How Do Democrats Not Only Win, But Sustain Power?

Yesterday, Martin encouraged everyone to read the cover story of the latest edition of Washington Montly written by editor-in-chief Paul Glastris titled “Winning Is Not Enough.” I want to join him in suggesting that it is a must-read.

A blue wave this November is crucial, as is a Democratic victory in 2020. But here is why Glastris says that is not enough:

The fact that America now has only one party committed to small-d democracy changes everything. It’s no longer acceptable for Democrats to look at politics as a way to win the next election so as to jam through a bunch of their preferred policies before the Republicans inevitably take back power. They must instead see the purpose of politics as building sustained power for Democrats, period…The overriding aim has to be getting and holding power—not for its own sake, but to keep the flame of democratic self-government alive unless and until the Republican Party abandons its authoritarian ways or is replaced by a new, small-d democratic party. Indeed, such a transition, which many committed conservatives and lifelong Republicans are now desperate to see happen, is only likely to come about if the Republican Party is locked out of power for several cycles in a row.

In other words, democracy wasn’t just on the ballot in 2016. It will remain on the ballot unless and until the Republican Party dramatically changes course.

Glastris goes on to outline some new policy initiatives that Democrats should embrace in order to build sustained power. They are all important policies for the party to embrace, but I think there are some questions that need to be addressed before we get there. To tee up his case, Glastris writes this:

Well, here’s a quiz for you: Since 1981, for how many years has the Democratic Party controlled the White House and both houses of Congress?

The answer is four: the first two years of Bill Clinton’s first term, and the first two years of Barack Obama’s first term. That’s it.

Dylan Matthews steps back even further and sees a pattern of “power alternating hands.”

…in the US, no party since World War II has ever held the White House, or even won the popular vote, for more than three terms in a row.

That is despite the fact that from 1945 to the present, the Democratic Party underwent a dramatic shift toward a more egalitarian stance on race issues, shedding its Dixiecrat base in the process; that it largely abandoned traditional labor politics after the 1984 election; that the Republican Party moved right on race and very far right on economic issues toward a more stridently laissez-faire stance; and that the electorate itself has changed its composition dramatically in demographic terms.

All that — the whole history of post-World War II American politics and the grand ideological shifts of parties it included — was not enough to disrupt the basic fact of power alternating hands.

Asking the quiz Glastris included of Republicans demonstrates that they have fared even worse on sustaining power. Since 1981, the only time they controlled the White House and both houses of Congress other than the current term occurred over four years (2002-2006) in the middle of George W. Bush’s presidency. The 2006 midterms brought a blowback with Democrats gaining majorities in both the House and Senate.

The question this raises is why the electorate keeps swinging. While I don’t agree with all of Matthews’ conclusions, I think he provides a great analogy in arguing that it doesn’t have a lot to do with policies.

My basic mental model is that the typical American voter thinks about national politics and elections with roughly the frequency I think about professional football (I’m borrowing a bit here from the political scientist Jonathan Bernstein).

I have a football team that I root for; I maybe check in on standings two or three times throughout a season. I watch the Super Bowl. But I don’t typically watch other games, I couldn’t name many players (even on the Seahawks), and if you asked specific questions about football strategy, about which players should be traded or whether the Seahawks should focus more on developing their wide receivers or their running backs, I wouldn’t really be prepared to give you an answer.

And that’s fine! I have other stuff going on that it turns out I’d prefer to spend my time on. And while the stakes of electoral politics feel startlingly real if you’re a naturalized citizen facing a vociferously anti-immigrant government, or a black family in Flint, Michigan, whose water has been poisoned, or a trans woman forced by a state government to use men’s restrooms, for Americans outside marginalized communities, politics can feel like a game to which you can be indifferent.

What happens is that outside marginalized communities, there has always been a share of voters who get mobilized in reaction against those in power. That is precisely why, as David Walsh documented in the current edition of the Washington Monthly, Republicans have a long history of painting liberals as evil. They know the lesson the employees of Cambridge Analytica articulated when they thought no one was listening.

The two fundamental human drivers when it comes to taking information onboard effectively are hopes and fears and many of those are unspoken and even unconscious. You didn’t know that was a fear until you saw something that just evoked that reaction from you. And our job is to get, is to drop the bucket further down the well than anybody else, to understand what are those really deep-seated underlying fears, concerns.

It’s no good fighting an election campaign on the facts because actually it’s all about emotion. The big mistake political parties make is that they attempt to win the argument rather than locate the emotional center of the issue, the concern, and speaking directly to that.

It is very likely that Donald Trump and Republicans, after fear mongering to win in 2016, have now stirred up enough anger/fear themselves that 2018 (and possibly 2020) will mobilize a reaction against them. This is where Glastris is right. If Democrats gain power, they have to plan for how to sustain it rather than simply repeat the cycle we’ve been watching for decades now. Solid policies that address the concerns of voters are a critical factor in that. But I don’t think it will be enough.

The biggest challenge Democrats face is the success of Republicans in defining them, especially via the vast network of right wing media and the way mainstream media picks up on their narratives. A perfect example is that the party that has never seen a corporate or capital gains tax cut they don’t love has successfully labeled their opposition as “elitists.” Or how about the one where Medicare for all is a radical idea but the trickle-down of voodoo economics is mainstream?

As long as that continues, Republicans will be able to cast Democrats in power as the evil ones, even as they bring our troops home from the Middle East, rescue the economy from the Great Recession, rein in the financial institutions who caused the Great Recession and increase the number of Americans who have health insurance to historic levels. Get my drift?

I actually think that one of the problems the Democrats have had is that they focus too much on policies and not enough on giving American voters an alternative narrative. That assessment comes from someone who embraces the idea of being a true policy wonk. But as much as I hate to say it, for voters whose interest in politics is similar to how Matthews approaches football, the Cambridge Analytica folks got it right: “It’s no good fighting an election campaign on the facts because actually it’s all about emotion.”

Either Democrats have to convince the public that policies matter and it is their responsibility as citizens in a democracy to study the alternatives in order to make an informed decision at the ballot box, or they have to get much better at telling stories that connect to people on an emotional level. Luckily, the only thing stronger than fear is hope, which is something that both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama knew in 1992 and 2008, but unfortunately wasn’t a strong suit for candidates like Al Gore and Hillary Clinton.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.