If it doesn’t catch, then let it burn
FOR all of October, most of the conversation I overheard in my South Philadelphia neighborhood was about the election and whether Trump could possibly pull it off. The answer always seemed to be “no.” And then he did, and all those “remember to vote” stickers with the little H arrow logo strewn about were reminders of liberals’ hubris, our myopia, or whatever it was that blinded us to the idea that Clinton could lose even here, in a region and a state that seemed like so safe a bet that I’d thought all those fliers and stickers and door knockers were overkill.
Upon reflection, the answer to why Clinton lost seemed obvious: Against Trump’s racist clown car, it was Hillary’s campaign to lose, and she lost it. If anyone who identifies as left-of-center wants to win in the future, we need to advocate for a party that can actually win. The Democrats are not that party.
Clinton underperformed Obama’s 2008 and 2012 numbers in Philadelphia. Black and Latino voters didn’t come out for her as much as they had for him. The Philly suburbs, which pundits and the Clinton campaign said were crucial to a Clinton win, underperformed for her, too. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer predicted in July that “for every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia.” That did not happen. They lost the industrial west and they lost the educated suburbs.
The Democrats seemed to have a ground game, but it was in all the wrong places, dispatching Clinton and her surrogates to the rich parts of cities instead of to struggling steel towns and disenfranchised urban areas. And even though they raised about as much money as Obama did in 2012, much of it came from the wealthy, not the coalition of low- and middle-income donors that had supported Obama. The Clinton campaign, in other words, lost the mandate of the average voter.
Or to put it even more simply: The Democrats lost because they lost the interest of many people. They lost because they ran a bad campaign and, more broadly, because they are a party that does not know how to win campaigns or how to build a platform worthy of winning on.
Donald Trump’s campaign may have been racist, xenophobic, and based on lies, but it capitalized on restating the problems that Sanders had named so clearly--globalization and its consequences, e.g., the destruction of the middle class, drug addiction in previously well-employed areas, tectonic cultural shifts caused by increased corporatism. Among his fascistic and racist solutions, Trump promised to bring back jobs from overseas lost to globalization.
Democrats do not have a solution. They are in many ways the party of the problem--of unrestrained globalization and corporate capitalism. Clinton raised far more from Wall Street and corporations than Trump did, and more than Obama too. Bill Clinton was the architect of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which helped lay the base for the anger at elites in post-industrial towns outside of cities like Pittsburgh. Her Democratic comrades aren’t much better--Schumer, a Wall Street darling who helped repeal Glass-Steagall in 1999, will now lead Democratic senators.
AS global capitalism has radically transformed the foundations of western economies and cultures, the far right has become the de facto response in much of the west--in France, England, Germany, and now in the United States. The dramatic increase of white nationalist hate groups, which started more than a decade ago, even before Obama was elected; the rise of the Tea Party, and its Euroskeptic counterparts in Europe: all these were warning signs of a far-right response to globalization.
But instead of creating a counter-response, the Democrats doubled down, becoming the party of seven hundred dollar Hamilton tickets and soda taxes, of throwing trans people under the bus for gay marriage, of nanny statism. Theirs is a platform that can only relate to the insulated and monied.
It’s no accident that “America is great because America is good” was an oft-repeated adage of the Clinton campaign: to a rich, urban Democrat surrounded by other rich, urban Democrats, things seemed to be going well. She lost because as everyone else can tell you--those who did not show up in Philadelphia, who switched to the Republican party in Luzerne county in northeastern Pennsylvania and the suburbs of Pittsburgh--America is far from great or good right now. That explains why Center City, the richest, whitest part of the Philadelphia, turned out in record numbers for Clinton, but the poorer sections of the city and suburbs across racial demographics had lower turnout this year.
The Democratic National Committee was not only oblivious to this fact--that an unwell America was not inspired by a centrist, ineffective Democratic party--it was actively hostile towards it. As Bernie Sanders rose in polls, the DNC mocked his campaign and its supporters, and attempted to push the nomination to Clinton. When DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz finally stepped down, the DNC replaced her with someone equally committed to the center. Clinton’s media surrogates focused on “Bernie Bros” and calling people, including women, sexist for not supporting Clinton. They called those advocating for a slightly more progressive political approach (support of a $15 minimum wage, for example) childish and unrealistic. A Clinton Super PAC even spent $1 million ensuring online critics, including those within the Democratic Party, were met with a centrist backlash online.
But while the DNC was convincing the media it had a viable chance at winning, creating an Oz-like machine that masked its true weaknesses, Democrats at the national, state, and local level were taking on losses. The Democrats haven’t controlled the House of Representatives for six years. They no longer control the Senate. There are currently 31 Republican governors, 18 Democratic ones, and one independent. Republicans are one statehouse away from being able to call a constitutional convention, and if Democrats lose a few more state houses, they could lose the ability to block an amendment to the US constitution.
As Salon journalist David Daley has documented, Republicans had been strategizing on the county level to ensure that the party remained strong leading up to 2016. They played the long game to win small races and then redistricted in order to support national politicians in 2012, 2016 and beyond. The Democrats were essentially nowhere to be found, instead focusing their resources on big, national names like Barack Obama and Clinton. They became more brand than party--though to call them a brand would be giving them too much credit: Those who work in advertising know it is a means to an end (usually increased sales). Starbucks spends money on branding so that more people buy coffee at its stores. The Democrats spent huge on national races and their associated television commercials, while ignoring the grassroots, the small wins, the base. They upped their national image, but they did not expand their local reach, keep people loyal, or give them something to vote for.
A rebranding is needed, but a rebranding will be difficult because the Democrats no longer stand for much. Democrats do not have a platform that can appeal to the working class--one that promises higher wages and a better quality of life even for those who don’t go to college. Even in places they win, where they have opportunities to prove themselves foes of the global elite and poverty, where they have the opportunity to create ideological proving grounds that the rest of the party can follow (as the right has done with someone like Scott Walker), they further entrench themselves in the webs of the rich and recommit to weak policies.
Take New York and San Francisco, two of our most liberal cities, as examples. Because the cities have so many Democrats, they could have afforded to experiment with what pure Democratic imagination gets you. Instead, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee has courted the tech industry year after year, even as it exploits the city’s public infrastructure and prices out its residents. Meanwhile, he’s waged a campaign against the city’s homeless by directing the city’s police to destroy its tent camps. New York’s mayor Bill de Blasio has rezoned dozens of neighborhoods to enable an influx of luxury condos, and many of his top advisers have close ties to the global real estate industry.
If you look at New York and San Francisco, you get the sense that the Democratic imagination is sterile, well-appointed, but not very welcoming. These cities are clean, tree-filled, socially progressive--and actively hostile to the poor. And these are the kinds of cities where Clinton did well. Portland, Washington DC, Center City Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco, they’ve all become halls of mirrors where the political class and the media elite convince each other that liberalism is working, while the terrors of late-stage capitalism reign just beyond their sightlines.
There is no rescuing this current iteration of the Democratic Party. There is no convincing a party leadership that believes “real billionaires” are their allies--as Hillary Clinton put it in a jab at Donald Trump’s wealth a few months ago--that we need socialism to respond to global capitalism. There’s no convincing a party whose strategy over the last few years was to underspend in black and Latino neighborhoods and spend big to woo white moderates that we need a new progressive paradigm. If we want a leftist response to globalization and its ravages, we must abandon the Democrats. At the least, we must threaten to do so. More appeals to the center will get us more of what we have: a weak, ideologically incoherent party, incapable of proving itself on any stage, and incapable of winning elections.
THE argument from the center to the left has always been, “support us and we’ll at least give you some protection from Republicans, and throw you some occasional wins (gradually rising wages, bad health insurance).” But that argument only works if the center can win. The Democratic Party’s platform in 2016 started with the idea that anything to the left of it was impossible, that to be politically viable in a country obsessed with whiteness and capitalism, you needed to woo racists and billionaires. That strategy brought in tons of money and praise from pundits. It also failed spectacularly.
We’re in a singular moment right now, where we can take the components of a destroyed but potentially powerful party, and rebuild it in a different image. That rebuild will involve listening to the people who have been fighting for real change all these years--the local activists and leaders who have helped institute actual progressive policy without the help of Super PACs and media attention. It will involve committing to grassroots organizing, not just donating a few dollars when a DNC email pops up. That re-envisioning will take more time and effort than the politics most liberals are used to participating in. It will involve getting out of the house, making your friends uncomfortable with reminders to attend that meeting you set up.
There are some advocating for building a new, separate party from Democrats. That might be a good long-term goal, but there is a good shorter-term one too: We can learn a lesson from the Tea Party. When their version of the antichrist was elected, they organized. They did not compromise. They were not an official political party, but they forced Republicans to reckon with their desires by refusing to support the centrists who did not. This not only pushed fresh faces into every level of government –– it also forced the old guard in the center to move right quickly. The equivalent move on the left would be to force Donna Brazile or Chuck Schumer out of party leadership.
Of course, forcing the Democrats to the left will be harder than building the Tea Party. Republican populist values align with values that make people tons of money, and money helps win elections (though actually not as much as people think). A left-ier version of the Democratic Party will not be as fundable. We have no Kochs, no Adelsons, no DeVosses. Those who do fund Democrats, like Warren Buffett and George Soros and Tim Cook, fund the center (so if any billionaires are reading this right now, applications are open for a leftist funder).
But a true political left has been rising (as evidenced by the Sanders campaign and how much support it was able to garner), and if we stoke its flames, support local far-left candidates as the Tea Party did for its candidates in 2010, and pour money not into branding, but into base-building, we have a chance to transform liberal politics into leftist ones. It’s either that, or we look at the mess of a machine we’ve been handed at the end of 2016, and say let’s build it the same way, but hope it works better this time.