The Great Democratic Party Rebuilding

Democrats can and must appeal to a broad majority, but only if they can escape the death grip of their radical wing

Image Credit: Neil Webb/Debut Art

A new poll from the highly respected National Opinion Research Center delivers apocalyptic news for the Republican Party. Nearly two-thirds of respondents, 63%, say they would not support Donald Trump’s reelection in 2024. And that’s a pretty firm result: 53% of respondents said they would “definitely” not support him. The poll also shows the underlying reason for this result: Trump has failed to convince the public either that the 2020 election was stolen—about 70% reject that claim, up slightly from early 2021—or that he acted legally in all the many cases where he has now been indicted.

This result indicates why Trump is likely to lose in 2024 despite President Biden’s many vulnerabilities. Republicans have been digging in on an approach that panders to a narrow base in the party but repels the majority of voters. Correspondingly, Republicans are increasingly relying on an approach by which they hope to gain and wield power even as a minority, as Trump did in 2016 when he took office with just under 46% of the popular vote.

This is a bad direction for the American system, but it also gives Democrats a huge opportunity to appeal to the abandoned majority. Yet they can only do that if they don’t make the same mistake as Republicans—which, alas, is exactly what they’ve been doing for years now.

The Politics of 50 Minus 1

That a minority would have the power to block or bog down the majority is a deliberate feature of the American system, a safeguard that keeps a temporary majority from becoming overbearing and also smooths out the wild swings in policy that would result when the other side prevails in the next election and becomes equally overbearing.

Yet deliberately courting a minority is new as an electoral strategy. I used to complain about each party having a 50-plus-1 mentality, giving up on the big landslide wins that come from embracing widely popular causes and instead making the fewest compromises necessary to gain a bare majority. The ideal, in effect, is to get just one vote more than 50%. Now we’re looking at the politics of 50 minus 1—trying to figure out how to claim power without getting even that 50%-plus majority, by leveraging the electoral college, gerrymandering congressional districts and appealing to allies in the courts.

I don’t think such an approach is sustainable for a political party, and it is definitely not healthy for our system as a whole. This is what fuels the kind of insurrectionist and civil-war rhetoric that is growing louder, particularly on the right. We have a faction that wants to appeal only to a minority, to stoke the passions of the conservative base. But they still retain the ambition of wielding all the power they  might have achieved if they had appealed to a majority. So, they try to compensate for that mismatch by alleging press bias, “deep state” conspiracies and stolen elections—preparing their supporters for the idea that they are suffering under intolerable oppression that must be resisted with force. But all along, it is a self-induced problem.

“Polarization” is the vague and loose term people use to refer to this. But it is not really about people having sharply clashing opinions. It is about one faction giving up on trying to convince swing voters and gain a majority and instead depending only on its dominance in its remaining strongholds. In this respect, the most ominous kind of polarization is geographic—the division of the country into “blue states” and “red states.” To the extent each party establishes an unchallengeable local dominance, it believes that this dominance is its natural state and that it has been somehow unfairly deprived of the same degree of power and influence nationally.

This is a vicious electoral strategy, but it won’t be abandoned unless it can also be shown to be a foolish strategy, a losing strategy. The Democratic Party could do us a service by winning a few big majority elections. But more than that, Democrats need to show that they can win in areas they have largely abandoned. Talk about stolen votes and a civil war won’t gain much traction if the Democrats are electorally competitive widely across the U.S.

Saving our system requires Democrats to show that they can truly represent a majority, which might eventually induce the Republican Party, if it wants to recover, to compete on the same terms. But how to do it?

Who Lost Florida?

Let’s start by examining one of the Democrats’ most consequential failures: the collapse of the state party in Florida. The cost of this failure is that Gov. Ron DeSantis has been trying to turn Florida into a showpiece for the right’s most radical culture war agenda. With a compliant state legislature, he has passed the “Don’t Say Gay” law, tried to harass corporations that oppose his politics, imposed restrictions on books in school libraries and attempted the overtly ideological takeover of schools and universities. Until fairly recently, Florida was a politically competitive “swing state,” but now it is one of the leading examples of unobstructed one-party rule, and it’s a template other Republican leaders are following.

So how did Democrats lose Florida? Check out a long and interesting post-mortem in The Bulwark from Steve Schale, a longtime Democratic Party organizer in Florida. The story is partly about the unintended consequences of campaign finance reform. These laws were supposed to remove money from politics, but they couldn’t do that without violating the First Amendment, which above all else protects your right to spend money to express your views (and especially your views about politics). So what campaign finance reform did was not to remove money from politics, but to remove it from the political party apparatus, shunting it into independent groups with their own ideological agendas.

Schale’s article focuses on how these independent “progressive” groups spent the money ineffectively and without coordination. But more than that, they spent money on the priorities and narrow agendas of activist groups. They spent it by appealing to the Democratic Party’s left-wing base, rather than appealing to the widest group of voters.

As Schale explains:

[M]any Democratic donors in Florida read [President] Obama’s victories as an ideological shift in the country—one that had not happened. I believe Florida remains today what it was when Obama won it: essentially a center-right state, where Democrats (as Obama was) have to be smart in how they talk to voters. Yet many of these outside groups operate like Florida is California, pushing messaging that does little to help us broaden our general election coalition.

So you get an approach to politics that still wins majorities in states that are relatively far to the left. But in swing states, it makes the activist base feel good while losing elections by repelling ordinary swing voters. This strategy leads to a downward spiral. The smaller and less successful the party is in a state, the more reasonable and moderate people abandon it, and the more it becomes dominated by its fanatics. In this respect, Florida Democrats are the mirror image of California Republicans.

One of the most illuminating articles about our current politics was written a few years back in Vox by Jane Coaston, who looked at how conservative activists in California dug in on an unpopular agenda and got wiped out, both in Sacramento and in their congressional delegation in D.C. Yet California conservatives failed upward, not just sticking to their failed agenda but also turning it into an unpopular national agenda.

In both Florida and California, the minority party’s actions serve their state poorly, providing no effective counterbalance against the fads and foibles of the majority party. More than that, they aid our unhealthy form of political conflict because they divide us into different factions of one-party rule: We dominate here, you dominate there.

It would be much healthier if we returned to a situation—as it was 40 years ago—where just about everything was up for grabs almost everywhere, when no faction had the illusion that it could impose its agenda without resistance.

The Era of So-So Feelings

The stakes are about more than just winning a few elections. They are about reviving the animating spirit of our whole system.

Political parties act differently when they pull out of this death spiral of appeasing an increasingly fanatical base and instead see themselves as chasing after a persuadable majority. They become willing to adjust their message and their agenda—and yes, give the stiff arm to the more fanatical activists—to achieve a broader appeal. They need to stop thinking about getting 50% minus one, or even 50% plus one, and aim for wide governing majorities. Yet that would mean having to be content that such a majority won’t be able to do all the crazy things the activist wing wants. And it means accepting that this is generally a good thing.

It’s important to remember how Democrats lost the South, which was once their stronghold. They used Southern Democrats in Congress as cannon fodder to enact the agenda of a party leadership that hailed from San Francisco and Boston, and voters back home noticed. The result was that during the Obama years, Democrats chased the big dreams of the progressive caucus and got high on hopium in two presidential elections—but got clobbered in Congress and in the statehouses and set the stage for the Trump backlash. The losses on the state level particularly hurt because they cut off the careers of rising young political stars, leaving the party with few figures with any kind of national appeal under the age of 80.

To become really healthy nationally, Democrats have to be willing to embrace an agenda that will allow them to compete outside the big cities in places like Georgia, South Carolina and Florida. I have offered a few suggestions for such an agenda. But the point is that they have to be trying.

Politics is always a war. Sure, there was an Era of Good Feelings once, but it lasted less than a decade (basically during the administration of James Monroe), and one of its key events was the Missouri Compromise, so that gives you an idea of the tensions still simmering under the surface. There was no idyllic time when everyone agreed on everything, and that’s a good thing. We need to constantly put the issues of the day to the test of public debate and argument. But the result of such tests should be a reasonably broad consensus, not the fickle and momentary victories of activist factions—not even the ones I agree with. In short, we should settle for an Era of So-So Feelings.

The big issue of today is preserving representative government and the American system. To do that, we need to preserve the spirit of it, and that will require political parties to start thinking of themselves as attempting to build and appeal to this kind of broad consensus.

The Republican Party isn’t going to do that anytime soon, so we need to appeal to Democrats to seize this opportunity and do it first.

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