Can the Democrats ease up on cultural progressivism if it means making inroads in red states?
That is the most important question raised by Robert Draper’s sharp Times magazine essay on the party’s reckoning with last year’s electoral rout. Much of the piece concerns the organizational shambles in which Democrats find themselves, owing in large part to President Barack Obama’s neglect of the party apparatus during his years in office. The portrait Draper paints is of a party adrift, uncertain of what it should stand for in an age of populism and backlash politics.
Unlike the Republicans, who conducted a thorough—if thoroughly flawed—autopsy after 2012’s thumping, the Democrats have yet to do a systematic rethink. The party hasn’t reached the acceptance stage when it comes to Donald Trump’s presidency. Many congressional Democrats and liberal pundits still believe that the FBI or Robert Mueller can bring the bad dream of 2016 to an end and put the universe right again. Yet Draper’s reporting suggests that at least a few Dems, particularly at the state level, are prepared to face reality.
These Democrats can see how the party’s hard-left, identity-obsessed shift has alienated many Americans. They understand that a party can’t hold broad swaths of the electorate in disdain and expect to score ballot-box victories. And they are brave enough to say so. As one Maine Democrat tells Draper:
The social-identity issues that have been emphasized in Portland don’t resonate in rural Maine. It’s damaged the Democratic brand here, to be honest. We’re a community of hard-working people who may not be highly educated, but that doesn’t mean we’re not intelligent. The majority of the folks here voted for Donald Trump, and I can tell you that the description of them as a basket of deplorables is just dead wrong.
This salutary message is lost on much of the party’s national leadership and the various activist groups and intellectuals that form the wider left.
Consider abortion. As Gallup polling has shown consistently, roughly half of Americans believe that abortion should only be legal in limited circumstances while another fifth think that it should be illegal in all circumstances. That suggests that Democrats could begin to loosen the GOP’s grip on middle America by running more pro-life candidates—or, at least, some who are willing to meet pro-life voters halfway.
But no. The party’s absolutist line on abortion has only hardened lately. When Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Ben Ray Luján announced this summer that he wouldn’t apply an abortion litmus test to 2018 House candidates, he unleashed the party’s activist furies. NARAL Pro-Choice America went into overdrive. Soon the D.C.C.C. backtracked with a statement reassuring abortion activists that it regards abortion as a “fundamental” tenet and that it would recruit candidates who would legislate accordingly.
Democratic elites are similarly immovable when it comes to numerous other social and cultural issues, from transgender bathrooms to respect for the American flag to religious liberty for gay-marriage dissidents. Perhaps these Democrats reason that the Trump demographic is in decline, so why not press ahead on the cultural front? But judging from the evidence of 2016, such thinking is a recipe for liberal electoral heartache—and still more national discord.