Politics

The Democrats Are Leaderless. That Doesn’t Have to Be a Bad Thing.

Now’s their chance to resolve the internal argument over what the party should be.

The podium stands empty on stage during preparations for the Democratic National Convention at Time Warner Cable Arena on September 3, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Maybe a leaderless party isn’t such a bad thing. Above, the podium at 2012’s Democratic National Convention.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The Democratic Party was decapitated Tuesday night and is now leaderless. The plan for President Obama to serve eight years and then for Hillary Clinton to serve the subsequent eight ran into some trouble at halftime. Losing the presidency to Donald Trump is a disaster.

But being leaderless has its benefits. It clears the stage for all the arguments Democrats, as a party, never got around to resolving after the financial crisis—the conversations about what they wanted the party to be and to stand for. Don’t rush to find a new leader. Argue, and let the leader emerge out of that argument. Chances are, if the process is healthy, that the next leader will be someone no one expected.

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The connotation of leaderless party is entirely negative when it’s applied in media or political operative circles. To be “leaderless” in Washington is to be humiliatingly incapable of keeping your unruly masses in line. It symbolizes coalitional chaos, chaos being another word that’s even more overtly assumed negative.

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Chaos is what’s led the Republican Party in recent years, and all of this was assumed to be a crushing negative for the party’s future. Now we’re looking at a party that will control the vast majority of state legislatures and governors’ mansions along with the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the presidency. It is a complete reversal of where the party stood eight years ago, when it too was decapitated.

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Barack Obama took the presidency under circumstances he didn’t envision when he started running in 2007. A month-and-a-half before he was elected president, the global economy collapsed. It was so much more than the global economy that collapsed, though. Faith in the political establishment went with it. Democrats, just about to take the presidency, had little time to properly reckon with this. They had to clean up the mess. Republicans, those lucky duckies, had time to process the shock and digest it. They had the time to destroy their party establishment and build something new. The story of Tuesday was expected to be that the Republicans’ destruction of their own establishment was an ongoing, unresolved process with savage electoral consequences: that they would lose a presidential election they should’ve won. When all the numbers were counted, though, we learned a different and extraordinarily consequential story: The Republican rebuilding was complete.

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It’s a crap situation for Democrats now, and there’s no way to make it feel better. Take no solace in the popular vote win. It doesn’t matter, except as a metric for how geographically screwed Democrats are, and there is a zero percent chance that the Electoral College will be eliminated. The new Republican electorate, even when led by a candidate as flawed as Donald Trump, has proven itself the stronger coalition to win on the state and federal levels. (Are we still thinking he was a flawed candidate, by the way? There’s another assumption we’ll have to toss on the long list of Things to Revise.)

The silver lining of this Democratic crap-storm isn’t that Clinton racked up a really big margin in California to put her over the top in a meaningless metric. The silver lining is that, as a leaderless party, it’s free now to debate what it wants to be in the post–financial crisis era just as Republicans did after 2008. This release of suppressed emotions began during the primary between Sanders and Clinton, but the post-primary need to stop Donald Trump bottled them up again, and the fight was never resolved. Should the Democratic Party seek to be the “sane” party that offers modifications to liberal capitalism, or should there be—say—a “political revolution”? Should Democrats try to inch the ball forward on policy goals in the existing paradigm or eschew immediate gains to blow up that paradigm altogether? The fight is going to resume now, and how. The arguments of the primary are going to look like an Up With People halftime show compared with what’s about to go down. It’s going to be messy. People are going to get so pissed. It’s going to be embarrassing. It’s going to be great.

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We’re not a parliamentary system in which a party always has a leader, and so there’s no need for Democrats to rush to find one. It’s not Elizabeth Warren’s party or Bernie Sanders’ party or Nancy Pelosi’s party or Chuck Schumer’s party. No single figure has a lock on the Democratic Party right now. No one person meaningfully synthesizes its competing components or has properly negotiated the coalition that can win up and down the ballot across the country. It’s a jump ball. Get rowdy, break things, and make your claim.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.

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