The Fate of Democrats Lies with Trump

African-American voters delivered bigly for the Democratic Party last week, as they surged to put Doug Jones over the top in Alabama’s special election. But why isn’t black turnout always so strong? The problem isn’t voters, some have said. It’s the party.

“It’s time for them to get off their ass,” said former NBA star Charles Barkley. “This is a wake-up call for Democrats to do better for black people and poor white people.”

Shaun King at The Intercept agreed. “The Democratic Party relies on Black allegiance, but primarily uses it for white power,” he said. “This needs to end.”

Pish.

Black voters did not turn out to send a message to the Democratic Party, and the Democratic Party isn’t using black allegiance for white power. The Democratic Party is the party of black politics. As Harold Pollack said: “the African-American community is a core defender of pluralist democratic values in the United States.”

Black voters turned out because President Trump is an authoritarian seen by white supremacists as their leader. Jones’s opponent, Judge Roy Moore, waxes nostalgic for the slave regime past of the Antebellum South, and is an alleged pedophile. This isn’t hard.

Turnout was huge for reasons that are completely obvious. Those saying the party is at fault for low black turnout have an axe to grind, or don’t know what they’re talking about.

Critics said something similar six months ago when Democrat Jon Ossoff lost a special election for the House in Georgia. Instead of saying the party took black voters for granted, they said the party took white working-class voters for granted. Rep. Tim Ryan, a Democrat, blamed House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats’ “toxic” brand.

Again, I say pish.

The Democrats lost in June because the president was still strong, and they won last Tuesday because the president is weak. But it probably does not matter what any party out of power stands for, because all attention goes to the party in power. Politicians, interest groups, lobbyists, party actors, journalists, donors—everyone turns their face to the light, and those on the outside looking in must toil in obscurity.

This isn’t to say the Democrats have not fine-tuned their messaging, or that they have not begun to figure their priorities amid competing interests and a rapidly changing political landscape. (The purging of Senator Al Franken is a case in point.) But it does mean there are tangible limits to what the Democrats can do politically, and those limits are always measured against the president and the party in power. With Trump’s favorability falling, the Democrats can slow-walk and look like triathletes.

It’s a good idea for the Democrats to search their souls. That’s mostly healthy, but seriously: there’s only so much they can do. Whatever success they have in the coming year will be largely rooted in the president’s and the Republicans’ failure.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is a Washington Monthly contributing writer.