As the final minutes of Election Day 2018 ticked away across the United States, a new era in Washington was set to begin. Former Democratic Speaker of the House Leader Nancy Pelosi, in a crowded D.C. ballroom, declaredthat November 7thwould be “a new day in America” as the Democratic Party celebrated its first majority in the House of Representatives since 2010. The past two years have been tough for center-left parties not just in the United States but across the world. Between Brexit, strengthening influence of China and Russia, rising illiberalism in Eastern Europe, and the solidification of many far-right parties in the heart of Western democracy, the mood of global liberalism seems as far from Francis Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ as can be. However, for some the results of the American midterm elections represent the first success of a so-called resistance in the battle for global democracy. Lead by a new guard of young, diverse, and liberal candidates, the Democrats now seek to undo much of what President Donald Trump has passed in his first two years in office. However, despite the decisiveness of the election, others doubt that the issues that allowed a candidate like Trump to rise have truly been solved. Is the Democratic victory heralding a new day or is this just a false dawn?
Though many reasons are given for Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016, scholars, politicians, and the public can agree that the Democratic Party oversaw the maturation of the preconditions for a Trump presidency and carried out an ineffective campaign strategy. Where Trump succeeded and Clinton failed was tapping into the anger of those who felt “left behind”by the recent political agenda. Like many other political struggles around the world before, those voting for Trump believed the government had failed to uphold its responsibilities and failed them.
The legitimacy of a democratic government to rule comes from the consent of the people themselves. This consent is conditional on the protection of certain opportunities, the upholding of a ‘social contract’.At the most basic level, American citizens expect their right to prosperity, safety, and respect to be protected by the state. It is here that we can understand where the Democratic campaign in 2016 failed and where the 2018 campaign needed to improve. Those voters who decided the election, the voters of the post-industrial Midwest and rural interior, felt hurt by decades of liberal policies (passed by both Democratic and Republican administrations), disrespected by the narrative being offered by Democrats, and saw no hope of change in a second Clinton presidency.
Decades of expansive economic policies have eroded the economic security of several regions of the country, in particular the industrial Midwest. Even though manufacturing has been declining since the 1970s, policies centered around globalization acceleratedthe collapse of industry in places like Michigan and Ohio. Though urban pockets across America have greatly benefitted from these policies, jobs have left and political disaffection has risenat an alarming rate elsewhere. Nevertheless, despite the pain, the political establishment has not responded to these concerns in any aggressive way. Indeed, Robert Keohane, the father of international liberal thought, wrote that globalization was “hijacked” by those most well off. Recent growth has brought huge increases in productivity growth, but wages continue to stagnate. As the 2016 election came to a head, many Trump voters felt as if the government spurned their right to a more prosperous future. Faced with at least four more years of insensitive policies, one can see how these voters would lose faith in the political establishment.
Maybe more importantly, many Trump voters have felt disrespected by the Democratic Party for years. In his campaign for the Democratic nomination in 2008, then-Senator Obama said that working-class voters in old industrial areas “get bitter…cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them…as a way to explain their frustrations.” At the time, his opponent, Senator Hillary Clinton said that “his remarks [were] elitist and out of touch.” Not more than eight years later, presidential nominee Clinton said, “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables-the racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic.” Interviewswith Trump voters give voice to those who feel ostracized in society by the imposed label ‘bigot’ because they do not fall in line with a certain line of thinking. The inability, or indeed the refusal, of the Democratic Party to engage with the legitimate concerns of Trump voters only furthers the feeling that the government is no longer responsive to their concerns.
When President Obama left office, he wonderedif he had pushed too far and that “maybe people just want to fall back in their tribes.” As President Franklin Roosevelt saidabout his own efforts to rebuild America after the Great Depression, “the task of statesmanship has always been the redefinition of these rights in terms of a changing and growing social order.” For many people in America, the politics of globalization has overstretched its bounds. Now, if the Democrats want to usher in a revitalized era of liberal politics, following the legacy of the Obama administration, they must learn from the mistakes of the past twenty years and take a step back. Pandering may win the presidency in two years, but it will not further the redefinition of the government’s obligations to its people; the foolhardy reimposition of the politics of old will only divide the country more. It is up to the elected officials and the self-proclaimed ‘resistance’, the defenders of our freedoms and values, to prove to the people the worth of liberalism. Even with a decisive victory, the question remains whether the Democrats have acted more the Rooseveltian statesman or the pandering partisan.
The new Democratic platform, known as “A Better Deal”, echoing the Franklin Roosevelt’s own “New Deal” to counter the populism and economic malaise of the Great Depression, promises to put equality and prosperity first. A major part of this platform is passing an infrastructure bill, which is a concern for the public and supported by Rust Belt and coastal voters alike. The platform also seeks to grow wages, battle against special interests, and renew the industrial heartland. Astutely, the Democrats have not abandoned the values they believe in just to win votes; the Democratic Party remains the party protecting against discrimination, of progressive social policies. It might seem, then, that the Democrats are focusing on several key issues to make inroads against Trump’s effective strategies while keeping what makes them different.
On the back of this platform, the Democrats won House races in places that have never been competitive before. Suburban voters turned out in droves for the Democrats, driving the party to win gubernatorial races in five new states. Most noteworthy, Democrats won statewide elections in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, pushing back against the narrative of a collapse ‘blue wall’. However, in that Washington D.C. ballroom on election night, one would not realize that the Democratic Party had sought to reinspire confidence in liberal values forming the foundation of America. Not once did Nancy Pelosi mention the interests of those her party has left behind. The closest she came was issuing a single call for unity and promising to pass an infrastructure bill, but not before explaining three separate times how the Democrats were going to protect those with pre-existing conditions and decrease the influence of ‘dark’ campaign contributions.
Compared to the 2016 Democratic Party, which ran on the issue of healthcare and ceded a central role to unelected superdelegates in the nomination process, not much has seemed to have substantively changed in 2018. Only 37% of the country believes the Democratic Party stands for something other than opposition to Trump. In the face of a challenge to liberalism, the Democratic Party has seemed to have failed to develop a coherent and salient narrative in support of their values. Hillary Clinton had failed to do this and suffered the consequences, as Trump was able to rouse his support more effectively in key areas of the country. The damage done to the confidence in the system is not fixed by increasing the support of those who already vote for you but by understanding and responding to the reasons why people are driven to vote against you. It is not a matter of policy but of legitimacy. While Pelosi is appealing to the “bipartisan marketplace of ideas” as the source of healing, many across the country are rightly questioning whether that marketplace even exists in this current climate. Creating a new bromide, descended from the likes of “Trumped-up trickle-down”,is not the same as bringing the case for traditional liberal policies to the American people.
There are consequences to not following through in the defense of the status quo. The anger coming from the electorate is not just on the right but, in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the success of the Bernie Sanders campaign, also on the left. If the Democratic Party does not reestablish faith in its policies and neutralize its adversaries’ attacks, the call of populism across the political spectrum can only get stronger. Though the current Democratic strategy is certainly good enough to win the Presidency in 2020 if their gains in the suburbs and other areas solidify, it does not seem good enough to make people believe that their prosperity and respect is at the heart of their platform.
By the end of November 6th, there seems to be no serious attention given to helping improve the lives of those affected by globalization and other policies at the heart of the liberal consensus of the past thirty years. Likewise, there has been no general qualification in the media or by politicians of the motivations of the Trump voter. Most people believe that the party only stands against Trump, and by proxy against his supporters. Nevertheless, democracy’s best asset is its adaptability. Its responsiveness to the public is a feature, not a flaw. The idea that “new conditions impose new requirements upon Government” drove President Roosevelt’s New Deal, and it should drive the Better Deal too. Democracy only works, however, if its politicians understand what must be done. And even as Nancy Pelosi declares a new day in America, many feel as if they are entering the same nightmare.
Banner image: Courtesy of Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Images. ©2018, some rights reserved.