Three Ideas to Check Trump and Revive the Democratic Party

How to (actually!) make America great again.

Not gonna lie: I enjoy watching Donald Trump fail. I await each new revelation about his Russian ties with gleeful anticipation. I smile every time another judge blocks his Muslim ban. I delight in his ongoing struggle to get the gum of Obamacare out of his hair. I am gratified by his budget negotiator’s inability to get a dime for his border wall. To me, these are not guilty pleasures, but righteous ones. Trump’s failures are a kind of justice, a confirmation that the political universe still operates according to rules I can understand and appreciate, like a beautiful sunset. Presumably I am not the only one who feels this way.

But as with any form of gratification, if taken too far, this one can lead us astray. The danger is that we on the left will bet our political future on Trump imploding rather than confront the weaknesses in our own political vision—weaknesses that allowed not only Trump to win but Republicans to control the House, the Senate, and thirty-two state legislatures.

Right now, Democrats see a real possibility of taking back the House in 2018. The most likely pickups are districts in metro areas that went for Hillary Clinton in 2016 or that Trump won by a hair. The most straightforward way to win these seats is to pump up the Democratic base of professionals, single women, Millennials, minorities, and immigrants. But that is precisely the strategy that Clinton’s campaign followed, with disastrous results.

The alternative is for the party to start contesting the geographic areas where increasingly, over several election cycles, they’ve been getting crushed: exurbs, smaller towns, and rural areas. Unless they can do this, and soon, Democrats are fated—because of well-known biases in our electoral system that favor sparsely populated states and regions—to be a permanent minority party that also happens to represent the majority.

Many Democrats, however, shrink from this challenge. Part of the reason is snobbery. Part of it is a sense of hopelessness—that rural and working-class whites simply won’t support Democrats (even though many of them voted for a black guy eight years ago). And part of it is the fear that to win over these voters, liberals will have to downplay or compromise their own deepest ideals—about environmental protection, gun safety, criminal justice reform, women’s rights, and tolerance of diversity.

That last concern is actually justified. The Democratic Party has enough trouble getting its voters to the polls. Asking it to dial back the “cultural” issues that most strongly motivate its base is politically foolish—not to mention morally questionable.

The only way to overcome this dilemma is for Democrats to put forth new ideas that appeal to voters across geographic, class, and racial lines. In the current issue of the Washington Monthly we offer three such ideas, which Trump’s actions are nicely teeing up. Though not unfamiliar to longtime readers of the magazine or to students of American history, these ideas remain on the fringes of the current political conversation.

Idea #1: Fight corporate consolidation. As Martin Longman reports (“How to Win Rural Voters Without Losing Liberal Voters”), leading Democrats increasingly agree with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer that to win outside of blue regions the party needs “a strong, bold economic message.” Yet the policies Democrats are currently peddling aren’t terribly promising. They range from technocratic tweaks to Obama-era proposals that didn’t work for Hillary Clinton (such as paid family leave) to bolder Bernie Sanders promises (such as single-payer health care) which, while appealing to some white working-class voters, are more about redistribution than about increasing economic growth.

Fortunately, there is an alternative. A growing body of scholarly research suggests that many of America’s most persistent economic problems—inequality, wage stagnation, declining entrepreneurship—stem from the same cause: industry consolidation. Decisions by Washington over the last thirty-plus years to green-light corporate mergers have left most sectors of the economy—from airlines to banking, seed corn to social media—dominated by a few behemoth companies, or in some cases just one.

Reversing this consolidation trend would do far more to improve the economic circumstances of distressed voters than border walls and trade wars. Such an approach also has a historical track record. As Longman notes, anti-monopoly was the issue that united agrarian populists and progressive urbanites behind Woodrow Wilson, defined FDR’s Second New Deal, and helped fuel a broad-based prosperity that lasted into the 1960s. The idea is now being resurrected by Virginia gubernatorial candidate Tom Perriello (“The Monthly Interview”), who reports that rural Virginians are especially excited by it. And with a Trump administration that caters to corporate plutocrats like no other in recent memory, it’s an idea whose time has come.

Idea #2: Preach a new/old gospel that regulations create jobs. The Progressive and New Deal eras also gave rise to a broad array of new federal regulatory statutes and agencies that are still with us, from the FDA to the SEC. As Anne Kim explains (“Deconstricting the Administrative State”), the political leaders who championed these (quite popular) regulatory regimes cast them as ways not just to reduce harms (from adulterated meat or Ponzi schemes) but to strengthen markets. And so they did: the disclosure requirements in the FDR-era Securities and Exchange Act, for instance, helped the United States become “the largest and most prosperous market for publicly traded companies in the world,” Kim notes.

During the 1970s and ’80s, however, the idea that federal regulations could enable economic growth was replaced by a new argument—one crafted by libertarian thinkers at places like the University of Chicago—that regulations are a drag on the “free market,” so the less of them the better. The result has been a series of attempts to “regulate the regulators” that have slowed the rule-making process to a crawl. Seven years after the passage of the
Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank, for example, many of the regulations those statutes required have still not been finalized.

Nor are they likely to be. Trump has vowed to cut back on what he calls “job-killing regulations,” and this is a promise he may get to keep. Legislation that would grind nearly the entire federal rule-making process to a halt has already passed the House and is being considered by the Senate, where some vulnerable red-state Democrats are open to supporting it.

But here’s the thing: despite what conservative think tanks say, academic economists can’t find any evidence that regulations overall hurt economic growth. And there is evidence galore, hiding in plain sight, of regulations sparking innovative start-ups and economic growth. A quarter of a million Americans now work in solar-related jobs as a result of federal clean energy regulations. The many new banking and investment apps you see advertised on TV were made possible by specific provisions in Dodd-Frank. ACA mandates helped give rise to at least ninety new health-related companies.

Yet no leading Democrat talks about federal regulations generally as tools for economic growth. If Democrats want to stop Trump’s deregulatory agenda, and be trusted by voters as stewards of the economy, they’d better start now.

Idea #3: Propose sweeping reform of government. The original Progressive Era was also defined by its far-reaching transformations of government—replacing patronage workers with professional civil servants, having senators elected directly by voters rather than appointed by plutocrat-dominated state legislatures. The political moment is ripe for another wave of change. Prior to the 2016 elections, the Washington Monthly published a slew of stories by pollster Stanley Greenberg and others arguing that a substantial portion of white working-class voters actually agrees with Democrats on issues like inequality and environmental protection, but that these voters are so cynical about Washington’s ability to deliver that they simply will not listen to any Democratic candidate who doesn’t first present a plan to fix the government.

Hillary Clinton offered no such plan other than a hoary pledge to reform campaign finance laws. But other successful presidential candidates have. Bill Clinton ran on a promise to “reinvent government” and took actions that got at least some positive results, including major performance turnarounds at FEMA and the VA. Barack Obama vowed to overcome Washington’s crippling gridlock with a new, post-partisan form of politics (obviously, he did not succeed). Even Donald Trump pledged to “drain the swamp.”

Liberals would say that Trump has so far done the opposite—filling his cabinet with plutocrats, making a mockery of transparency rules, and so forth. But to many conservative voters, “the swamp” means “the bureaucracy,” and as Gilad Edelman reports (“Trump’s Plan to Make Government Older, More Expensive, and More Dysfunctional”), Trump is making progress on a campaign pledge to substantially cut the number of federal employees.

Such policies resonate with many voters because of the widespread belief that the federal bureaucracy is bloated. The truth, however, is that the typical agency is severely understaffed because Congress keeps tight limits on the official federal head count. There are the same number of federal civil servants as there were fifty years ago, even though the federal budget and the GDP are four times bigger in real terms. The work of government gets done only because agencies have resorted to hiring ever-greater numbers of contractors, largely for jobs civil servants could easily do themselves. Those contractor jobs don’t save money. Rather, they cost, on average, nearly twice as much. Nor do they necessarily perform better. In fact, the opposite may be true, since there aren’t enough federal employees supervising their work.

Donald Trump’s plan to cut the federal workforce, in other words, really amounts to a bonanza for contractors—one that will make the government more expensive and less effective. Reversing this trend ought to be the basis of a new government reform plan, one that would be good for the country and for Democrats politically; most voters hardly love contractors any more than bureaucrats. As a start, argues Joshua Alvarez, liberals should target contractor CEO salaries in a way that encourages insourcing of contractor work.

Bringing more government work in-house could save taxpayers billions while improving government performance. To make that idea work in practice, however, liberals will need to support changing some civil service rules to make it easier to hire and reward good employees and get rid of not-so-good ones. Federal employee unions may balk, but the prospect of more jobs and possibly better pay for their members should bring them around. If you doubt such reforms are possible in a government setting, read Thomas Toch’s story (“Hot for Teachers”) about the astonishing transformation of the D.C. public schools’ teaching corps.

These three ideas have several things in common. First, they hold the promise of attracting voters in rural as well as urban areas. Second, they don’t fall neatly on one side or another of the Bernie/Hillary, left/moderate divide, and therefore ought to appeal to both. Indeed, you can imagine conservatives getting behind at least some of them. Third, they require liberals to reacquaint themselves with ideas and subject matter—about the working of markets and the structuring of bureaucracies—that were once part of the everyday progressive conversation but haven’t been for decades.

That reeducation will take work. But the alternative is to rely on familiar ideas that have gotten the Democrats to a point where they hold almost no formal power. And the reward for that hard work promises to be not just a return to political parity and more gridlock, but a full retaking of power that befits a true majority party.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.