white working-class voters was certainly commendable, but he generally failed to win over states with large urban, black, and Latino voter populations. Nor was he able to gain traction among those aged 65 and older.
Furthermore, Sanders’ campaign lacked a unifying message. While Obama maintained the nation’s disparate communities could always be united by a common interest in the country’s well-being, the former often depicted politics as a zero-sum game dominated by corporate interests.
Yet perhaps the greatest cause for concern was Sanders’ leadership ability. Despite caucusing with them on Capitol Hill, Sanders often maintained a clear distinction between himself and his Democratic colleagues. While he officially joined the party to run in the primaries, his status as an outsider persisted. On one hand, this gave him ample room to distance himself from the Democrats on key issues such as trade, allowing him to appeal to left-leaning independents disenchanted with the Obama Administration. On the other hand, Sanders seldom appeared capable of rallying other prominent Democrats around him, resulting in an oftentimes contentious relationship with the party leadership.
This brings us to where the Democratic Party should go from here. Sanders’ ambitious policy agenda and honest reputation may have animated and energized the party’s populist wing, but can these characteristics translate into a successful legislative agenda?
Sanders appears sincere in his commitment to fight for a single-payer healthcare system or allay the economic anxieties of working-class Americans, yet progress towards these ends cannot be achieved without confronting some difficult questions. For example, how does one go about assembling a political coalition capable of reforming the healthcare system without compromising key aspects of said legislation? Sanders has introduced single-payer health care legislation in the Senate before, but these bills have consistently failed to gain co-sponsors or make it out of committee. Additionally, one might ask how blue-collar workers can maintain livable wages working in manufacturing industries increasingly reliant on cheap labor and automation.
My answer to the aforementioned questions would be no, and yes, so long as they are willing to learn new skills and move to different labor markets. However, I am well aware that these workers may be reluctant to undergo such a disruption to their livelihoods.
In this sense, I can understand why Sanders’ message is so appealing. Solving these problems, according to him, does not necessitate tradeoffs, just an earnest resolve. Yet promoting this sort of approach to difficult political and economic issues is either naive or deliberately misleading. A failure to meet the expectation of revolutionary change may ultimately leave the public even more angry and bitter, possibly producing a severe backlash similar to that which Republicans have witnessed in response to their efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Indeed, the Sanders camp largely appears to have overlooked a crucial aspect of our nation’s politics, one made obvious by our current president’s daily struggles to acclimate himself to the responsibilities inherent to the office: campaigning is easy, governing is not.
So how can the Democrats increase their chances of winning in 2018 and 2020? Any path forward must begin with a renewed effort to improve their messaging. Since 2010, the party has consistently let others define its narrative and portray their policies as elitist and ineffectual. The 2016 presidential election was no different.
Take the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example. In 2012, Hillary Clinton proclaimed that the TPP “sets the gold standard in trade agreements.” Three years later, after Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump criticized the deal as “disastrous” and “an attack on America’s business,” she declared it did not meet her standards. No doubt, Clinton was aware of expert analyses predicting the deal would benefit the United States’ manufacturing and agricultural industries, and solidify its position as a preeminent economic power in East Asia. Her campaign likely just concluded it would be more politically expedient to reverse her stance on the matter. The end result was a hastily crafted position that made Clinton look disingenuous.
A better way forward would embrace the opportunity to debate these issues and defend the progress made under a center-left political agenda. Roughly 20 million Americans received health insurance under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act doubled funding for Pell grants by more than $17 billion, and 2015 marked the largest percentage growth in real median household income in decades. Radical political stances may offer some reassurance to disaffected voters, but they lack the substance and practicality necessary to offer anything other than vague, elusive promises.