For Democrats like me, 2012 was a great year. The year saw the re-election of modern liberal icon Barack Obama as President of the United States, and the results heralded a promising electoral future for the Democratic Party, in which an emerging majority consisting of Hispanics, young people, African Americans, and women would usher in an era of Democratic dominance, with the GOP diminishing into a regional party and splintering into various bickering factions. Fast forward to 2014, and the Republicans manage to keep a lid on the insurgent Tea Party, which they had hitherto been unable to do, spelling trouble for the Democrats, who were smugly and prematurely taking victory laps ahead of the next presidential election, confident that the Republicans would never again win another national election. The Democrats believed that the Republicans’ dismal standing with women and minority voters would make the Democrats the dominant party in the United States. They believed while ignoring their own inability to win congressional races in the flyover states. The 2010 Tea Party revolution, which defeated numerous moderates in both parties, saw the Republicans seize control of the House and dent the Democratic majority in the Senate. However, the Tea Party insurgency also botched numerous winnable races for the Republicans, and in some instances led to Democratic pickups. In 2014, the Republicans made sure this did not happen, and a wipeout ensued. The Democratic gains in the House in 2012 were mostly erased, and the Senate fell to the Republicans. The Democrats mostly mounted weak campaigns this time, which were focused mainly on painting their Republican opponents as extremists while trying to seize the middle ground for themselves and being as uncontroversial as possible. Numerous Democrats even shunned any association with President Obama, due to his unpopularity in many of these competitive congressional districts.
These conservative Democrats failed to give voters any reason to elect them, since they were essentially moderate Republicans in all but name. After the wipeout, I blamed the Democrats’ defeat on insufficient enthusiasm from its liberal base and the active suppression of more activist voices in the party by the Democratic leadership. I was incensed in early 2015 when it seemed likely that Hillary Clinton would be the only major contender for the Democratic presidential nomination. Surely, I thought, there is someone with the guts to take on the complacent Democratic establishment and talk to the American people about the important issues, instead of airing the same fear-based platitudes about how the Republicans were at war with women or about how they would deport children of illegal immigrants. To me and others like me, Hillary Clinton was the very symbol of the sort of smugness and entitlement I had come to detest from mainstream politics. I saw her as the sort of out-of-touch, flip-flopping insider whose brand of decaf liberalism I associated with the Democrats’ defeat. Not surprisingly, I was quite taken with Bernie Sanders when he announced his candidacy and I supported him in the primaries. With his loss, I moderated my opinion on Hillary Clinton, once it became clear that the alternative to her was Donald Trump. As much as I didn’t like Clinton, I could never in the right mind support Donald Trump, and I assumed, like many Americans, that Trump would be easily defeated and, at worst, things would remain more or less the way they are.
I still had misgivings about her ability to win an election though, and prior to Trump’s entry into the race, I thought the Republicans would nominate some Romney-esque establishment candidate like Jeb Bush, who would keep a relatively moderate tone so as not to draw the ire of minorities and women. This seemed like the most viable path forward for the Republican Party, after the results of the 2012 autopsy came in. However, I did not yet realize that Republican voters were as fed up their establishment candidates as I was with mine. Then, the 2016 presidential primaries arrived; and a brash real estate mogul from New York named Donald Trump enters the race. Over the course of the brutally long election season, this man would singlehandedly upend everything Americans took for granted about their political system, to the delight of some and the stomach turning disgust of others. “Gaffes” of the sort Romney made in 2012 were nothing compared to the things Trump said every time he opened his mouth. Political and media elites in both parties were convinced he could not win, and the Republicans repeatedly underestimated the self-funded businessman, who proceeded to shatter the fourteen spineless nobodies that the Republicans threw at him and coast almost effortlessly to victory in the primaries.
Once he was the official candidate, the Democrats were smugger than ever, superbly confident that no matter how slow the economic recovery had been, and no matter how frustrated Americans were with their economic and political system, they would not elect a shameless bigot with no governing experience to be the leader of the free world. And yet, in spite of almost all general election polls and media predictions, this New York billionaire with gold-plated toilets became the voice of working class America. Many, including myself, were utterly shocked when Trump ascended to the presidency the night of November 8, catapulted by the “blue wall” states of Pennsylvania, Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin, all states that Democrats had carried handily since 1988, as well as larger-than-expected margin of victory in the swing state of Ohio.
How did this happen? Where did the Clinton campaign go wrong? The answer lies simply in the reality that the Democrats took too much for granted. Trump remorselessly offended just about every voting bloc in the country and had no ground game to speak of; and that gave the Democrats reason to believe that they had the race locked up from the start. Their strategy, in keeping with their Republican-lite gimmick, was to entice moderate GOP voters repulsed by Trump into the Democratic fold. Senator Chuck Schumer even said, regarding Pennsylvania, that the Democrats could afford to lose working class and rural voters who supported Democrats in the past because they would be compensated by picking up twice that number in disaffected suburban voters who previously supported Republicans. That flawed strategy points to the root of the Democrats’ problem. By forsaking the populism of the past that made them the dominant party from 1932-1968, the Democrats have trouble resonating with working class voters in the heartland of the country. While remnants of that age remain in some Democratic policy, the party overall experienced a rightward shift during the Reagan years, as it sought to emerge from a string of devastating presidential election losses.
This more centrist Democratic party was good for the purposes of appealing to educated professionals and suburban voters, and may have somewhat delayed the South’s transformation into a GOP stronghold for a few more years, but it did little to assuage the concerns of blue collar union workers in the Rust Belt and in the big cities. These people had been facing declining economic fortune since the 1970s, as industrial patterns changed, hurting the manufacturing sector. They were the “Archie Bunker vote” during the Nixon years, and the Republican president cultivated their support as part of the larger backlash against the counterculture and the civil rights movement, which alienated them from much of the Democratic Party at the time. Interestingly, Trump’s opposition to “Political Correctness” echoes this very same backlash in its present form, as student activism and the Black Lives Matter movement confound much of white Middle America to this day. Trump won because of his combination of economic populism, nationalism, and his brash outspokenness.
In short, the Democrats need to re-adopt economic populist policies from their golden age and speak out against economic problems if they wish to remain a viable party in the heartland, as well as keep a more moderate tone on social issues. I recognize that I may have angered a great many people when I say this, but as a bona fide social liberal, I mostly agree with the aims of the social justice movement. I just think that the Democrats need to broaden their outreach to include people they might not always agree with on everything. There is inevitably a generational and religious divide when it comes to social issues, and the Democrats need to downplay the divisions as much as possible in order to attract people to their economic message. In the end, the economy and national security, not the culture war, are the most important things. It is worth noting for both sides that just because someone is on the other side of the culture war, it does not mean he or she is a bad person with concerns that are not worth listening to. We are all Americans, and we are all struggling through this difficult time. The Democrats need to be the party of all people, including, but not limited to, African Americans, Hispanics, LGBT people, Immigrants, Asians, and bicoastal urban and suburban liberals. As someone who in many ways is the epitome of an out-of-touch, East Coast liberal, I say it is time for the Democrats to emerge from their bubble and start reconnecting with all Americans, regardless of what their opinions are.