The Legislative Fellows program supports Progress Virginia’s efforts to make a more transparent and fair Virginia. All views expressed in this post are the author’s views and do not reflect the views and opinions of Progress Virginia or Progress Virginia Education Fund. If you would like to watch live streaming of key committee meetings please visit www.EyesonRichmond.org.
The Democratic Party is retreating into the political wilderness for the first time in a century. The party will face a series of tests. The first test is measured by the what the American people want done. The second clarifies the values of the Democratic Party and Progressive movement.
The 2016 Election is a terrible loss for Democrats nationwide. Not only did Hillary Clinton lose the electoral college with states without a Republican candidate since 1980. In the Senate elections, Republicans defended at least seven seats in contests that favored Democrats. Yet, Democrats won only two, making the party the minority in all branches of government–an ongoing trend.
Consequently, the party saw a rapid erosion of its political power in federal, state, and local governments. At the beginning of Obama’s term began under the Obama Administration. Democrats controlled the House of Representatives with 256 members, one vote shy from a supermajority in the Senate. Democrats also controlled 59 percent of state legislatures and 29 governorships.
Today, those numbers are dismal. Today Democrats control only thirty-one state legislatures. The lowest percentage since the turn of the 20th century. Democrats hold sixteen governor’s offices out of the fifty states, the lowest since 1920.
The demographic shifts in the 1990s to mid-2000s foresaw a change in the country’s political makeup.
The Democratic Party began to gain younger and minority voters while the GOP became older and whiter.
A 1990 Gallup study conducted by Gallup, 18-to-29-year-olds were about equally split, half self-identifying as Republicans and other as Democrats. But by 2014, more young people identified as Democrats over Republicans by a 20 percentage point margin, the party’s largest edge among young voters since the1970s.
Building the party with younger and more diverse voters opened the Democrats up to a turnout problem. These voters did not turnout in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections. While older, white Americans—the kind finding their home in the GOP—did turn out and vote.
Progressivism in the Democratic Party
It is no doubt the party of Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy is the party of progressives. Many of the principles of the New Deal stand today as a guide for what policies the party chooses to take when it comes to economic security, equality, and an activist role of the government.
Progressives hold dear many values revolving around the central point “everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does his or her fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules”. Progressives view freedom as an essential part of American life. Their values include the freedom to lead a fulfilling and secure life with economic protections and opportunity. Where people take on an extra role as model citizens to help their fellow man and working for the greater good (environment, health, and wellbeing). And cooperation where no one gets left behind and all strive for the best for each other.
An Ideology in retreat
In the 1970s and 1980s, the progressive movement in the Democratic Party was stymied by the loss of Lyndon Johnson’s ideological successors Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern.
The Democratic Party pursued more centrist policy positions. The height of conservatism in the United States came as Republicans found their ideological torchbearer, Ronald Reagan. Reagan served as their repudiation of “big government” and waged war against the pillars of Progressivism such as the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment, increasing de-unionization, and the spread of social conservatism.
The Democratic Party wanted to appeal more to the “Reagan Democrats”; conservative Democrats that defected to Ronald Reagan in his 1980 and 1984 campaigns. And in 1992, with the election of Bill Clinton, offered a “third way” to reach conservatives with fiscally conservative policies such as “right to work,” “welfare-to-work,” and “smaller government.”
The movement reborn
The Progressive movement awakened in the Bush era, where the diaspora of the earlier progressive movement saw a renascence. In 2003, Gay rights activists won a major win in the state of Massachusetts with the right to marry. You saw antiwar demonstrations and the tie with corporate influence to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. You saw the rise of political satire with Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, and subsequently Stephen Colbert. Ultimately, Obama’s 2008 Presidential campaign leveraged this sea change and garnered all these political movements under the Democrats’ umbrella campaign. Change.
The rise of progressivism in the Democratic Party is evident with this survey. In 2001, most Democrats, forty-seven percent, identified themselves as “moderate,” while only 30 percent said they were “liberal.” By 2016, the proportions were reversed, with 44 percent of people within the party calling themselves “liberal” and 41 percent calling themselves “moderate.”
The Bernie Sanders Revolution
The big-tent party of Labor, Young, and Minorities had a nominating convention in 2016 to nominate President Obama’s successor. There were two candidates, almost evenly split, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. How so?
Bernie Sanders, once Independent Senator from Vermont, challenged standard bearer Hillary Clinton for the Presidential nomination of the Democratic Party.
Bernie Sanders campaign for the Democratic nomination in 2015 was rather obscure, and media quickly downplayed his chances of winning against an establishment candidate that was already widely seen as President Obama’s successor. Boy, how things have turned out.
The obscure senator from Vermont quickly obtained a following among millennials and young progressives. Many of his campaign speeches and his veracious rallies went viral. And his rhetoric on corporate America, the increasing inequality, and rising college costs resonated with American progressives.
Emboldened by the policy wins of President Obama’s administration, progressives all around the country believed that many major policy issues surrounding the economy are within reach to do something about and that the American people can support such remarkable actions. For once, Democrats split evenly over the direction to take; whether to support socially liberal and economically pragmatic Hillary Clinton or a fervent progressive and genuine ideological descendant of Obama, Bernie Sanders?
A Party without a successor
Some primary voters who supported Sanders wanted a candidate that would fight their ideological fight and wouldn’t help someone, in this case, Hillary Clinton, who they thought would waver in such battles against the Republican party. Also, there was a sense of fatigue after progressives settled for less when Obama tried to reason with Republicans in such debates like the Health debate, Economic, and Immigration.
Evidently, a fractured party that damaged the credibility of Hillary Clinton, a campaign that ran visionless and without a central message that resonated with American voters, and fatigue on the part of the American people who wanted to see change conspired against the Democratic Party this election cycle.
Where to go now?
The Democratic Party has a choice to make. The road to becoming a centrist party or embracing its progressive roots. Principally, what (sadly, former) President Obama plans to do and who the Democrats choose to head its party will ultimately decide the ideological direction the party plans to take.
Luckily, Democrats have the benefit of a politically active former President, Barack Obama, and the chance to nominate a proven progressive, Keith Ellison, to run the party on principles and party building instead of solely focusing on fundraising and surviving elections. Progressives will decide whether the Democratic Party remains the minority party in 2018 and 2020. Because anything else threatens to result in a party that resembles the Whigs of the 1850s.