Can This Donkey Be Saved?

The Democratic Party is in trouble at every level of government. Seven smart, terrified liberals ask each other how to fix it.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images.

Jon Ossoff’s failure to win the special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District last week set off panic and alarm about the future of the Democratic Party. Despite Donald Trump’s unpopularity, Republicans were able to emerge victorious from an expensive race that only served to underline division among Democrats, who wield very little power in Washington, and remain lagging at the state and local levels across America.

To discuss the future of the Democratic Party, Slate gathered together a group of smart people to discuss what has gone wrong and what the future of progressivism holds. Here’s a transcript of that conversation, edited and condensed for space and clarity, with Rebecca Traister, a writer at-large for New York magazine; Franklin Foer, a national correspondent for the Atlantic and author of the upcoming World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech; Jamelle Bouie, Slate’s chief political correspondent; Michelle Goldberg, a Slate columnist and New York Times contributing opinion writer; Osita Nwanevu, a Slate editorial assistant; and Jane Kleeb, the chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party.

Isaac Chotiner: Rebecca, you were just in Georgia and wrote about the race. What did being down there make you think about where the Democrats are headed?

Rebecca Traister: Broadly speaking, it was actually a wildly positive experience. I couldn’t turn around without meeting a 50-year-old suburban woman who’d never been politically engaged in her life. And now was not only politically engaged, but was being really smart and sophisticated both about approaches to voters and talking in new ways about complicated issues. Also, about identity and race and the racism of the community in which they’d grown up and how they’ve been sort of asleep to that for a long time. They were talking about their next meetings, what they were going to do next. It’s like they didn’t even pause. So, that left me feeling, optimistic about their future engagement in politics, which we obviously need. We obviously need people to be awakened.

Michelle Goldberg: The one thing that I think absolutely has to happen is that this grass-roots infrastructure that is springing up all over the place, somebody needs to go in and fund it. You know, it’s ridiculous. These women … I honestly don’t know how they’re doing it. Like, how you work full-time, have three kids, and seem to work 50 hours a week on a political campaign. No matter how energized they are, that’s not sustainable. It’s a waste for some of these women to keep doing jobs that they’re not passionate about when they could be increasing the level of organizing. One of the women I wrote about, Jessica Zeigler, came up with what I think is a really clever way to reach millennials who aren’t reachable—canvassing methods.* Somebody should be paying her to do that in every precinct in Georgia, and I think she would jump at the chance to do that. My fear is that funders are either going to concentrate their money nationally in some of the kind of New York and D.C.–based resistance organizations, and it’s not going to get to these places where they could really make a lot of use of it.

Jane Kleeb: For me, what happened in Georgia was a much kind of bigger magnifying glass on the fact that for the last decade, big donors with the Democracy Alliance etc., have been funding all the kind of outside independent groups, the advocacy organizations, and starved the state parties of resources. All of the talent has left the state parties because there’s no money to fund staff positions and there’s no permanent infrastructure, which is what state parties are supposed to be. So pouring a bunch of money in a six-month period is not going to win elections.

Franklin Foer: There’s an interesting sociological divide between Democrats and Republicans. A lot of Democrats have been passing along Jane Mayer’s book about the Kochs, which tells the story of how Republican conservatives set out to remake state legislatures and had this multidecade grand strategy for that. But Democratic donors, who don’t have the same direct economic interests in transforming state government because they don’t run businesses whose bottom lines are affected by decisions that get made on the state level, have simply ignored states as being kind of an unsexy place to invest money. So Democrats are simply decades behind when it comes to competing at this very essential level, which determines so much of American politics.

Jamelle Bouie: There’s probably something a little ideological there too, right? I’m not sure that liberal donors and Democrats necessarily think deeply about federalism and about what one can do with the mechanisms and levers of state power. It’s all very reactive in a way that isn’t true of the Kochs, and isn’t true of the larger kind of hard-right libertarian ideological movement, that sees a lot of value in state government as a testing ground for ideas and modeling the way they want the larger country to be. I think you also see this in the recurring conversations among rank-and-file liberals. It’s always about presidential candidates. It’s always about who can be a national leader and rarely about who can be an effective leader on the state level, much less legislative leaders.

Michelle Goldberg: A lot of people I talked to didn’t know this was a right-wing strategy. They just suddenly had this kind of flash of light, that “We need to do something. This is where we can start. This is the oatmeal. This is where we can kind of exercise power given that we have none federally.”

Rebecca Traister: And that was something that I also heard echoed again and again. The people I was talking to were—they were all obsessed with small local elections, and they were explaining to me, in great detail, why that was the path forward.

Isaac Chotiner: I want to change gears a little bit. Jamelle wrote a piece looking at survey data about why Trump won. What was your takeaway from those surveys, and how much hope or lack of hope do you think it portends for the Democrats going forward?

Jamelle Bouie: Two analyses were drawn from a larger survey, which is being called the Voter Study Group. It’s drawing people from across the ideological spectrum to look at this data, which is drawn from around an 8,000-strong sample of people surveyed in 2011, 2012, and 2016, which makes it really useful for trying to figure out why people who said they voted for Obama in 2012 then voted for Trump or said they intended to vote for Trump in 2016. For the two analyses I focused on, one looked at the most salient issues in the election for Obama and Trump voters in particular and those were what John Sides, who did the analysis, referred to as identity and culture issues: basically, how people felt about immigration, how they felt about Muslims and how they felt about black people. So those who voted Obama in 2012 and then Trump in 2016 felt most negatively about those three groups. Those were highly salient issues for them.

The second analysis by Lee Drutman, another political scientist, looks at Obama to Trump voters as well, but he separates the electorate into four groups based off of stated issue positions among the survey takers. You have liberals, who are on the economic left and the cultural left. You have conservatives, who are on the conservative right and the economic right and cultural right. You have libertarians, who are on the cultural left and the economic right. Then you have populists, who in Drutman’s categories, are the reverse of libertarians—they’re on the economic left and the conservative right. The story I think that that is telling, and this is debatable, is that what happened in the campaign for this populist category, is that they value government programs in the economy. They want government intervention, they give high value to Medicare and Social Security and programs like that. They also don’t like Muslims very much, don’t like immigration very much, and aren’t too happy about black people. In past elections, or at least in ’08 and 2012, if you were in that category of voter it was actually a little difficult to figure out who you were going to vote for. Most of these people voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, but a substantial minority voted for Barack Obama. My thinking there is that when you have a more ordinary ideological contest, these voters have to make a choice about what they value more. Do they value their government assistance and a strong government hand in the economy? Or do they value their cultural identity resentments?

What Donald Trump did was match Clinton on the left on economic policy, at least rhetorically. So, if she proposed a $600 billion infrastructure program, Trump proposed a $1 trillion one. She said she would improve the health care system. Trump said he would, too. He also talked a lot about jobs and factories and vocally activated identities and showed signals of this is someone who cares about my economic standing. Here was a candidate offering both. And that I think was effective for Trump. The question is whether it would be effective in 2020, and I’m not sure because by then, Trump will be defending a standard-issue Republican economic program. So that knocks out one element of his appeal.

Osita Nwanevu: The Drutman study is deeply interesting. The longitudinal study I’m interested in seeing is the Obama-to-Nobody voters, of which there were millions and there are in every election. Voter turnout is not actually substantially down from 2012. But it was down enough in places like Wisconsin, particularly amongst African American minority voters, to really make a difference. This is like a long-term structural problem that the Democratic Party has and there’s reason to believe that a lot of nonvoters lean more Democratic. The issue is how to actually bring those people in. I think that’s a more interesting question than how we win back some of the people who are motivated by immigration or welfare, just because I don’t know that the conversations that we have on those issues lead us in a positive direction on policy.

Jane Kleeb: I worked on the youth vote for a lot of years at the Young Democrats of America, and one of the biggest problems that we had, even within the Democratic Party actually investing in programs in the youth vote, is they would always come back to us and say, “They don’t vote.” It’s this whole cycle of neglect. So young people don’t vote, so therefore they’re not invested in and they’re not included in targeted mailings and they’re not included in targeted TV ads and canvassing. They’re left off walk lists, so then they don’t vote and it’s this whole cycle. We proved, right, that when you target young people with a peer-to-peer program, targeting them where they hang out as well as at their doors, that they actually do vote because they’re just like any other voter. You have to talk to them multiple times, remind them of the election date, remind them of where their polling location is in order to get them to vote. So it becomes a habit.

Rebecca Traister: Michelle mentioned the efforts of Jessica Zeigler to reach young millennials by going to high schools. One of the interesting tensions happening in Georgia, which obviously is a very small example of this, was that a lot of the activist groups, a lot of the newly politicized volunteers and organizers, were sort of asking these basic questions that we’re talking about here. Which is, “Wait. We’re canvassing every day. There’s millions of us out here on the street. Why are we knocking on the same doors over and over again?”

This speaks to exactly this conversation. If we’re not going to have these campaigns where we’re just going back trying to persuade people who are vaguely in the center—if we’re going to actually expand the Democratic base and thereby be able to run candidates who can be more unapologetically open about the kind of policies that they want to support, that involves remaking a base. But that’s very expensive and it’s very difficult.

Michelle Goldberg: I agree that this is, from a policy perspective, the best way forward because otherwise you end up just kind of—

Osita Nwanevu: Kicking out immigrants.

Michelle Goldberg: I think people who weren’t around in the ’90s, forget that everything that we hate about Bill Clinton was done to appeal to the white working class, and it worked. Right? That’s the kind of direction you end up going if you are just primarily concerned with winning elections by winning back Obama-to-Trump voters. The other thing that I think is important to remember is that every single insurgent progressive candidate says they’re going to win by bringing in new voters. I mean, I’ve never seen a race where that is not the claim, and I’ve never seen a race where that worked.

Osita Nwanevu: I mean, part of this isn’t just building out the things by bringing in new people. For instance, if you look at the numbers in metropolitan Detroit, the shift from 2012 to 2016. Clinton lost 75,000 voters. It’s not just a matter of whether they’re not finding new African American voters that haven’t been reached before: It was literal people who they had reached before not coming out, who had before. And voter ID and voting restrictions are obviously a huge part of that in some states.

Isaac Chotiner: Frank, you wrote a big story in the Atlantic this month about what the Democratic Party’s future should be. How does your thesis fit into this conversation?

Franklin Foer: I think the Democrats have a fairly comprehensive problem, which is that everything that we just described is true. They’ve underperformed in various states with African Americans and Latino voters. Especially, I think, in North Carolina and in some other places in the South. Numbers should be much, much higher than they are. What is the Democratic Party’s problem? No. 1 is that it’s not simply their failure to win the presidency. They’ve had a terrible couple of years when it comes to every single branch of elected government.

My piece tends to focus on the question of whether the white working class, white noncollege voters that we’re talking about, are reachable, or whether racism and xenophobia has put them forever beyond the Democratic Party. Is there the possibility of recovering at least some of those voters with an economic message? My conclusion was essentially pretty similar to what Jamelle found. There’s at least some hope for recovering those voters with the populist message and it doesn’t need to be a comprehensive win with those groups. It just needs to be enough to keep the margins to a tolerable level of defeat, which is what Obama managed to do in both of his elections. My hope is for some sort of economic populism. Populism itself is a very difficult concept for the Democratic Party because the Democrats are simply not where the Trump voters are on a lot of economic issues. They’re much more internationalist, they generally support free trade.

I thought there was some sort of potential in the populism that Elizabeth Warren has been developing because Warren’s populism is really a populism that seeks to make capitalism work by going after big concentrations of economic power. She started to rail against not just Wall Street, but the problem of monopoly more generally. There’s a bit of a libertarian edge to a lot of what she talks about that I think has huge potential appeal. Because one of her big criticisms of business is that business exploits government in order to beat back competitors, in order to trample consumers. She’s tapping in to this very traditional American political rhetoric about competition, about liberty, about freedom. In that are the seeds of populism that could help stanch some of the losses that the Democrats have had with the white working class.

But I think a lot of the questions about the Democratic future are based on a somewhat false dichotomy about choices that they need to make because, of course, part of the reason why its own base didn’t show up in the numbers they would’ve hoped for in various parts of the country is that they too perceived Hilary Clinton as a defender of the status quo. They were uninspired by her economic message.

Michelle Goldberg: Can I ask you, how much do you think that this is about her economic message as opposed to the more ephemeral questions of charisma and inspiration? It seems that when we’re in the midst of a defeat, we always try to sort of reverse engineer it and say they’ve taken this policy or that policy. But it seems like there’s often something much more mysterious going on in what creates a mass following and what gets people. I’m inclined to think that the Democratic nominees should just be whoever seems to be the flashiest. Maybe it should be like Mark Ruffalo or something. I say that sarcastically, but it should be somebody with star power.

Isaac Chotiner: Maybe George Clooney, Michelle.

Franklin Foer: I believe that Jim Comey, Vladimir Putin, misogyny, all these things ultimately probably made the difference in the campaign. I think that it’s a mistake to focus too much on Hillary Clinton as our central object of study when we’re talking about the Democratic Party. Clinton won the popular vote, and if any number of very limited circumstances had gone the other way, would be the president of the United States, and we wouldn’t be in this position. But I do think that the Democratic problem, like I said, is much more comprehensive than that. The problem is that the Democrats don’t control any branch and that they’ve gotten creamed so roundly. Again, the margins are not huge, so the problem isn’t quite existential, but I do think it’s substantive and beyond any flaws Hillary had as a candidate.

Jane Kleeb: Let’s just talk about Barack Obama for a minute, because he wasn’t necessarily progressive or populist. Depending on whose ruler you’re using, he’s pretty much a moderate. And yet he provided the sense of hope and vision for the country that people wanted to be part of and wanted to get out and vote for. We saw people, obviously nonvoters, voting. And some people who voted for Trump were Obama voters.

Whatever candidate is going to be running in 2020 for Democrats, they have to have big ideas for little people. They do definitely have to have charisma, there’s no question about it. That star power is critical when you’re getting through the masses of people and cutting through all the other kind of daily parts of people’s lives. I think you really have to be talking about very concrete things that people can get their hands around, like expanding public education so there’s universal pre-K as well as two years of community college. I think we have to go back to the kitchen table issues.

Osita Nwanevu: I think there’s a difference between putting forward a policy agenda and crafting a vision or crafting a particular narrative that can appeal to people. It’s very easy to say that Democrats should adopt A, B, and C kitchen table issues. But like, wrapping that into something that reads to people as big ideas rather than a set of policies, sort of wonky solutions, I think, is a difficult kind of task. I think that you need something to weave a progressive agenda together. I’ve been looking into these questions of nationalism. There was a large debate right after the election about the extent to which nationalism makes sense as a means to which politicians should trim politics, particularly on the right. I think that one of the major sources of distrust between a lot of these white working-class voters, for instance, and Democratic candidates is that there’s a mistrust of the extent to which Democrats like America. Or the extent to which Democrats see themselves as part of the American ideal and project.

Jamelle Bouie: It’s funny because Barack Obama had that. Right? Part of where I think there’s a real problem, that I don’t know there’s an answer for, is that at a certain point—and Obama did this—that nationalist message, in order to find a receptive audience around a sufficient number of white voters, does have to give short shrift to everyone else. One of the things I think is underappreciated about Obama, and not in a good way, is that in 2008 he deliberately positioned himself as not like the other black leaders: I am not like Al Sharpton. I am not like Jesse Jackson. I am not like Bobby Rush. I am not like any of those guys. I do not speak like them. I do not come out of the same tradition as them. Critically, I do not hold you, White America, as particularly responsible or guilty for anything.

You can get away with that, rhetorically, on one level. But there does come a point where it is in direct conflict with a broader policy agenda. The way I sometimes put this is that, the kind of redistribution you might need to better alleviate racial inequality, is precisely the kind of redistribution that really angers white voters across the class spectrum. You can kind of get around that a little bit. You can kind of finagle that somewhat, but as Obama found, eventually the African American voters who supported you are going to start asking you about it. As Obama did, you might have to say, “Listen, I’m president for America, not for black America.” That is a real tension that I don’t know how one resolves. It’s a hard question. Like everyone wants to say that you don’t have to choose. In an analytical sense, you don’t. But in terms of hard politics, there is a tension there. And Obama resolved it by basically saying, “You can trust me. I’m a black guy you can like.”

Franklin Foer: Do you think that there was a realistic political alternative to that in the end? And second of all, what exactly was the policy cost of him doing that?

Jamelle Bouie: I don’t know if there’s a realistic political alternative. As I said before I started this whole riff, I have no answer for this. So much of the things I find disappointing about Obama on a policy level are kind of like, a level of timidity which, especially in the first year, probably exists regardless. It’s just part of who he is. It’s one of these where I’m not sure there’s any version of Barack Obama that would’ve been more aggressive on something. But you can kind of imagine an Obama who’s aggressive about keeping homeowners from losing their homes. You can imagine this Obama being a lot more aggressive in general, willing to go the extra mile for homeowners of color who really kind of got completely crushed by the housing collapse.

Franklin Foer: I feel like the question that you’re framing is kind of the core, which is that Democrats historically get hammered on the question of redistribution because it becomes racialized among a lot of voters. So the questions is: Is there a way for Democrats to escape that cycle? I do think that there is this debate right now on the left, whether there’s a way to kind of go from a redistribution to a pre-distribution model, to emphasize questions about fairness over questions of redistribution, which I find to be rhetorically a pretty compelling way to go, just simply because it manages to extricate Democrats from a lot of the traps that they get stuck in. I do think fairness, if it’s positioned this sort of way, does have this potentially much broader sort of appeal.

Isaac Chotiner: Do you think the party’s message about Trump so far has been right, and do you think the message needs to change in any way? Because I do think the next four years are largely going to be fought over this guy and who he is and what he’s doing and his personality, regardless of what Democrats are talking about.

Rebecca Traister: I don’t think the party’s done a great job of opposing Trump. I think the Democrats have been extremely lily-livered, and here I’m talking about congressional action and the level of aggression and outrage they should be expressing. But it’s complicated. I’m also feeling right now a keen sense of not knowing the answers. My sense is: Look, opposing Trump works to some degree because I’ve heard, especially in the wake of Ossoff’s loss, a lot of diagnosis that is like, “Look that doesn’t work. It’s not good enough. It doesn’t win us the election.” But there was also a massive swing motivated in part by the election of Donald Trump and the horror of the health care plan. That produced a movement in a district that had gone by 24 points for Tom Price to 5 points for Karen Handel.

Jane Kleeb: Sometimes people say, “Hey. Obviously hitting Trump isn’t working.” As you just heard, it does work and we need to keep on hitting Trump and we can’t stop there. We have to create a message of our own and some big ideas that people want and feel very deeply connected to.

Franklin Foer: When Donald Trump was elected, Democrats thought that he possessed magical powers because none of them foresaw his election. There was a moment after his election when Democrats were just so dazed that there was a possibility that they would actually extend a hand to Trump and cooperate with him. I think pressure from the resistance prevented that from happening, and it shook the lapels of the Democratic Party to such extent that it actually, I think, has done a relatively magnificent job of resisting Donald Trump for the most part in terms of stymieing him, in terms of keeping him on the defensive. I don’t think the attack on Donald Trump is quite adequate for the Democrats because the Democrats suffer from a Donald Trump problem but they also suffer from their own—God, I hate the word, but let’s use it and you can smack me afterwards—a “brand” problem, which is that people don’t especially like the Democratic Party.

The necessity is to be able to find a way to leverage their war with Trump into something that helps build themselves up. That leads to a critique of the system that they can then, in turn, present themselves as the salvation for. If the attack on Trump focuses on him as being a corrupt maniac, which is all true, it’s probably not enough to help build a Democratic Party for the future.

Correction, July 10, 2017: This article originally misspelled Jessica Zeigler’s last name. (Return.)