There is no sugar-coating how awful a Trump-Ryan administration is going to be. There is also no doubt that this presents American progressives with their greatest opportunity to not merely form a “loyal opposition” but to overturn the grab of power by the uber-conservatives and put the country on a firm forward course based on core American values.
I’m not talking silver linings or lemons-from-lemonade. I believe that 2017 will be a fantastic political opportunity to change the nation for the rest of the century – and it’s an opportunity we cannot let slip, or those who are going to suffer and die under the new regime will do so in vain.
Where we are now
Let’s start with the reality of the 2016 election. Democrats won the popular vote for president by at least 2.5 million. They gained seats in the House and Senate, garnering more of the votes cast as well. America voted for Democrats more than they did for Republicans, and this is a Democratic Party that has been half-hearted in its commitment to progressive goals, principles, and practices.
Imagine if we had been the progressive party we needed to be.
But we have to also remember why the GOP seems to be dominant: Gerrymandering. Voter suppression. Dark money. Citizens United. Gutting the Voting Rights Act. And horrible voter turnout numbers in off-year elections.
The United States is not turning to the Republicans in vast numbers. Between corruption, cheating, and the inability of the Democrats to get their voters to the polls, they are winning elections that do not reflect majority values.
It’s only a few years since Barack Obama won two elections with over fifty percent of the vote. The potential for more of the same, and in off-year elections, isn’t that far away.
What we must jettison
I’ll be honest here: I have resisted certain criticisms of Obama because, to me, he is the best president of my lifetime. He has done so many great things, especially in the face of unprecedented obstruction and hate. But he has also done things I do not agree with – the drone war, surveillance, mass deportations – and he did not go far enough in other areas when he might have in the first two years: a public option, prosecuting banksters, and such.
I feel free, now that my emotional attachment to Obama is giving way to the realities of a Trump-Ryan presidency, to call on my party, the Democrats, to disavow many of the tools, practices, and attitudes that Obama utilized. For example,
- The “unitary” presidency of Dubya Bush needs to be expunged, even in its less-insane form practiced by Obama.
- The party needs to turn its back on the military-industrial complex, and we need to become the party of peaceful world partnership, not military-backed hegemony. Giving both Saudi Arabia and Israel billions in weapons and support is horrible policy, especially when it means we continue to have hostile relations with Iran.
- Obviously, tell Wall Street and the banksters that they can have the same voice in the country’s affairs as anyone but not the over-sized one their money currently buys them. Obama wanted no more from them than to do their part to keep the economy strong, but he let too many of them have too much of a say in his policies.
- We need to say “thanks but no thanks” to big money; grassroots supporters can more than fund this party.
In short, the Democratic Party needs to say goodbye to the 20th Century. No more centrism, for the simple reason that there is no such thing as “the center”. The political beliefs of every individual American are more complex than that, and we do not coalesce into some kind of magical center.
We need to resist the call to place our primary focus on economic issues as if identity politics were a liability, a distraction, or less important. We absolutely must refute the charge that identity politics is a dog-whistle of some kind, a way to get the subservient support of communities of color, women, etc.
We must not prioritize one set of values, or one group of voters, over others. Black lives domatter, and so do Rust Belt economies. We can focus on both because we have millions of Democrats available to do this work. American politics is not a zero-sum game. We have the resources and ability for people to focus on economic issues if that’s their concern and for others to work on civil rights and justice issues.
We are a party, and a country, big enough, smart enough, and creative enough to focus on multiple issues. Saying one matters more than the other is pleading for division and defeat. It’s politics-as-usual, and politics-as-usual is a surrender to the forces of conservative anti-democratism.
Moving forward: the opportunity
The Democratic Party has an historic opportunity to start fresh. We need to seize that opportunity.
We must start with party-building. Nationally, a full-on return to the 50-State Strategy (and I like Howard Dean’s new take on it: a 50-state strategy to build young leadership for the next fifty years). The conservative wing of the Republican Party began working in earnest during the Cold War to capture their party. They organized at the local level, won local elections, and built a movement. They represent a minority politics in America, but they out-organized the Democrats (apart from the two Obama victories) and now dominate elective offices. It took them decades, but their framings and their messaging have become dominant.
Democrats must do the same. We have to be strong at the community level and build from there. The failure to do so – the failure to build on Dean’s legacy at DNC, turning that organization into a fundraising apparatus with no regard for political organizing – is one of Obama’s signature failures (god, I hate saying things like that). As an example of how it should have done, here in Oregon, Washington County Democrats committed their party to local organizing, and they began winning legislative races which in turn developed the Dems’ control of the Legislature.
Party-building is job #1 for the Dems. And the number of invigorated, if shocked, Democrats is far greater than what I think many people recognize. From new Sanders-supporting Dems to Hillary-backing women to all the rest of us, the impact of Trump’s Electoral College win has blasted millions of Democrats into action.
We need to start by identifying the failures and obsolete programs from the last century and replacing those with goals, values, and practices that reflect the needs of our contemporary democracy. No cozying-up to Wall Street and big money. A massive cut-back in the military-industrial complex. Owning the value of every human being, even those who look and live in ways you don’t understand.
A turning point
It would have been far better for the country for Hillary Clinton to be our next president. People will suffer and die under Trump-Ryan. Incremental adjustments to the status quo would have been insufficient but far better than what’s coming. The Supreme Court appointment, or appointments, are terrifying.
But we have this opportunity to put the 20th Century behind us and embrace the new century fully. It will take some years, but we can get not only the Democratic Party but the nation onto a progressive path forward. To do so, we have to abandon the idea that we can find a happy medium between racist, xenophobic, money-drenched, white religious conservatives and the diverse big tent of the majority of the country. Forty percent of the voters will not vote Democratic, even for conservative Dems (local candidates like Manchin aside), and Democrats have no business trying to win unwinnable votes by compromising the values and needs of the country’s majority.
Barack Obama twice proved that Americans will vote for a better path forward. Democrats across the country who stand up for progressive values have underscored this truth. The conservatives can only win by cheating or by inducing turnouts below 40%. When Democrats bring forward a progressive vision, carried by real progressives and not holdovers from the last century, they win.
If we embrace this opportunity fully and act on it boldly, we will change the country’s future. Otherwise, 2017 is going to be the beginning of this country’s fade into despotism and obscurity.