Alabama hangover: Can a party with no ideas beat a party with no soul?

Riding an Alabama high, Democrats dream of a big comeback in 2018 and beyond. But is being "decent" really enough?

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published December 16, 2017 12:00PM (EST)

Donald Trump; Cory Booker (Getty/Nicholas Kamm/AP/Mel Evans/Salon)
Donald Trump; Cory Booker (Getty/Nicholas Kamm/AP/Mel Evans/Salon)

It’s easy to over-interpret this week’s political earthquake in Alabama, which was an anomalous situation that can’t be replicated anywhere else. But history is shaped by anomalies, and from the Republican Party’s point of view, this one wasn’t anomalous enough. Unless you believe there will be no future electoral contests between Republicans with right-wing fringe ideas and checkered personal histories, and Democrats who appear to be fundamentally decent and reasonable people.

What happened in November 2016 was anomalous too, shaped by dozens of seemingly marginal factors that wove themselves into a horrible harmony. As I was sternly reminded this week, during a conversation with former U.N. ambassador Samantha Power (and how’s that for name-dropping?), that history-shaping presidential election was decided by fewer than 90,000 votes spread across three states. The challenge for all observers — in seeking to understand Donald Trump and Roy Moore, to understand what happened in Alabama and what may happen in America — is to decide which factors are most important, and which you are willing to ignore.

When it comes to short-term prognosis, most observers are in agreement (which in itself is a dangerous thing). After Doug Jones’ surprise victory in the Alabama Senate race, and the Democratic sweep a few weeks ago in Virginia, the tide has clearly turned. Democrats feel the wind at their back heading into the 2018 midterms. Republicans take turns blaming each other for this series of debacles, and grimly ponder how much worse things will get. At this point strategists in both parties clearly believe that a Democratic House majority in 2019 is more likely than not, and that even a Senate majority is in play (although that remains a daunting task).

As a leading skeptic of the blue-wave hypothesis, I am now prepared to recant in public — up to a point. Just after the Virginia elections, a nationally known Democratic figure called me at home to tell me that my arguments were far too harsh, and that rebuilding the party was going much better than might be visible amid the superficial discord. That person may have been right. But unanswered questions remain: What sort of party is being rebuilt from the ruins of 2016? What does it stand for, and whom does it represent? Sen.-elect Doug Jones and prospective House Speaker Nancy Pelosi do not offer clear answers to those questions.

Difficult as this is to remember, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, even most Republicans expected to see Hillary Clinton elected president, quite likely with a Democratic Senate as well. Trump’s shocking victory served, if only temporarily, to paper over the profound dysfunction and confusion that almost everyone perceived at the heart of the Republican Party. In a similar fashion, the Democrats’ apparent reversal of fortune may salve their internal anguish and delay a moment of reckoning.

But even a wave election of historic proportions can’t change the fact that the Democratic Party of 2017 offers nothing approaching a coherent economic agenda, and pretty close to a howling vacuum on foreign policy. Sure, Democrats are against all kinds of things, including the GOP tax plan, Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Paris climate accords, and his man-crushes on authoritarian leaders around the globe. But are they in favor of single-payer health care and a $15 minimum wage, or not? Are they still committed to endless overseas war and dubious alliances, or open to a new era of diplomacy and restraint? Nobody knows, literally — especially not Democrats themselves.

It’s hardly breaking news that American politics has become almost entirely about short-term theater — who will win the next election — rather than about the less glamorous question of what the winners will do with power once they have it. That reflects two interlinked phenomena, which are really different aspects of the same phenomenon: Legislative politics in Washington have become hopelessly polarized and paralyzed, even as both parties have steadily declined in terms of public opinion and voter identification. Is it facetious to suggest that Republican and Democratic voters both dislike their own parties’ leaders nearly as much as they hate the supposed opposition? Only a little.

One way of framing the looming contests of 2018 and 2020 is to ask whether a party with no ideas can defeat a party with no soul. That sounds facetious too, but I don’t mean it that way. In fact, I don’t mean that question to sound as moralistic or prejudicial as it probably does. Maybe ideas and ideology don’t much matter in American politics, or at least don’t matter now. Donald Trump certainly doesn’t have any.

Trump has disoriented and reordered our political landscape, to say the least, and will be its polestar as long as he remains on the national stage. He has done the Democratic Party a huge favor by providing it with an organizing principle and even a raison d’être, both of which were severely lacking after the organizational decay of the Obama years and the catastrophe of the Clinton campaign.

What will happen to the Democrats (or the Republicans, for that matter) after Trump departs or is defeated? That’s anyone’s guess; I suspect his cackling visage, and the reality-distortion field that surrounds him, will haunt us long into the future. But it’s understandably difficult to convince anybody to care about that right now. In the wake of Alabama and Virginia, the Democrats’ near-term identity is clearly as the negative of a negative: They are the Not-Trump Party, the party that is not racist, not misogynist, not homophobic or transphobic or Islamophobic, not enclosed in a self-reinforcing universe of outrageous lies and paranoid conspiracy theories.

Maybe that’s enough for now, depending on what we mean by “enough” or “now.” In my “no blue wave” jeremiad earlier this year, I argued that running as the anti-Trump party was not much better than the Democrats’ conventional “we’re not as mean as the other guys” strategy of the last 20 years. In the absence of an ideological reassessment and clear policy goals, it offered neither a sure pathway to victory nor a blueprint for government. I may well have been wrong about the pathway-to-victory part. Furthermore, if the Democrats’ policy argument boils down to the proposition that they will manage national affairs competently and conscientiously, guided by tolerant and cosmopolitan values — well, OK, that has undeniable appeal right now.

In Doug Jones’ jubilant victory speech on Tuesday night, he said that the race between him and his cartoonishly monstrous opponent — a slavery apologist, far-right Christian nationalist and accused serial child molester — had been about “dignity and respect,” “the rule of law” and “common courtesy and decency.” Jones took the opportunity to wish his friends in the Jewish community a Happy Hanukkah, underscoring the point that he evidently knows actual Jewish people, not necessarily employed by him as attorneys.

He was right, of course: Those fundamental if inherently subjective questions of decency, morality and tolerance are why the Alabama race became the focus of such intense national attention, why some prominent national Republicans endorsed Jones (while many others retreated from Moore) and why a Democrat could win a special election in one of the reddest states in the nation. But decency isn't much of a political platform, as admirable a quality as it may be, especially for a party with no economic policy or foreign policy. (Roy Moore and his supporters surely believe they're upholding decency too, even if their definition of that word seems grotesque to the rest of us.)

I shared in the collective exultation of the Doug Jones moment, which contained or suggested all kinds of possibilities. Jones’ surprise victory came as a vindication for the women who had come forward to accuse Moore, and been vilified for doing so, and for millions of other women who identified with them. It was a huge win for Alabama’s African-American community and especially for black women, in a state and region where black voters have been ignored (or worse) by Republicans and taken for granted (or worse) by Democrats for the last several decades.

But embedded within the immense possibility of Alabama one could detect another possibility, the Democratic Party’s ingrained tendency to triangulate all historical lessons downward into the most minimal and instrumental forms of political logic. Before the cheering had subsided in Birmingham, for example, Bakari Sellers of CNN seized on the Jones celebration as an opportunity to bash the Democratic left and circle the party wagons around a policy of no-clear-policy.

Jones might have failed a progressive “litmus test,” Sellers suggested, without specifying why or naming any actual progressives who opposed him. (Widely retweeted comments from random disgruntled internet folks do not count.) Starting from the inarguable proposition that black voters were central to Jones’ victory, and that Democrats had treated them with benign neglect for too long, Sellers then implied that Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden (an odd trio) were part of the problem, and only cared about “working-class white voters” in the supposed Trump demographic.

Since those people all supported Jones enthusiastically and have distinguished records on civil rights, it’s not entirely clear where Sellers was going with that; it was somewhere between random TV blather and nasty reverse dog-whistle. More than likely he was just getting way, way out front on the Cory Booker 2020 campaign: What Democrats really need is someone who can galvanize the black vote and looks good on TV, without scaring off the Wall Street donor class or taking any contentious positions on anything at all. I wonder if anybody like that is available?

All of which would be an entirely legitimate argument, by the way, if it were actually articulated instead of being silently baked into most Democratic Party discourse. There’s a whole series of unspoken assumptions about the nature of political reality that one might think had been severely undermined by the 2016 election, but continue to drive the party’s sense of itself: The way to win is by navigating around divisive issues and avoiding ideology; redistributive, class-based economic policies are counterproductive or unrealistic; “real Democrats” are completely OK with the tenuous coalition politics of the pre-Trump status quo ante (even though the party had hit a post-Depression low point in Congress and been virtually wiped out between the coasts).

I am not suggesting, by the way, that Democrats need to keep fighting the Clinton-Sanders conflict of 2016 over and over again, or that I know what the outcome would be if they did. That’s clearly been pushed to the back burner, with the possibility of a big resurgence just ahead. But at some point the question of what ideas animate the Democratic Party -- and whether ideas even matter, in the Trumpified symbolic shadow-play of American politics -- will become unavoidable if we are to have a functioning democracy. History is knocking at the door: One party wants to answer it, wearing body armor, strapped with high-tech weapons and screaming about the invasion of the lizard men. The other one is pretending it can’t hear anything.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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