It’s understandable that there would be some excitement today in the world of Democrats. They won an inning, the one they play in the odd year following the quadrennial presidential election. But before we get too euphoric, let’s remember that generally the party that lost the presidential race comes back 365 days later and does well, particularly in the two states that have gubernatorial elections, Virginia and New Jersey.
Such has been the case in 2017. The Democratic Party has been starved for victory; for almost any kind of good news. Republicans hold more seats in state legislatures and Congress than any time since the 1920s. The control the U.S. Senate and they only must defend nine of thirty-three of those seats that are up for re-election next year.
If Donald Trump was not enough of a gift to Democrats to win the 2016 presidential election, then his shtick is wearing on enough Americans now that he has become a political liability. Democrats may well be learning two key lessons for the 2016 election: (a) do not ignore the Trump base, and (b) progressive politics appeal to many Americans.
But before we get too excited, it may be helpful to look at recent history which illustrates how Tuesday’s Democratic victories may well be only temporary.
Politics has an ebb and flow to it. If the norm in the United States is for the pendulum to swing between Republicans and Democrats, then the only factor that really matters is what is the medium point between the two major parties. Regrettably, the base line for American politics has been moving more and more to the right. We have to go back fifty years to Lyndon Johnson to have a Democratic president who not only espoused a liberal agenda, but who was also successful in working with Congress to implement it.
The “silent majority” of George Wallace and Richard Nixon in 1968 has grown and now travels under the name of the Tea Party or simply Trump voters.
Democrats have had their share of victories since the era of LBJ, but they have not been able to sustain a true political movement. Many thought that the election of Barack Obama reflected the triumph of identity politics, and because Obama was so likable and free of corruption, the move to the left could be sustained.
But when Mitch McConnell said shortly after Obama’s election that his goal was to keep Obama as a one-term president, the power of what Hillary Clinton aptly called the “vast right-wing conspiracy” has been able to thwart movement to the left that results in the implementation of progressive policies.
Temporary victories are better than temporary losses. But for Democrats (or people of other parties or non-parties) to be successful in moving the body politic in more of a progressive direction, several key things need to happen. None of these have anything to do with temporary victories, but they are key to long-term success:
- Democrats need to focus on young voters and voters-to-be to help them develop better critical thinking skills. In other words, one of the best places for progressives to be is in our schools and working with students on utilizing empathy through critical thinking.
- Democrats need to keep in mind that if they are the party of those most in need, then they must diminish their identity with the donor class and instead do the odious task of fund-raising at the grass-roots level. Wealthy people can certainly be part of the base of the Democratic Party, but they should have no more representation than any other group.
Congrats to everyone who won, or who helped Democrats win on Tuesday. But let’s focus now more on the structural issues.