Even as Republicans were racking up electoral victories, Democrats had convinced themselves that the GOP was too extreme to win elections. The scale of the Democratic Party’s decimation under Barack Obama occurred right under their noses, but Democrats did not appreciate the full scope of the debacle until Hillary Clinton lost. Only then did it become clear that Barack Obama’s legacy was built on a foundation of sand. There is, however, a troubling lesson here for conservatives. The GOP didn’t need to moderate to retake total control of the federal government. Neither do Democrats.
The Democratic Party appears set to respond to Hillary Clinton’s surprisingly deep loss to Donald Trump by casting off what many believed was her pallid, status quo liberalism for something more vibrant. That vibrancy has largely been provided by the party’s progressive wing. What’s more, this wing has a legitimate claim to primacy within the party. Self-described socialist Bernie Sanders won as much support in the Democratic primaries as did Donald Trump in the Republican presidential nominating contests. Furthermore, as the WikiLeaks releases revealed, the Democrats’ progressive insurgents can contend with merit that the party’s brass put their thumb on the scale for a losing candidate. Clinton’s faction had their shot, and now it’s time to get out of the way.
This leftward drift is evident in the Democratic Party’s decision to coalesce around one of its most radical elected members as the next chairman of the Democratic National Committee: Representative Keith Ellison. Dare suggest that someone who flirted with 9/11 trutherism, once devoted himself to the Nation of Islam under Louis Farrakhan, and opposed funding Israel’s anti-missile defense system on the grounds that saving Israeli citizens from Hamas rockets was an obstacle to peace talks, and you’ll get an earful. Even as they bemoan the “normalization” of xenophobia by President-elect Donald Trump, Democrats are committing themselves to a similar project: rehabilitating and regularizing their fringe.
Like Democrats did not so long ago, Republicans might comfort themselves in the notion that the other party has veered too far toward the political extremes to appeal to a majority of the American voting public. Surely, the fact that Republicans let themselves come to this same erroneous conclusion before Barack Obama’s two victories will be no obstacle to reaching it again. The GOP was similarly overjoyed when the DNC chose former Vermont Governor Howard Dean to lead the party prior to the 2006 midterm elections. On each occasion, the GOP’s hubris was soon exposed by events.
After two consecutive midterm-election wipeouts and, now, an unexpectedly strong election for Republicans in a presidential year, the landscape has been sterilized of moderate Democrats. Indeed, the model of a radical Democrat from a progressive perspective is cast in the mold of Jim Webb. The Democratic Party of today is urban, coastal, and ideologically homogenous—which is to say, a minority party. That is both a challenge and an opportunity.
Taking stock of the scope of their losses in early 2009, the Republican Party pursued a course similar to the one Democrats are contemplating. Desperate for anything resembling renewed enthusiasm for the conservative cause, the GOP found it in the vigorous and organic Tea Party. This was a multifarious movement that was mocked and lampooned by the cultural left right up until the moment it took command of most of the levers of government. The Republican Party under Donald Trump may shed much of its affinity for green-eyeshade conservatism, but it has retained the Tea Party’s desire to see cultural revanchism.
Unless the laws of American politics have been repealed entirely, the pendulum will swing back in Democrats’ direction soon enough. Whether it is attributable to Ellison’s likely leadership of the DNC or not, the transformed Democratic Party that emerges ascendant will be radically more progressive than even today’s Democrats. And that progressive party will have the authority of a public mandate.
Republicans didn’t have to moderate or become the Democratic Party-lite to win back power (although a case could be made that they did have to endorse Democratic policy prescriptions to win the White House). So, too, will Democrats eventually regain their power and they will do so without becoming a more conservative party. And when they do, Republicans will rue the day they celebrated the ascension of the radical left.