After the November 2017 round of special, local and state elections, headlines across all major national news platforms read something like CNBC’s “Democrats win big in elections widely viewed as referendums on Trump.” This belief in the power of Democrats merely repudiating Trump and working to link Republican candidates with the widely despised President has guided Democratic hopes for a potential sweep of the 2018 midterm elections. This sweep, termed the “blue wave,” has Democrats leading with double-digit margins in congressional polls, and gives them great potential to take control of the House of Representatives, and perhaps even the Senate despite a tough map. However, this intention to ride the anti-Trump wave to victory is dangerously complacent for three main reasons. First, it is not a sound strategy to defeat the GOP, despite the party’s historic unpopularity. Second, if it does pay off, it will produce only short-term gains for Democrats. Finally, it ignores the popularity of the progressive platform and the resounding success of newly elected Democrats and Democratic Socialists in the 2017 elections.
American politics has become historically distasteful. Approval ratings of politicians and government institutions across the board are dismal and the government is seemingly incapable of accomplishing anything popular. With the GOP at the helm in both houses of Congress and Trump in the White House, it would seem to the average politically aware individual that the Democratic Party would benefit from federal unpopularity, as they are “the opposition” and not the face of the government. This individual would most likely be astounded to find out that, in fact, the Democratic Party is consistently polling at a lower favorability rating than the GOP, Mike Pence, and even Trump himself. This is the first sign that defining the party as simply opposed to Trump is not sufficient to create the type of gains the Democrats need to flip Congress as so many have overzealously anticipated.
After the 2016 election, one of the biggest criticisms of Hillary Clinton was that she failed to adequately stand for any left-wing policy positions. In fact, she overtly stood for few policy positions at all. A study out of Wesleyan University found that the Clinton campaign ran fewer policy related ads than any presidential candidate in the past four elections, with only 25% of advertising having any relation to policy, as compared to a minimum of 40% for the next lowest candidate (McCain) going back to 2000. In contrast, over 70% of the Trump campaign’s ads were policy related. The vast majority of Clinton’s ads had to do with personality as an attempt to define herself as “anything but the other guy.” Studies have repeatedly shown that “substantive, policy-based messaging” is associated with more favorable reactions from voters than “personally-focused, trait-based negative messages.” (Vox, 2017) As it turns out, standing for little more than platitudes and clichés such as “Stronger Together” is so ineffective in inspiring voters as to lose to the most unpopular general election candidate, and now president, in U.S. history.
But, in reality, it is no surprise that the current DNC leadership, under Tom Perez, has failed to change course. Perez famously gave a speech, shortly after being named DNC chair, in which he stated that Democrats win “when we put hope on the ballot.” But what does “hope” really mean? Essentially, it means nothing. As The Humanist Report so aptly puts, “[Perez’s] mouth moves, but he says nothing.” (Perez has not proven to be a popular party leader, having been booed out of several rallies on his victory tour.) Democratic leadership repeats these same lines over and over because they are trying to perform a delicate balancing act between their corporate, big money donors and their base. The left-wing base of the party craves for strong, leftist policy positions such as Single Payer Healthcare, raising taxes on the rich, ending the drug war, and free college, yet the wealthy donors, who still have significant control over party policies and direction, want none of these things. Any skeptics of this reality should refer to this segment on MSNBC, in which Stephen Cloobeck, Chairman and CEO of Diamond Resorts International and a wealthy Democratic donor articulates not only how corrupt the DNC is, but also just how broken our political system is concerning money in politics. Morally repugnant jackasses like Cloobeck keep the Democratic establishment from taking the very policy positions which have made Bernie Sanders the most popular politician in America (by far) and would turn state after state and district after district blue. Instead of taking positions, establishment Democrats turn to the usual platitudes and clichés which have empirically been shown to lose elections and aggravate the base.
According to Shaun King, a popular left-wing commentator, “This is how congressional Republicans win the next midterm elections.” King’s analysis of the Democrat’s unbelievable unfavorability is a must read. Asking voters which policies they think the DNC stands for, King reports that “people have no genuine idea. They know some things the party stands against, but it’s genuinely hard to be sure of what they stand for.” According to King, simply defining the party as anti-Trump is “a gross oversimplification of who we are and what we stand for. [The Democratic base] are showing up, by the thousands, by tens and hundreds of thousands, because we have many of the same beliefs…for how America can improve and be a better place for all of us.”
This reality makes it all the more comical when “political commentators” like Chuck Todd host panels full of political hacks debating the topic “Do Democrats need a platform?” The democratic party cannot have its cake and eat it too, it must choose to shun corporate and PAC donations, follow its base and raise grassroots support and donations, $27 at a time if it is to be truly successful in 2018. As evidence from the past year has shown, the success of a strategy such as this is all but guaranteed. The 2017 special elections resulted in resounding successes for unapologetic leftist candidates, even those who embraced the term “socialism.” A victory which received much attention came when Democratic Socialists of America member Lee Carter defeated incumbent Republican and Virginia House of Delegates GOP whip, Jackson Miller. Carter received no financial support from the DNC or the state Democratic Party as he boldly chose to publicly oppose the machinations of a large energy company which financially supported the Virginia democratic establishment. Over a dozen other Democratic Socialist candidates won their respective elections all across the country under similar circumstances. The popularity and potential success of an unapologetically leftist and anti-corporate agenda are why Bernie Sanders can receive a standing ovation from West Virginia Trump voters shortly after the 2016 election.
Even if Democrats sweep the midterm elections, the strategy of defining the party as simply in opposition to Trump and the Republicans will only produce short-term gains. First, Trump will only be in office for a finite period of time, most likely 3 more years. That leaves, at most, three major elections in which the Democratic Party can capitalize off of anti-Trump sentiment. If the DNC embraced a concrete progressive platform, it could ride gains for years as it worked to implement the most popular policies in the nation. Second, if the Democrats do win and have no platform beyond opposing Trump, then what? They will be even more inextricably linked to the dysfunction which plagues Washington and will come out worse in the end. This situation would leave the DNC in a terrible state even if their best case scenario of sweeping midterms off of anti-Trump sentiment alone occurs.
It is clear that the Democrats as a whole need to do serious work before they are able to solidify potential gains in 2018. If this does not happen, the Democratic Party will become even more divided between the establishment, corporatist leadership, and the leftist base. This occurrence would spell serious issues for the “left-wing” party in the United States and could potentially lead to a radical change in our party system as other, genuinely leftist parties, such as Democratic Socialists fill the void. If people like Tom Perez actually have the best interest of the Democratic Party in mind, they should make the clear decision to shun corporate and PAC money and embrace a Progressive platform.
Kenneth Deterding ’20 is an economics major and the Treasurer of the VPR. He has an interest in public finance and policy and is a member of the Vassar Debate Society.