Democrats and the dark road ahead: There's hope — if we look past 2022 (and maybe 2024 too)

Democrats face a '22 wipeout — and after that the horror-movie sequel. But there's still a future to fight for

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published November 11, 2021 6:00AM (EST)

City Councilor Michelle Wu celebrates winning the election to become Mayor of the City of Boston on November 2, 2021 in , BOSTON, MA. (Stuart Cahill/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)
City Councilor Michelle Wu celebrates winning the election to become Mayor of the City of Boston on November 2, 2021 in , BOSTON, MA. (Stuart Cahill/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)

Over the past couple of weeks, we've seen the Democratic Party at its worst and, approximately, at its best — or at least the best it's capable of at the moment. But here's the problem: No version of the current Democratic Party seems remotely prepared for its date with destiny, as the only electoral force standing in the way of a Republican congressional majority in 2022 and a triumphant resurgence of Trump-style discount-store fascism in 2024 (whether or not Donald Trump is personally involved).

This leads us, I think, toward, an inescapable conclusion, but one the left-liberal-progressive quadrant of the electorate is largely unwilling to face. Let me set up my defenses first: I'm not advocating fatalism or passivity. If you're deeply invested in firewalling the Democratic majority in 2022, and plan to sink your time, money, energy and some percentage of your soul into the Senate race in Ohio or North Carolina or Pennsylvania, or any of the two or three dozen House races that could go either way, have at it. Action is always preferable to inaction. Of course it's possible that Democrats could beat the odds, defy both the laws of political physics and the relentless grind of Republican redistricting and hold onto one or both houses of Congress. It could happen!

But, y'know, don't bet the grandkids' college fund on that outcome or anything. My point is that those who are committed to the redemption, restoration or fulfillment of America's "multiracial democracy" (as Salon's Chauncey DeVega often puts it) need to take a longer view. Politics and history will not suddenly come to an end if (or when) Kevin McCarthy — who is, yes, a repulsive and craven idiot — becomes speaker of the House in January of 2023. Indeed, I think it's possible that a new kind of politics will be necessary after that. While we're there, we might also need to consider the still darker possibilities that may arrive in the election cycle following that one, because even those will not cause the sun to drip blood or the Four Horsemen to ride forth from a smoldering cleft in the earth. You know where I'm going here: The Return of the Great Pumpkin. But before we indulge in that horror-fantasy narrative, let's consider where we are.

I probably don't need to go over the painful evidence of recent days, but let's summarize. After the supposedly unexpected (but honestly completely predictable) victory of Republican Glenn Youngkin in the Virginia gubernatorial race — and the actually unexpected near-political-death experience of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (a center-left darling of the moment), against a GOP nonentity with no discernible agenda and a spell-check-defying surname — we entered the ritual period of Democratic gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, as prescribed by scripture. 

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Democrats had supposedly gotten too woke, too radical, too defund-the-police, too obsessed with niche racial or social justice issues that alienated "ordinary Americans," a term of art used in different ways by different members of the media and political castes, but always to mean people we regard as earnest and honorable (and almost entirely white), but who are unfortunately not that bright. This was a particularly hilarious charge to fling at Terry McAuliffe, the Virginia loser, who appears to be (and may actually be) an automaton assembled at Democratic National Committee headquarters, and whose entire campaign was structured around the indisputable fact that however much of a lifeless Clintonite retread he might be, he wasn't Donald Trump. 

But the fact that the indictment was prima facie ludicrous was obviously beside the point. As a subsequent New York Times editorial written in baffling doublespeak appeared to argue, McAuliffe had somehow been contaminated by all the wild-eyed tax-and-spend radicalism of "progressives" in Congress, with their ridiculous SJW demands for — um, well, for child care benefits and parental leave policies and universal pre-K and lower drug prices for seniors and other stuff that is massively popular across the political spectrum. 

See, the Democrats' current dilemma is not entirely or exactly or even mostly about the supposed Bernie vs. Hillary ideological and generational conflict that has created so much internal discord over the past five or six years. Here's why: The so-called moderates within the party no longer have any clear policies or principles to defend, beyond the Reagan-era reflex that if we scare the normies too much, we'll lose. (Translation: If we talk about race and racism too much — or actually at all — we'll alienate middle-income and lower-income white people in the suburbs and rural areas. Who, admittedly, already hate our guts — but we're sad about that.)

They used to have real positions! Let's be clear about that: Once upon a time, centrist Democrats were for free-trade agreements and the unregulated flow of finance capital and defunding the welfare state and fiscal austerity and "muscular" foreign policy, along with — let's be fair! — expanded civil rights and economic opportunities for women, Black people, LGBTQ folk and other marginalized groups. Some of this was just cynical or tactical politics, an effort to defang or outflank Republican attacks, but some of it was entirely authentic: The era of big government is over, the information economy is here, entrepreneurship is the social movement of the future, a rising tide lifts all boats — and yes, sorry, I'll stop now before you need to vomit again.

I'm pretty sure there are still Democrats out in the wild — Kamala Harris, possibly; Pete Buttigieg, definitely — who subscribe to some semi-updated version of that 1992 "New Democrat" wisdom. If they'd like to come forward and talk about that stuff honestly, we'd all be better off for it. But after the Great Recession and the gradually accumulating bummer of the Obama presidency and the noxious collective brain-fart of the Trump regime and the last two years of a goddamn pandemic that has probably already killed a million Americans (and unquestionably will before it's over), the stern but benevolent turning-you-down-for-a-loan act just doesn't fly anymore. Well, except for the "muscular" foreign policy that both parties pursue without question, but holds no interest for folks out here in internet-land, the puzzling and humiliating quadrillion-dollar Afghanistan fiasco aside. 

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Joe Biden, the oldest person ever elected president, has figured most of this out, perhaps because he's been around so damn long he never fully bought into any particular version of Democratic orthodoxy. But way too many of the "moderate" Democrats of 2021 have become like the Soviet apparatchiks of the 1980s, muttering the bromides they think may allow them to hold onto power, but depressingly aware that it's all basically a con and that nobody outside their crumbling palace even pretends to believe anymore. 

At least Joe Manchin is both blatantly corrupt and trapped in his own Depression-bootstrap fantasy of the past, the last living specimen of the "conservative Democrats" who were a major power bloc well into my 1970s childhood. And at least Kyrsten Sinema is flamboyantly and performatively corrupt, the out bisexual Gen X senator with the deliberately mismatched outfits of the sort fashion magazines used to call "kicky," inhaling whopping sums from Big Pharma and voting down a minimum-wage increase on her way to the They Might Be Giants reunion concert. (If they ever officially broke up, that is. I'm not sure, but I bet the gentlelady from Arizona knows.)

You have to respect and even admire them, in a way. No, wait: I don't mean that at all. You don't. But at least they know what they stand for, which is "this is how the world works, suckas," or to quote the final line of a great and anguished film, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." A whole lot of other Democrats are hopelessly pinioned between the corporate donor class they have lovingly cultivated and the increasingly restless "progressive base," and must also reckon with the fact that in our deeply undemocratic system their fragile majority literally rides on a few thousand randos in exurban "swing districts" and "purple states," who are entirely likely to vote based on last week's gas prices or whether the Amazon guy was a dick or some half-processed fragment of COVID misinformation. In that context, "Oh shit, let's not spend all this money" becomes an understandable response, although not an admirable or defensible one.

So my point is not that Democrats can save themselves by waving the red flag and embracing the most fulsome version of the Bernie-AOC agenda. There's something to be said for that, along the lines of the old proverb that tells us it's better to be hanged as a thief than a beggar. (Even setting aside the fact that most of the stuff in that agenda would be amazing.) But nobody can possibly know whether that would work in electoral terms, and it's not going to happen anyway. 

My point, in fact, is that the current version of the Democratic Party is screwed six ways from Sunday, partly due to structural factors beyond its control and partly due to its own haplessness, incompetence and corruption. I don't know what will happen in 2022 — except, sorry, yes I do and so do you. Fight against a Republican majority all you want, but also be prepared for the likely outcome, which will be grim and unpleasant at every level but will also create new opportunities for struggle, and perhaps a necessary confrontation with reality.

I really and truly don't know what will happen in 2024, because there's a bunch of terrain to traverse before we get there. Joe Biden, if he runs again at age 107, will have the built-in advantage of incumbency, and there's no reason to believe that every single tendency of political reality has been reversed just because You Know Who won that election that one time. But, yeah, we'd better face it: It's definitely within the realm of possibility that Donald Trump returns to power, either in his own skin or by way of some mini- or micro-Trump, running as his minion or puppet but yearning to break free. That could happen through "legitimate" means, thanks to the absurd and antiquated Electoral College, or through flat-out fraud and quasi-constitutional legislative override and throwing the election into the House of Representatives, which hasn't happened since the white-dudes-with-beards era of the 19th century.

That would be really bad news. Will it mean the end of democracy forever and the inauguration of a Thousand-Year Reich ruled for all time by a gaggle of white supremacist douchebags? No, of course not. Will it suck? Yes. Will it suck worst of all for people who don't have all the unexamined privileges of someone like me? Yes. I'm not being like, oh no worries it won't be that different LOL.

But to pretend that the deeply offensive and moronic (and evil) prospect of a Trump 2.0 regime will create a rift in the space-time continuum, bringing the end of all history and all politics and launching the era of "boot stamping on a human face forever" is just insulting and untrue. Why do we continue to think we're so damn special? In almost every European nation, not to mention the nations of the developing world, there are living people who have survived periods of fascistic or autocratic rule and come out the other side. Millions of people live under such regimes right now. It might just be America's time to get schooled by history.

As for the Democrats: There's hope! It's long past time for progressives or liberals or even (hypothetically) moderates to rebuild the party from the ground up. That's what happened in the Republican Party during and after the Reagan era, which is why a party that only represents white people outside metropolitan areas, and holds an incoherent assortment of extremist views, has veto power over our entire political system. It's finally starting to happen on the Democratic side too, and if there's a way to redeem American democracy, and renew our poisoned and paralytic two-party system, that will begin at school boards and city councils and boards of supervisors and other unglamorous instruments of local government.

For at least the past 30 years, the Democratic Party has exclusively played defense, trying to win presidential elections and carve out legislative majorities and then govern from above, hoping against hope that the combination of gradual demographic change and incremental policy adjustments could change the political culture and turn back the rising right-wing tide. We're normal and reasonably competent and mostly well-intentioned, Democrats announced, to the delight of the vanishingly small proportion of the public who view politics in rational and unemotional terms. To say that it hasn't worked would be, quite literally, the understatement of the century.

You don't have to agree with Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or the other prominent progressives within the Democratic coalition about anything at all to appreciate that they have shifted the party's internal paradigm. Beneath the media narrative of Democratic defeat and despair in the off-year elections just concluded, there were dozens of progressive victories in local elections, and a degree of grassroots energy not seen since the 1970s. 

Does that mean that democratic socialism or ultra-woke intersectionality or some iteration of a "race-class narrative" is the path forward? That's exactly what's up for grabs; nobody knows. If you think you have a role to play, get in on the action now. Will progressives and Democrats and Americans have to go through a truly dark passage in the years ahead in order to reach those answers — a period of real danger and possible violence and almost certain trauma, which will require courage and patience and sacrifice, and whose ending is uncertain? If you've read this far, you know what I think. Draw your own conclusions. 

More from Salon on the trials and tribulations of the Democrats, post-Trump:


By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir

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