The Saturday afternoon following Election Day 2020 felt like a holiday Democratic voters feared would never happen. In cities across the country, interracial crowds, united in masked joy, rushed out of doors as soon as the major networks finally called the presidential race for Joe Biden. Where I live in deep-blue D.C., honking cars clogged the streets, and strangers cheered one another as if the home team had just come from behind to win a World Series or a Super Bowl. In the park across from my house, a bluegrass trio offered a decent rendition of the Hank Williams classic “I Saw the Light” before a cluster of happy residents who struggled to remember the words. It reminded me of the night a dozen years before when Barack Obama cruised to victory, and his party won healthy majorities in both the House and Senate.
Yet what occurred last November was simply relief, not redemption. To many left-leaning Americans in 2008, the election of the first Black president had seemed the triumph of a social movement—an outburst of audacious hope that Obama’s gauzy rhetoric and racial identity encouraged. But Joe Biden won in 2020 largely because he was the sole alternative to the most wretched president and administration in living memory. What else but the prospect of four more years of Donald Trump could have persuaded Angela Davis and Noam Chomsky to back the same ticket that John McCain’s campaign manager and Mitt Romney’s top strategist had? The Democrats’ depressing down-ballot performance—shrinking the party’s House majority and, thanks to Black voters in Georgia, winning the narrowest possible control of the Senate—has left the new president with little hope of leading the fresh era of bold reform the United States and the world so urgently need.
At the state level—where GOP dominance had already yielded a set of gerrymandered districts and voter-suppression measures that helped to entrench Republican rule—the returns were bleaker still for the forces of liberal revival. The violent invasion of the Capitol on January 6 may loosen Donald Trump’s vise grip over the Republican faithful. But America has lacked a dominant party since the downfall of the New Deal coalition at the end of the 1960s; the partisan standoff has lasted longer than any such period in history and shows no sign of ending.
What can Democratic politicians and activists do to gain the upper hand in electoral combat? How might they become, again, a force that can win consistently, govern effectively, and help bring about the more egalitarian and climate-friendly society Biden and Kamala Harris advocated on the virtual campaign trail?
Like most adherents of left egalitarian politics, I believe the only path to such a future lies in adopting a populist program about jobs, income, health care, and other material necessities, while making a transition to a sustainable economy. And Democrats have to convey their goals in language that a majority of Americans can understand and endorse.
But any realistic discussion of such a strategy must begin by acknowledging the structural impediments to its success. Democrats compete for power in what is, by any literal definition, not a truly democratic polity. Their nominees for the White House have won the popular vote in all but one of the last eight elections, and their candidates for the Senate routinely take more votes nationwide than do their Republican opponents. But because of a document that 55 gentlemen in wigs and breeches drafted nearly a quarter of a millennium ago and convinced just enough states to ratify, neither accomplishment, by itself, gives contemporary Democrats control over the two most powerful institutions of the federal government. The small-d democratic mandate of abolishing the Electoral College would require a bipartisan consensus that has rarely existed, while it would take a new Constitution to give every voter equal representation in the Senate. (Article V guarantees as much, with its proviso that “no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.”) So rural red states like Wyoming and North Dakota with fewer than a million residents apiece will continue to have the same clout in the upper chamber as massive blue ones like California and New York.
Then there’s the problem of big money. Since mass parties emerged in the antebellum era, they have always depended on donations from well-off Americans—and, at least indirectly, the businesses many of them own or run. In 1860, New York financier August Belmont became the first chairman of the Democratic National Committee who was more than a figurehead; he claimed the post thanks at least as much to his ability to raise money from his wealthy friends and associates as to any great political savvy. The Jewish-born immigrant from the Rhineland owned a mansion on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan that featured the first private ballroom in the city.
With rare pauses, the cost of running for office has kept climbing since then. Widely adopted public financing of campaigns would stop or reverse this plutocratic creep, while also freeing politicians from the incessant mandate of grubbing for dollars from big-ticket donors. But that solution is impossible as long as the Supreme Court equates donations with free speech—the legal consensus enshrined in the Roberts court’s landmark, and disastrous, 2010 Citizens United decision. Biden’s campaign raised about a billion dollars last year, with large sums from well-off partisans and PACs run by unions.
Thanks to the relentless escalation of campaign costs, the amount needed to fund a congressional race in a swing district today dwarfs even what it took less than a decade ago. In 2014, the second most expensive competitive contest for a House seat in the nation was fought out in the 7th District of California; it was narrowly won by Democrat Ami Bera, whose campaign spent nearly $4.4 million. In 2020, his Golden State colleague Katie Porter won reelection after raising almost four times that amount, in what was the nation’s tenth most expensive House race.
Famous, charismatic politicians can amass the bulk of their campaign war chests from individual citizens with a wide range of incomes. In 2020, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez raised nearly $15 million in contributions of $200 or less—nearly 80 percent of her total for that cycle. But few congressional Democrats match her renown, and many of the donations she received for a race she won by 44 points would have been better spent on an uncelebrated contender in a purple district whose victory would have increased the party’s slim majority. One can dream of returning to an era before the pollsters, ad-makers, social media specialists, and the salaried campaign staffers who now soak up much of that cash. But in the present, no serious candidate can risk doing without them.
To make headway in this environment, Democrats can take some comfort in the diversity of their base. All the hand-wringing about the party’s steady loss of white working-class voters over the past half-century should not obscure the fact that the American majority that votes Democratic represents a broader set of constituencies than the white Christians who are the mainstay of the GOP—and just 43 percent of the population. That majority includes most people of color, most voters—of all races—either under 30 or who live in big cities or inner-ring suburbs, and most recent immigrants. If these constituencies begin to decline and the number of churchgoing whites surges, it will astonish every demographer in the nation.
But demography is not, in fact, destiny. In order to contain multitudes, Democrats have to prevent their diverse rank-and-file supporters from waging bitter internal battles that weaken their party’s image and power. Since party leaders decisively rejected their Jim Crow heritage in the 1960s and embraced feminism a decade later, they have often strained to satisfy the demands of nonwhites and women for appointments and a commitment to policies targeted to their specific interests. The white men who run the GOP don’t have that problem: They need not worry whether their cabinets contain enough African Americans or women or any LGBTQ people at all. Neither do they fret that opposing reparations or calls to defund the police will stir up contention among their party’s movement base.
The ideological differences that roil the Democrats may appear intractable in part because, in one form or another, they have been around since the days when Mayor Richard Daley’s police smashed the heads of anti-war protesters in downtown Chicago during the party’s national convention in 1968. The left-wing activists who accuse Biden of seeking to restore an unlovely status quo ante are the heirs of the peace crusaders who sought to topple Hubert Humphrey that year, the followers of George McGovern in 1972, and the rainbow warriors who fought to nominate Jesse Jackson in the 1980s (one of whom was a mayor from Vermont named Bernie Sanders). Now as in the past, the prime concern of party centrists is to gain power and retain it, while the left burns to achieve transformative change. In the service of that bolder agenda, left reformers are often willing to suffer a heroic defeat that builds their movement and makes a future triumph based on its ideals seem more possible.
But only a broad coalition in which neither camp tries to vanquish the other will secure the victories needed actually to use the power of the state to make substantive reforms. The New Deal succeeded in the 1930s because it unified a party of vicious Southern racists and Blacks who had fled to the North, socialist-minded union leaders and Irish-Catholic bosses, white working-class evangelicals and bed-hopping Hollywood stars. Three decades later, Lyndon B. Johnson pushed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and Medicare through a Congress swollen with Democrats from big cities and farm towns, as well as moderate Republicans turned off by the Goldwater insurgency that had captured their party.
Since Bernie Sanders ran his first, surprisingly competitive race for president in 2016, the American left has undergone a significant change, one that’s nudged all parts of the Democratic coalition to embrace economic populist goals—from doubling the minimum wage to making it easier to organize unions. Most leftists now agree, however grudgingly, that the only electoral vehicle for achieving such aims, and more, is the Democratic Party. The old hope for a labor, socialist, or Green party that might awaken the dormant anti-capitalist sentiments of the masses has cracked, perhaps forever, against the wall of the adamantine major-party duopoly. But as a consequence of his two national campaigns, Sanders and his legion of admirers embedded a growing social-democratic movement inside the heart of the Democratic Party.
On the eve of the 1960s, Sanders’s fellow socialist Irving Howe acknowledged the same reality: “The decisive political struggles during the next few years will occur in the Democratic party,” he wrote. “This may not be the ideal political arena—of course, it’s not … but there it is: take it or leave it, a fact.” The triumph of Reaganism made his judgment seem dated, for a while. But nothing has changed in the last six decades to make the dream of a radical third party anything more than a sectarian fantasy.
Alas, not every new, left Democrat understands that being inside the party incurs an obligation that righteous, if powerless, radicals on the outside don’t share. Any serious political mobilization within the Democratic Party entails a willingness to compromise with centrists who can win elections in parts of the country where the GOP frightens voters by quoting members of the Squad and labeling every Democrat a stalking horse for “socialism.” For their part, centrists need to realize that leftists now make up one of the largest and most committed cohorts of party activists; to disappoint them, continually, means a spiritless future of campaigns dependent on the Republicans nominating candidates as polarizing as Donald Trump, but without his adoring millions. Each camp of Democrats thus has a responsibility to learn from, if not gratify, the other.
As an institution, the party could equip itself better to advance its goals. Without the state and municipal machines of old that dispensed patronage and rewarded loyalty, Democrats outside the national centers of power rely heavily on dedicated volunteers whose numbers and enthusiasm wax and wane with each election cycle. The ease with which individual candidates use technology to appeal directly to voters also weakens the party structures that remain. And candidates for state elections depend more on corporate money than their federal counterparts do, because small donors tend to know little and care less about economic issues where they live in contrast to the larger economic forces they hear about on cable news and read about online.
At the national level, the DNC, despite the media visibility of its chairperson, devotes itself mostly to raising money and putting on a convention every four years. The task of winning or holding seats in Congress and the states falls largely to the DCCC, the DSCC, the DGA, and the DLCC—acronyms that conceal the labors of thousands of managers, consultants, publicists, programmers, and canvassers all serving candidates whose ambitions can outstrip their political skills. The cosmopolitan background of those who labor in what political scientist Daniel Schlozman calls a “vast Washington-centric Blob” inclines them to give strong backing to abortion rights, marriage equality, and racial justice. But professional Democrats often have less contact with those who live on meager paychecks and can feel less urgency about highlighting solutions to the economic inequality their candidates condemn in speeches.
Democrats don’t have to battle the GOP armed solely with the party’s official apparatus. The reformist corners of civil society have lately blossomed with a welter of grassroots organizations that vigorously perform the same quotidian tasks of running campaigns and providing them with eager supporters. There is, for example, Indivisible, founded after the 2016 election to resist Trump and his party at the polls. By the start of the next presidential campaign, it boasted some 5,000 local chapters with at least one in each congressional district. There is Fair Fight, the group created by Stacey Abrams to combat the GOP voter suppression that probably defeated her 2018 bid for governor of Georgia and to educate new voters, particularly young ones of color. “Voting rights” may not be “the pinnacle of power in our country,” as Abrams asserts. But she understands that they’re indispensable in scaling the summits of our politics: making it easier for Democrats of all races to cast ballots expands the constituency demanding a program to meet their needs. And there is the Fairness Project, which spearheaded initiatives that raised the minimum wage in red states like Arkansas and Missouri and expanded Medicaid coverage in Idaho and Utah.
That’s just a sample of the ballot-minded grassroots organizations on the left. Older single-issue groups like the Sierra Club and Planned Parenthood routinely donate to, and canvass for, their favored candidates as well. But the fresh troops of the anti-Trump resistance helped provide the party with the élan of a social movement combined with a heightened zeal to carry out some of the practical duties ward bosses once performed.
At the same time, the new generation of progressives should not try to turn the Democratic Party into something that might resemble a left-wing insurgency. The failure of Obama’s presidency to live up to its exalted promise was a sober reminder of the difference between the ethos of a movement and the raison d’être of a mass party. The job of the latter is to win elections and cajole enough officeholders to enact policies that voters want. Social movements exist to articulate bold alternatives and make convincing cases for them. Their task is not to capture a working majority but to mobilize a passionate minority to press for fundamental changes in how power works.
Still, Democrats would benefit from stoking the impulse behind every successful movement: a sense of common purpose toward a worthy end, of solidarity among its loyalists and empathy toward Americans who need and deserve a more decent society. In the 1930s and early ’40s, that emotion helped cement the partnership between the rising labor movement and the liberal wing of the party under FDR. Such movement-minded stalwarts as Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, AOC, and the late John Lewis have sought to rekindle an analogous flame in our own time.
But, by itself, a grand vision will do little to return the Democrats to the commanding position they held in national politics during the three decades from the pit of the Great Depression to LBJ’s fateful decision to send ground troops into the deltas and jungles of South Vietnam. For just a lonely couple of months since the heyday of the 2008 campaign have a majority of Americans, according to the Gallup Poll, held a favorable opinion of the party. No doubt its beleaguered public image stems from Obama’s rocky performance in office as well as the low opinion ratings of its leaders in Congress. But the inability of prominent Democrats to agree about what the party believes and wants to change does not help.
In the summer of 2017, I had a brief debate about this critical issue with DNC chair Tom Perez, during a podcast conducted by Politico. “One of the problems that Hillary Clinton had, and one of the problems that Democrats still have,” I told him, “is people don’t really know what we stand for.” Perez countered with vague talk about “our values” and praise for the “technology infrastructure” under development for campaigns. Three years later, neither he nor other party leaders came up with a more compelling pitch. In 2020, Democrats won and lost thanks to campaign branding depicting them as the saviors of the republic from Donald Trump and, perhaps, as the politicians who would not rip away our health care coverage.
One reason Republicans swept three straight presidential elections back in the 1980s was that they left no one in doubt about their creed. It did not matter much that the three-part gospel of limited government, traditional values, and a strong military preached by Ronald Reagan and his disciples was built on lies and failed to produce fair or competent governance. Until George H.W. Bush weakened and divided his party in the final year of his single administration, the Reaganite package made conservatism seem the ideology most likely to shape the nation’s future. By the end of the decade, far more Americans under 30 identified themselves as Republicans than with the opposition.
Democrats today have plenty of good ideas but seem reluctant to choose which ones to craft into an image that could rival the appeal of Reaganism, for purposes the right-wing icon would have abhorred. Take “The People’s Agenda,” unveiled last December by the nearly 100 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. The seven-part program ticks off a long list of worthy left demands, from raising the minimum wage to at least $15 an hour and Medicare for All to the Green New Deal, demilitarizing the police, ending all discrimination against BIPOC and LGBTQ people, and cutting the military budget. It concludes with a ringing call to “End Corporate Greed and Corporate Monopolies.” But like the platform the Democrats ratified at their virtual convention last summer, its length and too much of its language appeal mainly to the already convinced. How many Americans know what BIPOC or “restorative justice” mean? If Democratic reformers stand for so many things, they should not be surprised if millions of Americans with just a casual interest in politics think they stand for almost nothing.
In bygone days when Democrats ran the political system, they robustly declared themselves to be on the side of anyone who earned a wage or ran a small business and against the moneyed elite seeking to deprive them of the rewards they deserved. In 1936, the party platform hailed the “right to collective bargaining and self-organization free from the interference of employers.” To underline that message, FDR delivered a rousing acceptance speech blasting the “economic royalists” who loathed both him and the “organized power of government” that was challenging their “tyranny.” In an explicit nod to labor, he announced, “Liberty requires opportunity to make a living—a living decent according to the standard of the time, a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for.” This ethic drove the rationale for such landmark programs of the New Deal as public works jobs, the GI Bill, the Wagner Act, Social Security, and the Fair Labor Standards Act (which created the first national minimum wage and overtime pay rule). To win Southern votes in Congress, the last three laws carved out exemptions for jobs held by millions of African Americans in agriculture and other people’s homes. But they laid the foundation of a robust welfare state that, under popular pressure, could also provide greater security and income support to Black people and other minority groups.
The kind of populist rhetoric employed by FDR and his allies had a long history in their party. Democrats won national elections and were competitive in most states when they articulated a broadly egalitarian economic vision and advocated laws intended to fulfill it—just for white Americans until the middle of the twentieth century, and then for everyone. A thread of ideological adherence to what I would call “moral capitalism” stretched from Andrew Jackson’s war against the Second Bank of the United States to Grover Cleveland’s attack on the protective tariff, from William Jennings Bryan’s crusade against the “money power” to FDR’s assault on economic royalists to the full employment promise embedded in the Humphrey-Hawkins Act of 1978. In the 1990s, the pro-corporate centrism of the Democratic Leadership Council muted the traditional message, and Bill Clinton’s two presidential wins made it seem outdated (although he never won a majority of the popular vote).
Prominent Democrats picked up this thread again after the Great Recession of 2008. Obama declared that crisis was “a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and for all those who are fighting to get into the middle class.” In their 2020 bids for the presidency, Bernie Sanders vowed to “tax [the] extreme wealth” of billionaires “and invest in working people,” while Elizabeth Warren declared, “I support markets…. But markets without rules … that’s corruption, that’s capture of our government by the richest and most powerful around us.” Joe Biden kept pace by declaring he would be the “most pro-union president” and raise taxes on big corporations and the rich.
But to unite a party of many parts and help win over swing voters of modest means, such sentiments need to be translated into a pithy appeal the GOP cannot match. As Jedediah Britton-Purdy wrote last year in Dissent, “There is a tremendous gap between our capacity to articulate a case for a different world and the ability to make it matter to the unpersuaded.”
I am a historian, not a political strategist. But a crusading demand for good jobs at good wages, affordable health care for everyone, racial equality, and a green infrastructure would combine four essential objectives a clear majority of Americans already support. The two Democrats who won their Senate races in Georgia in January boiled this down to “Health, Jobs, Justice”—although it would be a terrible mistake to omit the urgency of curbing climate change.
Taken together, these aims set forth a vision of a welfare state quite different from the right wing’s false notion of a government that bestows the bulk of tax revenues on the lazy, immoral poor. They would build on the undeniable mass appeal of the Covid relief bailouts of 2020, which only became controversial when the Republican Senate closed ranks to shrink them. Democrats might add to this quartet of first-rank priorities a plea to honor what Senator Sherrod Brown calls “the dignity of work”—with secure jobs protected by unions, the sole institution in America where people of different races cooperate to “lift one another out of the vicious cycle of living paycheck to paycheck,” as Thomas Geoghegan wrote recently in these pages.
What these ends have in common is their universality. They speak to the interests of the majority of Americans (except big shareholders in oil companies and proud white supremacists). In breadth of coverage and ambition, they hark back to the programs of the New Deal and Great Society that remain popular today—from Social Security and Medicare, to aid to education and the GI Bill and the Civil Rights Act. They embody the Constitution’s vows to “establish Justice” and “promote the general Welfare,” updating them for a nation far more diverse than that envisioned by the Framers, but a nation that still applies those ideals unequally, if at all.
Although these purposes do not explicitly include the eradication of systemic racism, their majoritarian appeal has greater potential to improve the lives of Black and other working-class people of color than do narrower and more race-specific remedies with little chance of enactment. White supremacy has always depended on a state that excludes, clearly or implicitly, aid and protection to Americans of other races. Refusing to compromise with the vow to serve the welfare of everyone would be a profound break with that dreadful tradition. Shaping the party’s image around such goals would not prevent left Democrats from advocating policies, such as defunding the police and abolishing most limits on immigration, that are more controversial than popular. But, for now, their backers could not insist that the party unite behind them.
“I was a fool to wander and a-stray/ Straight is the gate and narrow the way,” goes the third verse of the Hank Williams song I heard on that sunny day last fall. The great country musician grew up in a white working-class family in rural Alabama during the Great Depression and moved to Montgomery as a teenager to begin his career. He died accidentally, nearly three years before Martin Luther King Jr. led the bus boycott in that same city—a protest action that ended up altering the nation and the Democratic Party for good.
It will not be easy to persuade the descendants of Williams’s worshipful fans and King’s proud boycotters to work together for the same goals and vote for the same candidates. And the structural impediments to a revived liberalism will remain. But a Democratic Party that shows it can speak to what both groups of Americans want and need in language they understand can make the way less narrow. As it gathers confidence and direction, it can also look beyond the past year of unremitting darkness to begin shedding some healing light on our sick society.