The Four Major Questions Facing the Democratic Party

Democrats might win the midterms. Will they lose the future?

Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer confer.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in Washington on May 10.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Both progressives and moderate Democrats are crowing over the results from Tuesday’s primaries. Stacey Abrams, a progressive endorsed by Bernie Sanders and the group Our Revolution, defeated former state Rep. Stacey Evans to become the first female black gubernatorial candidate for a major party in history. In Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District, Amy McGrath beat establishment candidate Jim Gray, the mayor of Lexington. But in Texas’ 7th District, progressive underdog Laura Moser was handily beaten by Lizzie Fletcher, who was backed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Last week’s primaries were less of a mixed bag for the party’s left. A slew of establishment incumbents were defeated in Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Idaho, and Oregon by progressives, including Pittsburgh’s Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee, two members of the Democratic Socialists of America, and John Fetterman, a Bernie Sanders–endorsed candidate for lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania.* The Washington Post’s James Hohmann announced the next day that “The far left is winning the Democratic civil war,” while noting that the victories by far-left candidates are “causing a new bout of heartburn among party strategists in Washington who worry about unelectable activists thwarting their drive for the House majority.”

Those strategists can and have pointed to victories by Doug Jones, Ralph Northam, and Conor Lamb as evidence that moderate candidates have a better shot of winning the competitive races the party needs to reclaim the House—and possibly the Senate—in November’s midterms. The party’s left wing generally retorts that a number of progressives did well in last year’s legislative elections in Virginia, which saw remarkable wins from candidates like Danica Roem, a transgender woman, and Lee Carter, a self-described socialist.

This infighting has coincided with the heightening of the ideological debate dividing the two wings of the party. Potential 2020 contenders Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren have all taken the 2016 Democratic primary and general election results as signs the party—or at least they themselves—should move left, and have brought single payer, the idea of a job guarantee, marijuana legalization, and antitrust policy, among other ideas, firmly into mainstream discourse. Veteran party operatives and a number of centrist commentators have, of course, pushed back hard.

Analyses of these debates—about the party’s very near-term and long-term future—are often a bit muddled. This is partly because pundits tend to focus on the elections at hand and often overlook the impact particular electoral strategies might have on Democratic policymaking over the course of years or decades.

There are at least four related but distinct questions facing the party, each worth considering independently, which are routinely congealed together by commentators.

What do Democrats need to do to win November’s midterm elections?

Results of the races that have taken place since the 2016 election don’t provide a straightforward answer here. Democrats in general have outperformed Hillary Clinton and past special election results just about everywhere, and they retain an advantage in generic ballot polling. Both moderate and progressive candidates have done well, and all signs point to a Democratic wave, driven to a large extent by anti-Trump animus, that will lift Democratic candidates of all stripes. Moderates will probably have an easier time winning in more conservative parts of the country, but the progressive victories we’ve seen should encourage the party’s left and party leaders to think more ambitiously about who and where Democrats can run successfully.

What do Democrats need to do to win in 2020?

Trump’s present unpopularity suggests he’ll have his work cut out for him getting re-elected in 2020. Of course, Democrats, believed his election was all but impossible in the first place in 2016. They were wrong, and Trump will have the critical advantage of incumbency the next time around. The Democratic nominee in 2020 will have to avoid the mistakes made by the Clinton campaign. States like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania can’t be taken for granted. The party will additionally have to figure out how to both slow the bleeding among white working-class voters and elevate minority, and particularly black turnout, which fell off from 2012 in critical areas. The most widely discussed strategy, making a sharp turn away from identity politics, neglects that last part of the equation. Any white working-class votes recaptured that way might come at the expense of minority voters the party absolutely needs to win and bring to the polls.

Alternatively, advancing an attention-grabbing policy agenda compelling to both groups will likely pay off. Clinton didn’t spend nearly enough of her time and resources advancing a clear economic message. A study published last year found that only 25 percent of the Clinton campaign’s television ads, including a mere 10 percent of its attack ads, were policy-focused. Every other presidential campaign since 2000 has devoted at least 40 percent of its television advertising to policy-focused messaging; the Trump campaign devoted 70 percent of its ads.

Polling on inequality and the government’s role on the economy suggests that economic populism could appeal to both minorities who’ve borne the brunt of economic stagnation in their communities for many years and however many white working-class voters might value a hand making ends meet more than the expression of cultural grievances. Advancing bold, easy-to-understand proposals like Medicare for All and a job guarantee would at the very least distinguish the next nominee from nominees past to voters—and nonvoters—interested in hearing something new from the party and political discourse more broadly.

What do Democrats need to do to build power against the Republican Party?

The answer to this question isn’t reducible to winning elections. Democrats can’t meaningfully challenge Republican hegemony across large swaths of the country without moving the electorate left, or, more accurately, finding a reliable voting base for Democrats among an electorate that is already more supportive of left-leaning policies than Democratic politicians and pundits generally assume. That support hasn’t translated reliably into electoral victories in part because liberals never built the kind of ideological infrastructure that grew and has sustained the American conservative movement. It was not at all obvious when Barry Goldwater was crushed by Lyndon Johnson in 1964—one of the largest presidential landslides in history—that contemporary American conservatism had a viable future in national politics. But political developments and the creation of a sprawling network of conservative think tanks, publications, activist, and interest groups in the 1970s gradually created a reliable right-wing constituency for conservative Republican candidates. Only 16 years passed between Goldwater’s crushing loss and Reagan’s election.

Democrats would be on better footing if they embarked on a similar project now. There are already many liberal activist groups, although they’re typically marshalled into action during election season or to achieve highly specific goals. Expanding support for liberalism or left and progressive principles would require constant organizing and engagement with voters. Unions used to have a significant role in Democratic organizing and a leftward influence on working-class politics. Both have waned with the decline of union membership, and the party should take a serious interest in reviving organized labor. The rise of groups like Indivisible and the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America in places far outside of deep-blue enclaves in the wake of 2016 have been highly promising. Their work won’t necessarily translate immediately to progressives winning in deep red parts of the country, but activists who hold events and engage members of their community regularly help build exposure and credibility for progressive ideas—as do serious progressive candidates, even when they lose.

What kinds of policy solutions should Democrats pursue for the problems facing this country?

One of the most important issues on the minds of American voters, according to polling, is still health care. This reflects the mixed legacy of the Affordable Care Act, whose positive impacts on access to health care have been undermined by design flaws and efforts by Republicans to dismantle the law’s key provisions. Obamacare embodies the difficulties of centrist policymaking, which tends to depend on Rube Goldberg mechanisms crafted as alternatives to the government taking a more simple, direct role in addressing problems. These solutions are tricky to design; given to complex, unanticipated design failures; and are often difficult for their intended beneficiaries to understand and take advantage of. Nearly a decade after its passage, Americans are still confused by the ACA’s subsidies and many are overpaying for insurance as a result, as a study covered by Jordan Weissmann reported last year:

Using the data from the National Health Interview Survey, the Michigan State and Urban Institute team estimated that 6.3 million nonelderly adults bought their insurance coverage outside Obamacare’s marketplaces in 2015. Almost 41 percent of them reported incomes between 100 and 400 percent of the poverty line—meaning they should have been tax credit eligible. Almost 19 percent earned less than 250 percent of the poverty line, meaning they would have qualified for special subsidized plans that lowered their out-of-pocket costs like deductibles and co-pays. But for some reason, they said no thanks. … It seems fairly obvious that some people are simply overpaying for coverage because they don’t know any better.

While having the government insure all or most of the population in a single-payer system would be costly and pose challenges in implementation, it’s conceptually a much simpler solution that might create fewer headaches for consumers and lower health care costs once in place, and there are successful and popular models abroad that the United States could draw from. Similarly, having the government simply give people jobs or send people cash are conceptually rather simple ways to address poverty and unemployment. These might seem like pie-in-the-sky ideas, but it’s well past time to consider whether it’s any less quixotic to believe that the deep problems of the American economy—rising inequality, stagnant wages, long-impoverished communities, a vast racial wealth gap, and more—can be solved by the same package of tax credits, job training, and cheapskate safety net policies the Democratic Party has been offering for more than a quarter-century now. It is moreover a certainty that the most urgent problem facing America and the world today—climate change—can only be addressed by significant and unprecedented state intervention in the economy.

In sum, Democratic leaders are probably right to believe that they can eke out marginal victories with moderate candidates in the near term. But the threat of a 2010 will follow every attempt to recreate 2006 and 2008, and an electoral strategy dependent on moderate and conservative candidates will undermine efforts to pass the policies Democrats will ostensibly want to win elections for in the first place, as was the case with the ACA and other fights early in the Obama administration. As it stands, the Democratic Party is likely to do well in November whether it adopts a long-term vision for itself and the country or not. Winning the midterms will be relatively easy. Winning the century will be harder.

Correction, May 23, 2018, at 7:25 p.m.: This post originally misstated that there was a Democratic primary last week in Nevada. It was in Nebraska.