What next for Democrats?
“What next for Democrats in the US?” This was the question put by a small group of journalists at a private dinner to a Democratic Party grandee during a recent event in London. Insisting on Chatham House rules, that is to say not to be quoted by name, the grandee offered an expose aimed at dismissing the party’s setbacks, including the loss of the White House to Donald Trump, as a mixture of mishaps and bad luck.
But does the Democratic Party have a strategy for returning to power? “Whatever happens, demography favors us,” he quipped. What is meant by “demography” here is the salad-bar view of the US in which the nation is divided in a list of double-barrel identities. The assumption is that a majority of those with double-barrel labels will always vote Democrat.
Barack Obama called it his “rainbow coalition,” an alliance of African Americans, Hispanics, Jews, Arabs, Muslims, Native Americans and trans-genders that helped him triumph in two presidential elections. Last November, however, that alliance failed to mobilize to defeat Trump. The percentage of African Americans, Hispanics, Arabs and Jews who voted for the Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton was lower than it had been for Obama.
Counting on the “rainbow coalition,” Clinton neglected an important segment of the electorate, the blue-collar workers of the old industrial states known as the Rust Belt. Losing in those states ensured her defeat. The “demographic” analysis shows that Democratic Party strategists have become prisoners to what could be described as electoral arithmetic.
According to the “demographic” analysis, the white European segment of the US population, accounting for 69 percent of the total in 2016, will fall below 50 percent by 2030. In the largest state, California, that is already the case. Hispanics, representing the fastest-growing community, are likely to emerge as a majority in at least five states, while African Americans will enhance their demographic strength in eight others.
Thanks to that arithmetic, Tom Perez, a former member of Obama’s Cabinet, became the first Hispanic to be elected the Democratic Party’s national chairman last week. According to that arithmetic, Hispanics and most other minorities will always vote Democrat.
All the strategist has to do is ensure he collects enough votes from each segment of the electorate to capture the magical 50+1 key to power. He has no need for coherent policies, let alone an ideological anchor. All he needs is a candidate, a slogan and a tone.
This is why the last presidential election, in which some $1.5 billion was spent on campaigning, failed to handle a single major issue of American life from the prism of clearly spelled out policy proposals. All Trump had to do was repeat like a clocked-up automaton “make America great again,” while Clinton hoped to win only because she was not him.
For their part, the Republicans have tried to cast themselves as defenders of “true Americans,” that is to say precisely those who fear becoming a minority in their homeland. The result is a tribalization of US politics that could damage the nation’s democratic structures.
Rather than trying to out-beat Trump by beating on hollow drums of radicalism, Democrats need to move to center ground, recapturing the space lost under Obama’s erratic leadership. That requires more than electoral arithmetic.
Regional, ethnic and religious divisions have always played some role in US politics. For decades, the southern states were solidly Democrat in reaction to the War of Secession, which they lost to the northern states under a Republican president, and the subsequent martyrization by “Yankee” carpet-baggers.
From the 1960s onward, however, partly in reaction to reforms imposed by Democratic President Lyndon Johnson in favor of African Americans, the same states turned Republican. At the same time, the New England states — the original bastion of republicanism — morphed into Democratic electoral chips.
For decades, California was a Republican bastion, producing such figures as presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Now, however, having lost much of its white European middle class, it is a sure win for Democrats.
Reducing politics to a version of arithmetic resembles failure to see the wood for the trees. Over the past three decades, two parallel debates have dominated US politics. The first concerned social and lifestyle issues such as gender equality, sexual preferences, contraception, abortion, capital punishment, gun ownership, religious diversity and political correctness.
It is possible to suggest that on most issues the Democrats have won that debate. From the 1990s, the Republicans made the mistake of refusing to accept they had lost on those issues, alienating a larger segment of the electorate.
That refusal meant that since 1989, with the exception of George W. Bush winning his second term in 2004, no Republican has won the presidency with a majority of votes. Moreover, in the context of the Cold War, Republicans were cast as the party of war, although it had been Democrats who had engaged the US in all its wars since the early 1900s.
The second debate concerned economic issues in the context of globalization, which the US — promoting free trade and creating the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) mechanism — had pioneered since the end of World War II.
Initially, the Democrats adopted an anti-globalization posture that reflected the protectionist and socialistic trends they had always harbored on the margins since the 1930s with such figures as Norman Thomas and Upton Sinclair, a tradition partly revived by Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Under former President Bill Clinton, however, Democrats converted to globalization in a big way, as it benefited the economic, social and cultural elites that supported them. In the process, they ignored the damage that globalization was doing to the party’s traditional blue-collar urban base. They also went too far in their support of communitarianism, political correctness and the blame-America-first posture.
Trump won partly because a large number of Americans believe that multiculturalism and globalization have gone too far. However, Republicans would be wrong to assume that this means a desire to turn the clock back to the 1950s.
The Democrats cannot win by making a U-turn on multiculturalism and globalization, and by confronting Trump. What they need is a grand strategy of reform and readjustment, something eminently possible in a robust democracy.
Rather than trying to out-beat Trump by beating on hollow drums of radicalism, a la Sanders, Democrats need to move to center ground, recapturing the space lost under Obama’s erratic leadership. That requires more than electoral arithmetic.
• Amir Taheri was executive editor in chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at, or written for, innumerable publications and published 11 books.
— Originally published in Asharq Al-Awsat.