The Democratic Party is in deep trouble: The big question that Bernie Sanders is at least trying to answer

Aside from holding the White House, Democrats are struggling nationwide. Here's the reason why—and what they can do

Published October 20, 2015 5:45PM (EDT)

  (AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Jim Cole/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Jim Cole/Photo montage by Salon)

Much of the American left is currently focused on the Democratic Party’s presidential primary in general, and the contest between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, in particular. But according to Vox’s Matt Yglesias, this laser-focus on the White House is a big mistake.

Democrats have been lulled into a kind of “complacence,” Yglesias warns, by a combination of President Obama’s late-term successes and the spectacular dysfunction of the Congressional GOP. In spite of being weaker on the state- and local-level than it’s been since perhaps the 1920s, the Democratic Party has “nothing at all in the works to redress [its] crippling weakness down the ballot.” It is one presidential election away from handing Republicans “the overwhelming preponderance of political power” in the U.S.

For anyone who believes the Republican Party today is “an insurgent outlier” that’s become too ideologically extreme and comically inept to wield absolute power, Yglesias’ article is a rude awakening. And, in fairness, some have argued that his vision of the future is overly grim. (Ed Kilgore, for example, says that holding the White House, as Democrats seem well-positioned to do, is “pretty damn important.”) Still, it’s hard to imagine how the left makes real progress with the presidency alone.

Yglesias’ post is more about diagnosing the problem — and spurring Democrats and leftwing activists to pay it more attention — than offering a solution. Which is fine; the first step toward fixing something is recognizing that it’s broken. But if the Democratic Party wants to truly be relevant in American politics, from top-to-bottom, it’s going to need something that it lacks but which the GOP has in abundance: A vibrant, energized, and well-organized activist base.

Yglesias talks about Republicans being more ideologically “flexible” than they’re given credit for, citing their willingness to downplay their social conservatism when campaigning in traditional Democratic strongholds like Maryland or the industrial Midwest. But I’m skeptical of that explanation. I don’t think the hangup for Democrats is that “No U.S. state is so left-wing [that] business interests are economically or politically irrelevant.” Ironically, the problem is both more and less complicated.

Simply put, while Republicans have big money at the top, they have passionate rank-and-file support at the bottom, too. They have corporate overlords like the Koch brothers, sure. But they’ve also got “boots on the ground” to make calls, knock on doors, and pass around campaign literature. They’ve got rank-and-file NRA members, whose passion and single-mindedness is legendary. And they’ve got millions and millions of evangelical Christians and other religious conservatives, all of whom approach political contests as if they were spiritual crusades.

Not everyone within the GOP is the same, of course. And as the struggles between Tea Party extremists and Chamber of Commerce conservatives show, Republicans’ internal divisions can get mighty nasty. But even when they’re at each other’s throats, most Republicans on every side think of themselves as conservatives. They generally want the same things: the maintenance of a “traditional” social order, fewer regulations and, above all else, low taxes. When they differ, in other words, it’s usually not about ends but rather means.

The Democratic coalition, on the other hand, is more diverse — not just demographically, but also ideologically. The party is the traditional home for American liberals, and it promotes many policy positions we’d describe as being “left,” especially on sex and gender. But it’s only very recently that most Democrats began to self-identify as “liberal” rather than “moderate”; and many of the party’s key players come from the self-consciously centrist niches of business. Instead of telling the people to rise up, they encourage them to lean in.

This influences how the party functions in myriad ways, but one of the most consequential pertains to organized labor. And this is the one, not incidentally, whose impact is felt most acutely on Election Day. When organized labor was stronger, it provided Democrats with a grassroots complement to the GOP’s gun rights and religious groups. To this day, in fact, organized labor is an integral part of the Democrats’ get-out-the-vote operations. They couldn’t win without them.

But organized labor in the U.S. is weaker than it’s been in over a century, if not longer; and as Democrats have tried to make up for labor’s diminishment by wooing socially liberal elements of the business class, they’ve made a more robust and unified defense of labor rights much more difficult. Today’s Democratic Party remains far more solicitous to organized labor than today’s Republican Party, to be sure. But the party’s relationship with labor is fraught and increasingly anachronistic. Their offer to slow labor’s decline only looks good because the other option is complete annihilation.

So because labor is weak, the Democratic Party cannot keep up with the GOP in races where institutional strength and organization can make the difference. Republicans can rely on churches and the NRA to make sure the GOP candidate wins the local county board race (or whatever). In low-profile races, the kind that embody Max Weber's dictum that politics is the “strong and slow boring of hard boards,” Democrats can’t keep up.

That’s the quandary that confronts the party on the local level and in the states. And it’s a question that many of the party’s leaders — Sen. Bernie Sanders and his “political revolution,” excluded — haven’t even tried to answer.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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