Despite being so notoriously difficult to get right, predictions are part of the pundit’s stock-in-trade. So once you’ve got some grains of salt ready to toss into the mix, please indulge me for a moment as I make one of my own.
Here it goes: Twenty years from now, assuming climate change has not yet ended the world as we know it, most American liberals won’t think of this fall as the time when Republicans finally retook control of the U.S. Senate. And they won’t think of it as the brief pause that separated the era of Barack Obama from that of Hillary Clinton. Instead, when the liberals of our near future look back on the current moment, they’ll remember it as the hour when the Democratic Party began to move decisively to the left, thanks in no small part to the continued ascendance of Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Pessimist that I am, I’ll readily grant that this is very optimistic. In fits and starts, the party’s been moving leftward for a number of years now, and I’ve little doubt that the midterm blowout will be cited by some as proof that Democrats must become even more centrist. Yet unlike the talk surrounding a historically ignored election, which will dissipate quickly (especially if I’m right about the return of government-by-crisis), the opportunity raised by the Democratic Party’s recent decision to make Warren part of its Senate leadership has the potential to be far more enduring. But only if liberal activists know what to do with it.
At this point, it’s not entirely clear what the folks nominally in charge of this infamously disorganized party are trying to do by elevating Warren. Because the former Harvard Law professor has been prominent in liberal circles since the launch of her brainchild, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, it can be easy to forget that she’s only been in Congress for a couple of years. And coming as it does after a truly disastrous midterm showing, this seeming vote of confidence from Democratic bigwigs has the risk of being a “glass cliff” situation. My former colleague Brian Beutler, for example, has guessed that Senate Dem leadership may have opted to bring Warren into the fold because they’ll need a popular spokeswoman to deliver the next two years’ worth of bad news to the “professional left.”
Still, even if Warren’s promotion isn’t motivated entirely or primarily by idealism and generosity, it could nevertheless be a major turning point for activists looking to push the Democratic Party in a more left-wing direction. After many years of kvetching about their paltry influence — and following decade after decade of enviously watching the conservative movement refashion the GOP in its own image — lefty ideologues and organizers now have the chance to turn Warren into a kind of trojan horse for a resurgent politics of economic populism (or, as it used to be called, liberalism). And if they adapt and adhere to the script used many years ago by visionary right-wingers, who famously responded to an electoral drubbing in 1964 by staying the course and propelling a true believer to the White House less than 20 years later, it just might work.
It’s not a perfect analogy, I admit. There are fundamental, irresolvable differences between liberals and conservatives, and they extend well beyond ideology and into the realms of psychology and sociology. (Liberals are less hierarchically minded, more demographically diverse.) Further, in spite of all the mythology about conservative movement turning the GOP into the “party of ideas,” the fact is that the men (and women, but mostly men) who transformed the party of Lincoln into the chief vehicle of the Reagan Revolution spent much more time talking about and organizing around what they were against — taxes, the welfare state, the civil rights movement, feminism, LGBT equality, the separation of church and state, etc. — than what they were for. And while there are certainly some recent Supreme Court decisions they’d like to see reversed, a politics centered around a return to the glorious past is, for liberals, not really an option.
But notwithstanding all of that, I still think the conservative example offers activist liberals unhappy with the Obama record --which is most of them -- some valuable lessons.
For one, if left-wing troublemakers want to make Sen. Warren a Goldwater of their own, they’ll have to ignore the 2016 presidential race as much as possible. That doesn’t simply mean giving up on the lost cause of forcing Wall Street favorite Hillary Clinton to reinvent herself as a true progressive. And it certainly doesn’t mean wasting resources on a quixotic primary challenge, which in the present circumstances will do little more than help Clinton get back in the swing of triangulation. Instead, it means building institutional support from the bottom up by creating funding networks and community spaces outside of the Democratic Party’s reach, so lefties can feel personally invested in their cause without having D.C. grandees step in and tell them to be “serious.” That’s what right-wing activists did through churches, think tanks and mailing lists; and the often successful Internet-based organizing from people at Daily Kos and the Blue America PAC has already offered a hint of how those on the left can do it again.
For another, the conservative precedent suggests that even if policy is overrated when it comes to deciding the outcome of elections, it’s extremely important to be in control of the policymaking apparatus for the time that comes next. Our political culture may pay an inordinate amount of lip service to the idea that policy is a translated version of the people’s will, but the reality is that most partisans and politicians choose their policy views by following where their party leads them, not the other way around. Conservative dominance over the grants, scholarships and think tanks that comprised the GOP’s policymaking infrastructure was integral to the dramatic lurch to the right the party platform experienced between 1960 and 1976 (before Reagan’s coronation, you’ll note). And as the Tea Party’s recent takeover of influential right-wing policy shops like Cato and Heritage shows, the value of this approach has not over time been diminished. As Grover Norquist, one of the leading right-wing activists of his generation, noted in 2012, controlling the GOP policymaking machine made it so all conservatives needed in a Republican president was the ability to use a pen.
Last but not least, the success of right-wing activists from the past and present indicates that there can be long-term benefits in a short-term stint as the minority. To be clear, it’d be taking things too far to say that it’s a good thing Democrats now only control the White House. As the last four years have taught us, the powers of the imperial presidency don’t seem to extend very far into the realm of the domestic (at least not yet). So having a majority in Congress is vital, still. At the same time, there’s value, to a degree, in having a party with ideological coherence — increasingly so, I’d argue, in an era of institutional failure and partisan polarization. Most of the Democrats dissolved in the red tides of ’10 and ’14 were “blue dog” conservatives, and while their absence has stripped Democrats of control over Congress, it’s offered lefties within their ranks the chance to redecorate, as it were, now that the majority times have ended.
Perhaps more than anything else, though, what lefty activists should learn from their right-wing counterparts is this: In a dysfunctional two-party system such as ours, in which voters are perpetually unhappy and ready for any excuse to throw the bums out and start all over, it’s only a matter of time until the losers of yesterday are once again ascendant. And as the GOP has shown in the years since its back-to-back wipeouts in ’06 and ’08, responding to electoral defeat by moderating is no longer necessary, while moving further away from the center is no longer a death sentence. Now that they have a political superstar and ideological true believer as their behind-the-scenes agent, lefty activists with an eye on the long term have a chance to, in the words of Warren, “frame the issues for the next few elections” and ultimately make the Democratic Party truly progressive.