Since last year’s presidential election, progressives have consistently stated that President Donald Trump's election was not a victory for right-wing politics over progressive politics, but a victory for populism over the status quo. This, many have argued, is the key takeaway from 2016, which saw the Democratic Party lose control of all three branches of government, along with the majority of state legislatures and governorships.
Not surprisingly, the party establishment has yet to fully accept this verdict, and there remains an obstinate resistance to populism within the Democratic Party's ranks. Indeed, many continue to insist that the 2016 election was a disaster because Democrats were too progressive, rather than being too much in line with the Establishment.
This perspective was dealt yet another blow this week, however, when two relatively minor elections in the Northeast provided further confirmation that populism is the pragmatic way forward for Democrats.
The first was in New York's Long Island, where Christine Pellegrino, a progressive and Bernie Sanders delegate at last year’s Democratic National Convention, was elected to the New York State Assembly on Tuesday. The significance here is that just six months ago, Donald Trump won by a whopping 23 points in this Republican-leaning suburban district, where Pellegrino becomes the first Democrat to hold the Assembly seat, according to Newsday. In the Nation, John Nichols summed up this “Berniecrat” candidate and her successful populist campaign:
Pellegrino, a founding member of the group Long Island Activists, which was "born out of the Bernie Sanders movement," ran an edgy anti-corruption campaign that recognized the mood of voters who are frustrated with politicians of both major parties. [And] it worked. The progressive won 58 percent of the vote her conservative foe’s 42 percent.
The second noteworthy election for Democrats took place in New Hampshire, where Edie DesMarais became the first Democrat to win a state House seat in Wolfeboro, a longtime Republican stronghold in the rural swing state. “This successful effort is the first crack in the Republican majority, and the initial sign of Democratic energy translating into electoral victory in the aftermath of the 2016 election,” declared the New Hampshire branch of the Democratic Party on its official website.
At first glance these two local elections may appear inconsequential, but their implications should be clear enough. These Democratic victories in Trump country obviously signal that a big electoral backlash reminiscent of 2010 may be upon us and that Trump’s toxic brand is beginning to contaminate other Republican candidates. The president’s approval rating continues to drop to historic lows, and even his base — about 30 percent of the electorate, give or take — appears to be shrinking. The chaotic and scandal-ridden first months of Trump’s presidency have generated widespread discontent, and there is no telling how big Democrats could win in the 2018 midterm elections.
Of course, it would be quite a gamble for Democrats to rely solely on Trump’s repellent nature to propel them to victory next year. If we learned anything about political strategy from 2016, it is that going after a deplorable figure like Trump for being deplorable will only get you so far, and that victory is doubtful without a compelling message that appeals to the populist spirit of today. (Though many Hillary Clinton loyalists have maintained that her campaign had a strong and progressive message, consider this: The vast majority of Clinton campaign ads focused exclusively on personality rather than policy — more so than for any other candidate going back to at least 2000.)
No matter how unpopular Trump gets — and at this rate it wouldn’t be surprising if his approval rating in the future dips below Congress’ notoriously low rating — Democrats would be foolish to think they can revert to business as usual and still lead a successful resistance. If there is anything more anathema to the American electorate than the boorish president, it is the corrupt and arrogant Washington establishment.
The election of a Berniecrat like Pellegrino in a district that went overwhelmingly for Trump reveals the potential and popular appeal of left-wing populism. If the Democratic Party is smart, it will embrace Pellegrino’s style of politics. “Bold populism that puts working families’ issues front and center. This is how we win in Trump country,” declared Bill Lipton, the state director of the Working Families Party, on Tuesday while commenting on Pellegrino’s big win. “This is the lesson for Democrats around the country.”
Lipton’s views are supported by the facts. Progressive populism is the path to victory for Democrats in 2018 and 2020. And though populism on the right triumphed in 2016, more and more Americans are coming to see it as the political sham it is, without any real ideas about how to confront the problems we face today. With any luck, the disastrous Trump administration will serve to discredit reactionary populism for a generation. But anti-Establishment anger is unlikely to die down, as many Beltway insiders doubtless hope. As long as the government is dominated by big money and special interests, it seems likely that the Establishment will have to keep fending off popular revolt.
The week concluded with a special election for the sole congressional seat in Montana between Republican Greg Gianforte and progressive Democrat Rob Quist. The race entered the national spotlight after Gianforte assaulted a reporter for the Guardian the day before the election. (This unlikely had much of an impact, however, as 70 percent of votes were cast early.) Gianforte came out on top, winning a seat Republicans have held for 24 years and counting, but it took millions of dollars in outside spending, and his victory was hardly decisive compared with Trump’s 20-point win in the state last November. As the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's chairman, Rep. Ben Luján, put it after the election, “Republicans should be worried that they’ve had to dump so many dollars in to try to defend a district that they shouldn’t have had to spend a penny in.”
Trump was elected six months ago because he had the perfect opponent in Hillary Clinton, who personified the Washington establishment. Had the billionaire faced a genuine populist on the left, he would probably be at Trump Tower today, still tweeting impulsively about how the election had been rigged. This past week has signaled an approaching electoral backlash that could dwarf the Tea Party backlash of 2010.
But if Democrats hope to retake control of Congress and send Trump packing, they will have to do much more than point out the well-known character flaws of the president, and galvanize millions of Americans into taking action with a bold, populist and progressive platform.