Liberals Have Been So Busy Not Losing, They’ve Forgotten How to Win

So the Democrats avoided the usual midterm cataclysm. They lost the House, yes, but they gained a seat in the Senate, and they did so despite a bad economic climate and an unpopular president. Meanwhile, Donald Trump has embarrassed himself with stupid remarks, and maybe this time he will stay embarrassed. Liberal rejoicing fills the air.

Now for some cold water. Democrats did so well, in part, because a conservative Supreme Court handed them a political gift by overturning Roe v. Wade and Republicans ran a group of dreadful celebrity Senate candidates.

The reality of the triumph, however, is that liberals are back to stalemate. Stalemate, that is, with an opponent that has been radicalizing for 50 years. An opponent that continually produces outrageous fire-breathing extremists, then supplants them with a new crop when the zealotry of the first bunch has worn off. It feels like the cycle is endless. But there is an answer to this problem, if we can just think beyond the limits of our current political imagination.

Every since I started paying attention, virtually all the country’s political dynamism has been located on the right. They brought us Prop 13, the Reagan revolution, the Gingrich revolution, the Tea Party and Trumpism, each successive explosion securing some new tax cut or making some grand deregulatory thrust before exhausting itself and leaving the stage. That there will be another explosion soon, picking up where the last one left off, is almost a certainty.

Readers of this paper don’t need me to detail where this is going or what it has cost us: the inequality, the deindustrialization, the downfall of our middle-class society, the refusal to play by the rules. Suffice it to say that in the face of all this, chronic stalemate is simply not good enough.

There is only one realistic way out of this impasse: The Republican Party must be defeated overwhelmingly and for years to come. It can be done. Liberalism has done it before, and not all that long ago: Franklin Roosevelt’s Democrats won five straight terms in the White House and controlled the House of Representatives, with a few brief interruptions, from 1931 to 1995.

But the current iteration of U.S. liberalism is constitutionally incapable of such a feat, let alone building and sustaining the sweeping popular movement we must have if we are ever going to do something about deindustrialization, systemic racism and global warming. To defeat the right, we must first completely rethink the left.

Recall, briefly, where the modern Democratic Party comes from. It was born, essentially, in a centrist backlash against a traditional left party that (it was said) foolishly talked the populist language of class conflict. What had to happen, party reformers declared, was a move to the “vital center,” outreach to Republicans, a voyage to a place beyond politics where everyone agreed about free trade, innovation and balanced budgets.

When Democrats did those things, strategists and party leaders argued, affluent professionals — members of the well-educated “learning class” — would flock to the big tent. There would be consensus. Electoral victories. Affluence (for some) in the coming knowledge economy.

That was the plan. And it succeeded. The “New Democrats” won the war inside the Democratic Party, defeating the traditionalists. They were given many chances to rule. They triangulated and sought grand bargains. Today we live in the future to which they built their celebrated bridge, with a deregulated Wall Street, a devitalized heartland and college diplomas held up as the answer to all problems. Turning their backs on the populism they loathed, our future-minded, new-style Democrats declined to take the opportunity offered by the 2008-09 financial crisis to remake the financial system. Instead, some of them came to identify with that system.

In some ways, liberalism from the top down has worked out as intended. The highly educated are now solidly Democratic, and the wealthy are moving rapidly our way. Today the party’s candidates often raise more money than Republicans. Despite President Biden’s intermittent blue-collar sympathies — and despite the party’s ramped-up language about conquering racism and defending democracy itself — the strategy of the 1990s still seems to be the strategy of today: courting the learning class, winning the affluent suburbanites, talking about how innovation will save us, reaching out to Republicans like Liz Cheney. And despite inspiring victories like John Fetterman’s in Pennsylvania, according to exit polls, the party continues to hemorrhage working-class votes.

The combination of high net worth and high moral virtue that the Democrats offer is a richly satisfying blend for some voters, a perfect summary of how they see themselves. For party leaders, it has meant something even better: lucrative second careers at Silicon Valley behemoths, compounds on Martha’s Vineyard and presidential libraries that surpass those of the Republicans in soaring monumentalism. If perpetual stalemate is the price the country must pay for such things, maybe it’s a bargain.

For all their love of creativity and innovation, however, there is a deadly lack of imagination in the way modern Democrats play the game. Leaders assumed for years that demographic change was automatically going to yield future majorities, and by implication that nothing visionary or transformative was required of them. Traditional Democratic constituent groups, they seemed to think, could be easily satisfied with noble rhetoric. Then, surprise, the Republicans found some clever way to win them over.

Sizable majorities of Americans desperately want traditional liberal measures like universal health care and economic fairness. But actually, existing liberalism, with its air of upper-crust contempt and its top-down moralism, rubs this deeply democratic nation exactly the wrong way.

These things are obvious when viewed from a certain distance, but liberals, intoxicated by their own righteousness, can never figure it out. They keep expecting the right to die off, as if poisoned by its diet of wickedness, and yet the Republicans persist, dreaming up new culture wars against the “liberal elite,” radicalizing themselves continually along the way, refusing to succumb.

And what do liberals do? We dig in. We cheer for our side, we cheer some more, we demand that everyone else also cheer. We react hysterically to bad news, we refuse any analysis that doesn’t begin by ascribing Satanism to the G.O.P., and we go on Twitter to scold those who don’t measure up to our standards in some way. This is not strategy. It is fandom.

If politics were baseball, this might be appropriate. But in a democracy, we are not just spectators. Beating the Republicans overwhelmingly will require much more.

If I have learned one thing from the experience of the past few decades, it is that America cannot expect genuine reform to come from Democratic Party leadership or enlightened technocrats in Washington; it must come from the bottom up. It must be demanded by ordinary people, in solidarity, coming together by the millions in a social movement capable of sweeping all before it. Unfortunately, liberals don’t build such movements these days: What we do is purge them, police the unruly public via social media and write off wayward voters as sinful or beyond redemption.

An extremist Republican Party may indeed be one of the country’s biggest political problems, as the president has suggested. But liberalism from the top down, which has prevented Democrats from capturing the imagination of what ought to be a Democratic era, is certainly another. And that, at least, we can do something about.

Thomas Frank (@thomasfrank_) is the author of “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” and, most recently, “The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism.”

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