A few days ago, I wrote that the post-2016 ideological pendulum-swing within the Democratic Party makes it likely that President Donald Trump will face a weak Democratic challenger in 2020. And yet, as we shall see, over the long run, the news for the Democrats might improve — thus Republicans must never grow complacent.
Yet of course, before the long run comes the short run, and that bodes poorly for the donkey party in the near term. As evidence of near-term trouble, in that earlier piece I cited the accelerating momentum behind the candidacy of Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), a follower of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, to be the next chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Indeed, just in the last couple of days, the Ellison bandwagon seems to have grown into a juggernaut.
So what’s going on? If the Democrats were too far to the left in 2016, how will it help them to move even further leftward in 2017?
What’s fueling Ellison’s candidacy, of course, is the anger of the Democratic grassroots. We can all see the images of street protests, even riots, and yet the printed words being tossed around are just as incendiary. To take an almost random example, we might pause over a screed from Neal Gabler, writing for BillMoyers.com. Gabler got right to the point: The problem is the voters and their “incipient fascism.” Describing the 2016 balloting, Gabler declared:
It turned out to be the hate election because, and let’s not mince words, of the hatefulness of the electorate. In the years to come, we will brace for the violence, the anger, the racism, the misogyny, the xenophobia, the nativism, the white sense of grievance that will undoubtedly be unleashed now that we have destroyed the values that have bound us.
So, according to Gabler, there you have it: The voters, at least the Trump voters, are judged to be racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, and nativist.
We might pause to wonder: What is Gabler trying to accomplish here? Who thinks that such a slur-filled string of characterizations will inspire anyone to slap his or her forehead and say, “Gee whiz, now that I’ve read Mr. Gabler’s insults aimed at me, I’m starting to see things his way. So I’ll vote Democratic from now on!” Answer: Nobody.
Gabler is just ranting, and yet his is one of many such rants flooding the Internet. But of course, these rants have their cumulative effect: Angry Democrats will become even angrier and even less persuasive to middle-of-the-road voters.
Yet even as the Democrats’ radicalization is off-putting to the country at large, it’s probably necessary for Democratic politicos to accommodate this leftward shift. Why? Because when a wave hits, it’s better to surf it than to drown in it.
Of course, it hardly needs saying that a party that’s poised to pick a hard-left Muslim such as Ellison as its national leader is no longer the party of such foursquare American icons as Andrew Jackson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Harry Truman. Moreover, if the Democratic presidential nominee in 2020 is carrying Farrakhan baggage, he or she will be unelectable.
So it might seem easy to conclude that the Democrats have a terminal problem. Indeed, the conventional wisdom about Democrats these days can be seen in these bleak words from Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi:
Now the Republicans are more dominant than ever, and it is the Democratic Party that is shattered and faces an uncertain future.
Yes, as I have argued, we can foresee trouble in the next four years for the Democrats at the national level.
That is, if the National Democrats, with or without Keith Ellison, choose to regard the voters with disdain, well, it’s a safe bet that the voters will regard the National Democrats with disdain. A National Democrat, we can add, is one with ambitions to lead, help lead, or be an active part of, the entirety of the Democrat Party — and all of its beliefs.
However, not all elected Democrats are National Democrats. That is, across the 50 states, some Democrats — maybe most — are happy just plowing their own furrow in their own district or state. These are Local Democrats, and they tend to be more centrist. After all, out in, say, Indiana or Colorado, Democratic pols don’t have to worry about the leftist influence of The New York Times because few, if any, of their constituents read the Times.
So we can quickly see that a Local Democrat is, in a sense, liberated — liberated, that is, from the increasingly “progressive” orthodoxies promulgated by the ideological spewtrons of NYC and DC.
Okay, so let’s get specific. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, to name one, is a Local Democrat, not a National Democrat. To be sure, he’s a member of the Democratic caucus within the U.S. Senate, and he votes with the Democrats more often than not, and yet still, he is always careful not to let himself be lumped in with the National Democrats.
As a result of such distancing, Manchin has little or no influence on the National Democratic Party, but at least he has managed to keep his seat in the increasingly Republican Mountaineer State.
As a reminder of Manchin’s “brand differentiation,” we can recall his recent political spat with a National Democrat. After Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader, lashed out at Donald Trump in the nastiest possible terms, Manchin was quick to denounce Reid. As Manchin said in a statement, Reid was “an absolute embarrassment to the Senate as an institution, our Democratic party, and the nation.” Given that Trump just won 69 percent of the vote in West Virginia, that was smart politics for Manchin, who is, in fact, up for re-election in 2018.
So how will Reid and other Democrats react to a fellow Democrat attacking them? After all, if most Democrats, in and out of elective office, are working themselves into a frenzy of anti-Trumpism, what will they think of Manchin, who, in effect, was defending Trump?
As a way of answering that question, here’s something that Virgil has learned in his decades of watching intra-party squabbles: Sometimes the feud is real, and sometimes it’s not.
Sometimes, if Politician A calls out Politician B, hard feelings will arise, and perhaps A and B will find themselves embroiled in an all-out political rumble.
However, sometimes the fight is a fake. That is, A bashes B, and B bashes back, and yet all the while, both are inwardly smiling, because the whole spectacle has been pre-arranged. That is, it’s a show or a pageant aimed at making a point — sort of like, say, pro wrestling. Indeed, at the end of the day, so to speak, A and B, their sharp words notwithstanding, might go off to have a drink together.
And the purpose of such a pageant, of course, is politics — re-election politics. As we have seen, Manchin did what he had to do: If Trump is wildly popular in his state, he is then well advised to defend Trump, sort of, when he is viciously attacked.
And yet as we have also seen, Reid did what he had to do. Since the Democrats are in furious hate-mode against Trump, then Reid, as their leader, must give voice to their feelings. Okay, perhaps Reid got a little carried away in his nastiness, but then, he’s always been a nasty guy, and Democrats don’t seem to mind his overkill. Indeed, the Senate Dems — including, at least until recently, Manchin — have chosen Reid as their leader for the last dozen years.
So it could be that Reid and Manchin are simply playing out their own little drama for the benefit of their respective audiences. That is, Reid thrills National Democrats by skewering Trump, and Manchin pleases the folks back in the hills and hollows by skewering Reid. In other words, it’s a win-win.
Okay, so here we can begin to see how the Democratic Party, having been cast into the wilderness, can begin its comeback. The guiding principle is localism — as Democratic legend Tip O’Neill liked to say, “All politics is local.” And to apply this localism principle, we can offer this success formula: Different Democrats are well advised to react to the same event in different ways, according to the wishes of their different constituents — different strokes for different Democrats.
We can state this key point in another way: A shrewd politician can be compared to a chameleon; it helps to take on the coloration of the immediate environment. That is, be one color in one place, be another color in another place. As chameleons know, that’s the best mechanism for survival.
Thus we can see, for example, that if Manchin had spent the last year blasting Trump, he’d be a goner in the ’18 election. To be sure, it’s possible that West Virginia is now so Republican that Manchin will lose in two years just because he carries the “D” label, but perhaps he could change that coloring, too — he could switch parties.
Okay, so that’s how an individual Democratic politician survives in a tough environment — by blending into the local landscape. And over time, if enough Democrats learn to play the Manchin game — nobody here but us Locals! — in other red states, it’s possible that they could score enough victories to add up to a collective comeback for the Democrats.
Yet now we come to a paradoxical reality: Yes, it’s true, on the one hand, that members of a party must learn to adapt to local conditions. And yet it’s also true, on the other hand, that members of a party must stick together, even if they choose to keep each other at a safe distance.
That is, for the sake of its own health, a party is generally well-advised to be loose, more like a confederation than a tightly unified body. In other words, for their sake as a party, the Democrats are stronger if they can find room for both Joe Manchin and Harry Reid.
Indeed, the one thing that a party can not survive is an outright split, a division into two parties, in which the breakaway party actually runs candidates against the old party. And in fact, just such a split is being talked about in activist circles today. Robert Reich, the former secretary of labor and a longtime fixture on the left, is outright threatening the formation of a third party:
This has been a huge refutation of establishment politics, and the political organization has got to be changed… If the Democratic Party can’t do it, we’ll do it through a third party.
Obviously the creation of a new left-wing third party — or a sudden mass exodus to, say, the Green Party — would be disastrous for the Democrats.
We can recall that the last major split in the U.S. partisan alignment was in 1912; in that year, progressive Republicans, led by former president Theodore Roosevelt, broke off from the regular Republicans, led by President William Howard Taft. As a result of that fracture, both Roosevelt and Taft were swamped in November by Woodrow Wilson, who was leading a united Democratic Party. After that stark lesson in the perils of dividedness, American parties have been more effective at holding themselves together.
Yet still, intra-party fractures still happen in Western democracies, and they always end in tears for those fractured. For example, after Margaret Thatcher, a Conservative, was elected as prime minister of the United Kingdom in 1979, the opposition Labour Party found itself split along ideological lines — moderate left vs. hard left. As a result of that split, Labour didn’t win another national election for two decades.
Returning to the here and now, it’s probably the fear of just that sort of catastrophic cleavage that has inspired so many top Democrats — including Sen. Chuck Schumer, who will replace the retiring Harry Reid as Democratic leader next year — to get behind the DNC candidacy of Keith Ellison.
Sure, Ellison is a radical, and anti-Israel to boot— and that must be personally painful to Schumer and to many of his New York constituents — but, nonetheless, for the sake of his party’s unity, Schumer must recognize that Ellison amply represents the angry mood of the Democrats. So for now, at least, inside the party, Ellison is the best bet. The moral of this cynical story: There’s a fine line between “leading” and “following” — sometimes, a wily pol must do both.
Yes, of course, Ellison’s style of radical left-wing politics won’t help Democrats win back the White House in four years, but most Democrats aren’t planning to run for president — ever.
In the meantime, Ellison’s ascension to the DNC chairmanship could solve a more immediate concern — holding the Democratic Party together in the next few months. That is, keeping radical left-wingers, still irate over the treatment of their man Bernie Sanders, from going indie. Once again: sticking together is the sine qua non (without which, nothing) of party politics.
And then, with their unity preserved, the Democrats can get back to figuring out how to get their power back — at least some of it.
And here’s where the Democrats will, in fact, have a chance to bounce back. You see, there’s something of an inverse relationship between control of the White House and control of the Congress. In fact, it’s close to an “iron law”: The Party in the White House almost always — not always, but almost always — loses seats in Congress during its White House tenure.
And why is this the case? Because, in midterm elections, where overall turnout is smaller than in presidential years, the “anti” vote tends to loom larger as a proportionate share in midterms. In fact, history tells us that there’s always something for voters to be “anti” about. That is, even for a citizen who voted in favor of the incumbent president, it’s still easy to become irked at the party in the White House over something. And it’s equally easy to take out that anger by voting against the president’s party in the midterm elections — or perhaps not voting at all. Thus it is that the presidential party’s Congressional strength is almost always chipped away during the course of its time in the White House.
We can observe this phenomenon in our own recent political history: In 1952, Republican Dwight Eisenhower’s won a landslide presidential victory. And in that election, he carried many other Republicans into office on his “coattails.” And so it was in the 83rd Congress, convening in January 1953, that Republicans had 221 Republicans in the House, forming a slim three-seat majority. And in the Senate, Republicans had 48 seats; with Vice President Nixon as the tie breaker, they thus had the slimmest possible majority in that then-96-seat chamber. Then, of course, four years later, in 1956, Eisenhower was thunderously re-elected.
Yet even so, Ike and his party weren’t universally popular; even Republicans, at times, were disgruntled over one thing or another — and so the GOP suffered in the midterm elections. In the 1954 balloting, even as the 34th president was riding high, the party lost control of both legislative chambers.
In fact, by the end of Ike’s presidency, Congressional Republicans had suffered a serious hemorrhage. After that painful midterm election in 1954, and the even more painful midterm in 1958, Republicans were reduced to a rump minority; in the 87th Congress, which convened in January 1961, Republican strength had ebbed to just 173 Members in the House, and 35 in the Senate.
We can also note that the same attrition of Congressional strength happened to the Democrats when they held the White House from 1961 to 1969 — and then to the Republicans from 1969 to 1977, then to the Democrats from 1977 to 1981, and on and on.
We can look at this inverse relationship another way: Beginning in 1952, the Democrats fell into a ditch in terms of winning the presidency; in fact, they lost seven of ten presidential elections from 1952 to 1988.
Obviously, from a Democrats’ perspective, this presidential dearth wasn’t a good thing, but there was a silver lining: During that 40-year period, even as they were mostly losing the White House, Dems controlled the House for 38 years, and the Senate for 32 years.
Then more recently, the situation reversed: In the six presidential elections from 1992 to 2016, the Democrats won four contests, and yet during that same 24-year span, they controlled the House only for six years and the Senate for only eight years.
So we can see: Control of the White House and control of Capitol Hill have a way of moving in opposite directions; the voters seem to prefer divided government.
So does Donald Trump’s victory portend hard times for Republicans in Congress? Perhaps.
And yet it doesn’t have to be that way. We’ll explore possible alternatives in future installments of this series.
This article is the first in a series. Next: How parties have maintained their power — all of it. And how the Trump Republicans can do it again.