Past, Present, and Future: The Democratic Party from 2016 to 2018

The modern Democratic Party is at a crossroads. The pressures from the outside (the alt-right, Trump, and increasingly uncompromising Republicans) and from the inside (the ideological split between progressives and Clinton-esque establishment liberals) are reaching a critical mass. In order to once again become a successful party at all levels- federal, state, and local- the Democrats must examine their immediate past, their pressing present, and the direct future. The lessons of 2016 and 2017, as well as historic patterns of politics, need to feed directly into 2018.

For Democrats, 2016 was a crippling blow. I’m sure I don’t need to recap how devastating it was to lose the presidency to Donald Trump. On an even broader level, the 2016 election also yielded Republican majorities in the House and Senate[1], and in turn produced a Supreme Court with a conservative majority. But as devastating as 2016 was, it was only another data point in a long downward arc for Democrats. Democrats have been losing seats in state legislatures and governorships nationwide since 2008. PolitiFact research found that Democrats lost over 900 state legislative seats between 2008 and 2015. Even with Barack Obama’s historic election and subsequent re-election, the Democratic brand was taking massive hits. One can view the 2016 presidential election as the proverbial chickens coming home to roost.

However, if 2016 marked rock bottom for Democrats, the 2017 off-year elections show signs of a healthy recovery. Across four states, Democrats made strong- and historic- gains. In Virginia, Democrat Ralph Northam defeated Republican Ed Gillespie by nine points, while Democrats also won the lieutenant governorship and retained Attorney General Mark Herring. In New Jersey, Phil Murphy beat Kim Gaudagno to replace term-limited Republican governor (and Trump associate) Chris Christie. In New York, incumbent mayor Bill de Blasio comfortably won re-election and Democrats city-wide held on to all but one of their seats in the City Council. Finally, in Maine, a referendum to expand Medicaid was successful; this referendum was largely a Democrat-led effort that was opposed by Maine’s Republican governor.

These elections have been read by some as a referendum on President Trump. Ed Gillespie in Virginia campaigned on the same sort of nationalism and white identity politics that Trump did- and failed. Maine’s vote to expand Medicaid stands in direct contrast to the Republicans’ continued efforts to derail Obamacare. And while his historic unpopularity no doubt played a role, Chris Christie may also have hurt Republicans in New Jersey by his associations with Trump.

These are promising results for Democrats. But the real test is still ahead: the 2018 midterm elections. Midterm elections are biennial, meaning they take place every two years between presidential elections. Midterm elections are major because every member of the House of Representatives must run for re-election, and one third of the Senate also faces re-election. They offer an opportunity to radically shift national politics- i.e., by flipping control of one or both houses of Congress. For Democrats, this means a chance to regain the power to really challenge the Trump presidency, as well as to move away from the defensive politics that have characterized the first year under Trump.

Some people have already gleefully prophesied a blow-out for Democrats in 2018. Indeed, there are reasons for Dems to be optimistic. For starters, midterm elections typically bring big wins for the party that doesn’t control the White House– in essence, midterms are a way for people to express dissatisfaction with the party in power. Further, as discussed above, the historic unpopularity of Trump may well translate into an electoral advantage, if 2017 is any indication.

But there is also one major reason for concern. The Democratic problem right now is messaging. Messaging refers to how a party communicates its beliefs to voters. Messaging is a continuous process that reinvents itself almost every election cycle. But right now, the Democrats simply do not have consistent messaging. The party has, thus far in the year, triumphantly branded itself as the party against Trump. But is that enough?

I am inclined to say no- and top Democrats seem to think so as well. Earlier in the year, well aware of the need for change in the wake of the 2016 elections, Democrats put forward their platform of “A Better Deal”- a platform which, among other things, shifted the focus of the party back toward (generally white) working-class voters. This was the same message of the Bernie Sanders progressives, in contrast to the Clinton establishment liberals. But “A Better Deal” has not really entered into the public discourse to any significant degree- compare the multitudes who boldly wear “Make America Great Again” hats, then try to remember the last time you saw the “A Better Deal” branding anywhere.

In fact, the Better Deal attempt at branding reveals the larger issue. Consistent messaging requires unity- to say that the Democrats are “the party of [x]” means all Democrats have to identify with [x]. But, as the highly contested 2016 primaries show, there is not a single Democratic identity. Progressive and establishment liberals have major ideological differences that need to be resolved. “A Better Deal” is firmly in the progressive camp; with its emphasis on jobs and economic growth, it mirrors the rhetoric of Bernie Sanders. But the establishment liberals favor a platform more driven by identity politics and reformist neoliberalism. These positions are simply not compatible enough for party unification. Nor is waving the banner of anti-Trumpism sufficient. Rather, the Democrats need to forge a singular message built on unity if they want to succeed in 2018.

This need for unity does not necessitate the elimination of all ideological difference. Indeed, dialogue within parties is often more productive than without. But for 2018, the Democrats need to present a decently unified front. They need a singular message that will show what it is that Democrats believe in- something more than just opposition for the policies of Trump. “A Better Deal” was not that message. But if Democrats want to take back the House (or, even more ambitiously, the Senate), they need to find that precise message- and fast.


[1] Author’s note: the slim Senate majority, 52-48, is arguably not a strict Republican majority, given the wide ideological gap between libertarian Rand Paul and moderates like Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski.

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