In the aftermath of the election, shell-shocked Democrats struggled to pinpoint a reason behind their stunning loss to Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton blamed FBI Director James Comey. Democratic operatives criticized the Clinton campaign team for taking the Rust Belt for granted. Bernie Sanders and his ascendant left-wing flank of the party blames the party’s closeness to Wall Street.
No one is pointing a finger at the most glaring vulnerability—the party’s cultural disconnect from much of the country. On issues ranging from the president’s hesitance to label terrorism by its name to an unwillingness to criticize extremist elements of protest groups like Black Lives Matter to executive orders mandating transgender bathrooms, the administration offended the sensibilities of the American public. Among liberal-minded millennials, President Obama’s actions were a sign that he was charting “an arc of history that bends towards justice.” But to older, more-conservative Americans, it was a sign that the administration’s views were well outside the American mainstream.
Clinton tried to win over moderates by raising red flags about Trump’s foreign policy and his racially charged, misogynistic rhetoric. But she didn’t have a Sister Souljah moment to criticize the excesses of the Left—as Bill Clinton famously did during the 1992 campaign—for fear of alienating the Obama coalition. In fact, her line that “implicit [racial] bias is a problem for everyone” during the first debate was a moment that couldn’t have been more repellent to those white Rust Belt voters who deserted the Democrats this year.
As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat presciently wrote in September: “The new cultural orthodoxy is sufficiently stifling to leave many Americans looking to the voting booth as a way to register dissent.” Opposing political correctness was one consistent theme in Trump’s very muddled campaign message.
Democrats will be spending their time in the political wilderness figuring out how to rebuild a shattered party. But early indications suggest that party leaders are veering even further to the left instead of moderating their rhetoric. They’ve concluded—with the assistance of Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and polemicist Michael Moore—that they would have performed better with working-class white voters if they only articulated a more populist economic message. They’ve shown no inclination to reject Clinton’s controversial notion that half of Trump’s supporters were deplorable and irredeemable.
Their leading choice to head the Democratic National Committee is Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, one of the most liberal members in the House. His supporters champion him as a leader who can advocate a populist economic argument, while energizing the diverse base of a party looking for fresh leadership. But as a freshman congressman, he compared George W. Bush to Hitler and hinted that the former president might have been responsible for 9/11. He’s got a compelling résumé as the first Muslim elected to Congress, but that’s marred by his past ties to anti-Semitic Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan in the mid-1990s (he’s since distanced himself) and frequent opposition to pro-Israel legislation in Congress (he was one of just four House Democrats to vote against Iron Dome legislation protecting the Jewish state from terrorist rockets). Nonetheless, he has been endorsed by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and his expected successor, Sen. Chuck Schumer.
Schumer’s positioning will be fascinating to watch in the coming months. If he truly believes that the socialist agenda championed by Sanders is the party’s best political option, he may be in for a rude awakening in two years. Democrats are betting that red-state voters in states like Missouri, West Virginia, Montana, and Indiana—where Democratic senators are facing reelection in 2018—will be born-again Elizabeth Warren boosters. It would be entirely at odds with the strategy that Schumer championed to take back the Senate in 2006, when he recruited candidates with diverse views on issues such as immigration and abortion rights. That year, Virginia’s Jim Webb was the Democratic majority-maker in the upper chamber.
While the Democratic bench is thin, there are promising future Democratic leaders who would steer the party in a more pragmatic direction. Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, a former Marine Corps officer, is already one of the leading liberal voices on national security. Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, a centrist businesswoman, has advanced pro-growth economic policies in the Ocean State. Sen.-elect Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire was one of the few successful Democratic Senate candidates, in part by distancing herself from elements of Obama’s foreign policy on the campaign trail.
Democrats face a consequential choice ahead: Tack to the left, and risk losing the affluent suburban voters that Clinton carried with little guarantee of winning back working-class whites. Or move to the middle, recognizing the party can embrace both racial and ideological diversity at the same time.