The Democratic Party of the Future

Winning power back from the GOP will take revising policy and rhetoric.

2016 was a year of ideological realignment in the Republican Party. Those politicians caught up in it were confused, surprised, and never entirely certain of their destination. The same could be said for the entire country, and most of us probably remember the campaign that would elect Donald Trump as one of those indoor roller-coasters you ride in the dark–and by all accounts, we’re still on it. Much was made of Trump’s personality (odious! refreshing!) his sensibilities (racist! populist!) and his outsider status. But the most astonishing story is how Trump won by changing and abandoning core Republican principles. In 2015, the GOP were good Hindus. Now they’re eating hamburgers. And yet the Republican Party was richly rewarded for their movement away from small-government conservatism, supply-side economics with free international trade, and a hawkish foreign policy. Now, the GOP president is basically a union boss from 1960 with an infrastructure deal on the table, taking valuable positions away from Democrats’ historic pitch to the working class.

Meanwhile, in the ashes of the Democratic party there is disarray and confusion. Hillary Clinton’s only campaign strategy was to simply behave as though she had already been handed the presidency, and that it was unthinkable that Donald Trump could win. The fallout from the explosion of that particular fantasy–which was so strong among pundits and politicos on all sides–has brought hysteria rather than anything remotely resembling a sensible postmortem. The Democrats did not lose! They were robbed! Fake news must have hoodwinked benighted voters in Wisconsin! Voter restrictions on minorities must have turned away a two hundred thousand Clinton votes in Florida! Half of America is virulently racist! There is no way that Trump got 27% of the Hispanic vote. The electoral college is rigged to favor Republicans. No candidate is defeated by one factor alone, and I would be willing to consider the merits of a few of the above, but it’s telling that the constellation of causes that the most vocal Democrats and their media allies point to is absent of anything that would prompt a hard look at revising the current Democratic Party’s policy platform or rhetoric. No, Obama’s policy program and rhetoric must have been the right one. Look at his approval ratings! Look at his family! But Trump and his supporters, whatever else may be said about them, had the guts to remake themselves, and now they’re in power.

It’s becoming more and more obvious that the Republican Party is triumphant, but not strong. Trump is moving quickly as he signs executive order after executive order, but he still faces legal and administrative battles that are slowing his gains. Reports of amateurish National Security Council meetings and the recent firing of Mike Flynn suggests that Trump’s team knows very little about what it takes to actually run the government. Meanwhile, he will continue to do what he does best: baiting his opponents in the Democratic party and the media to shriller and less and less substantiated denunciations, as reporters and small-time activists, and hopeful politicians all rush together to bask in the histrionic radiance of opposing a true American “fascist” without much thought as to how they will actually pull together to defeat him.

It’s time for the Democratic Party to take a hard look at itself, reinforce its strong points and summon the courage to raze and replace its weak ones. What I offer below is a look at what a stronger Democratic platform could look like if it did attend to that well. Progressives may feel a little wary of having a religious conservative offer advice, but it isn’t lost on all of us that our preferred party just elected a thrice-married big government candidate. We’re more up for grabs than you think. Anyway, consider this a memo from a significantly less attractive Ainslie Hayes, slaving away in the boiler room of a big blue-state city, who is, in a strange and despairing way, is maybe kind of rooting for you guys.

(Because I am pretty ignorant of economics, I’ll constrain my comments to cultural and rhetorical matters. I think the suggestions below could sit equally neatly alongside a socialist Bernie Sanders realignment or a continuation of the status quo neoliberalism. And though I like to think I’m less ignorant of foreign policy, it would require a whole other article to work through my conflicted thoughts on that, so I’ll leave it alone for now.)

The pivot to religion

Most religious conservatives are religious before they are conservative. This doesn’t mean their religion conscience always guides them–conscience after all is easily subjected to partisan messaging. But religion itself is not so pliable. What if the actual religion of the religious right was not their strong fortress, but their biggest weakness?

What if John Podesta, instead of exchanging bemused emails as to why traditionalist Catholics ended up voting Republican, actually took the time to read some or follow a few of them on Twitter? What he might find is a surprising affinity toward various kinds of socialism among young and deeply conservative Catholics. He might run across the Tradinista Manifesto, for instance, a pseudo-revolutionary that outlines leftist political convictions are rooted in Church teaching. Point 2. “Political authority ought to promote the teachings of the Church” would certainly raise eyebrows, but most of the rest of the list would could have been written by Saint Bernie himself. Here’s a sample:

  1. Capitalism must be abolished.
  2. Livelihood should not depend on the market.
  3. Every person has a right to property.
  4. Anthropogenic climate change threatens the common good of all mankind, and must be fought.
  5. All societies should generously welcome migrants fleeing hardship.

Christian socialism isn’t a new idea, but the progressive left has forgotten how powerful the “Christian” side of it is. It would also be a mistake to treat this as an obscure Catholic consensus. I can count on one hand the number of evangelical friends and acquaintances I have who also hold to strict free-market, supply side economics; and on one finger those who think the one has anything to do with the other. Basically, it’s not the economics of socialism that makes most evangelicals suspicious, it’s the ideological implications, how those who support socialist policies also seem to think it is necessary or desirable to flatten out all distinctions between creeds and eradicate tradition and revelation as socially acceptable sources of knowledge and ethics. But explain to them how socialism and freedom of worship can coexist, how it even embodies Christ’s preferential option for the poor, and you’d dramatically decrease evangelical resistance, and even give a good deal of them a party to be proud of.

None of this means making Christianity the official religion of the Democratic Party. It simply means removing the unnecessary barriers to expressing itself in the language of its majority religious sensibility which is still predominantly Christian. Christianity still has the power to unify disparate groups of people and overcome divisions. Barack Obama, for all his policies that attacked religious space in the public square, at least had a sense of its rhetorical power. His could speak effortlessly in a religious idiom. Hillary Clinton could not have provided a sharper contrast, opting instead to talk about “a politics of meaning.” If you can’t say what your politics means, it’s meaningless.

You can see shades of the broad appeal in a close look at the recent Grammy performance by this year’s Best New Artist winner Chance the Rapper. The religious overtones can’t be missed–Chance’s freestyle is filled with Biblical allusions and the backup band is literally a church choir–but what’s probably invisible to people outside of evangelical circles is that the song Chance sampled was written by a white praise and worship artist Chris Tomlin and is sung regularly in evangelical churches from Iowa to Texas. Kirk Franklin, the artist who joined Chance on stage, also has a deep pedigree in Christian Contemporary music circles. I remember him from the Billy Graham crusade I attended at Texas Stadium when I was 12 playing alongside other sainted Christian Contemporary artists, DC Talk and Jars of Clay. I know Lecrae, whose album sat at #1 on iTunes for weeks in 2015 and opened this year’s BET Awards, from ten years earlier when he came to the evangelical summer camp I attended to perform in a small room of 200 of us white suburban Christian high schoolers. As white elites have forged a post-Christian future, black culture has never lost the supernatural language of the gospel, and rousing performances like Chance’s retain a solidness and profundity (not to mention musicality) that white artists conspicuously lack when they attempt to infuse their music with their faith commitments. Democrats by turns tolerate and fetishize African-American Christianity, but even after elevating America’s first black President to the White House, it has never fully respected the religion of Barack Obama. Perhaps it’s time to do so, and draw strength from its instincts and heritage.

If there is anything the Democratic party has to learn from Republicans is that religion still commands the loyalty and informs the morality of the vast majority of Americans, and this despite the recent decline of institutional religion. Taking this to heart will make my next points a little easier to receive, but it’s still a doozy. Here we go…

The Flip on Abortion

There’s no way around it: renewing the Democratic party’s cultural message means a total reversal of their support of abortion rights. It would be the party’s biggest upheaval but it would also be its biggest coup. Millennials have moved left on every cultural issue except abortion. The average millennial is less likely to be Pro-Choice than their parents were. The Democratic party’s message of human rights has been effectively countered for years by Pro-Lifers’ insistence that it excludes the life of fetuses. The claim that life begins at conception, and therefore has rights, continues to be ratified by available scientific evidence. But more importantly, that claim demands an exacting moral standard that admits of no compromise. Democrats may appeal that abortion has the force of constitutional law, but the crusade against abortion is betting on the force of moral clarity that when combined with longsuffering, consistent activism and ideological intransigence, has the power to overcome bad legal precedents no matter how entrenched they have become in our jurisprudence. Like the abolitionist movement before it, constitutional rights have not caused Pro-Lifers to back down or be distracted by peripheral issues. The effectiveness and influence of anti-abortion politics has been sorely understated in the liberal-friendly press. It is arguable that Roe v. Wade lit the fire of the Religious Right as we know it. It is beyond doubt that opposition to Roe has since calcified the movement and won Republicans reliable and valuable religious support. What if Roe v. Wade wasn’t the great feminist victory everyone supposes it is, but the Democratic Party’s biggest liability in the culture wars?

Of course such a realignment sounds unlikely to put it mildly. But two years ago the idea that Mike Pence would go on TV to say that the free market may need a little guidance from the federal government sounded just as loony. The repudiation of Reaganite supply-side economics in favor of protectionism would have been a non-starter for any Republican politician. But an outsider like Trump was not bound by these rules and by ignoring them, he found success with those who felt uninspired by or unhappy with that agenda. Sacred cows don’t inspire much devotion when power is up for grabs, and previously resistant GOP congressmen and officials capitulated with dizzying speed. 

A Democratic flip on abortion would require a strong candidate to lead the charge. He or she (probably she) would need to see how angering the sentinels of the old party line party would actually galvanize those previously thought to be on the margins. She would need to be comfortable taking the moral high ground and being overtly judgmental of those whose standards fall short of the irresistibly total vision of mercy, justice, and human rights she offers. Instead of Trumpian ugliness, it would be a combination of religious prophecy and mercy for the weak. A complete reversal of support for abortion rights would even put the party closer to its pre-Obama consensus, when Al Gore, Joe Biden and other Pro-Life Democrats felt safe running for public office and penning eloquent words about the tragedy inherent in the act of abortion.

The obvious retort to this strategy is that such a candidate would not be very, well, liberal. But for those paying attention, (especially those of us on the other side of the aisle) the Democratic party has been trading in illiberalism for some time. This attitude is found in all sorts of Left progressive political tactics both on the ground and in the government: from Robert Bork’s famous character assassination to the Human Rights Campaign leveraging powerful corporate partners to threaten commercial boycotts of states passing “anti-gay” legislation and the DOJ’s refusal to grant exemptions from the HHC mandate to religious institutions and groups on the basis of religious conscience, confrontational protest tactics like obstructing highways or shouting down and “de-platforming” speakers on college campuses. All of these “take no prisoners” approaches have a common starting assumption: that they are morally right in their perspective on race, sexuality, or whatever else, and therefore all measures are appropriate. Is it so hard to imagine a Pro-Life Robespierre ascending to the highest levels of the DNC, then using Democrats’ well-developed language of moral puritanism to denounce her opponents and expose Planned Parenthood and NARAL to be the real enemies of the sexual revolution? Today, the progressive Left has poured for itself a solid foundation of illiberalism on which to draw for this task. If advanced in this way, I think the opposition would fold like a house of cards and the Democratic Party could solidify its claim to moral superiority.

Gay Rights

This would still be a pillar of the party platform. The polls articulate as much. This is still a winning issue for Democrats and it doesn’t need to change. What does need to change is the ability to personally dissent due to deeply held religious beliefs, albeit ones that would not lead any Democratic politician or coalition to seek to change the established constitutional right to same-sex marriage (as if anyone even could.) Basically, for religiously conservative Democrats, the accepted formulation ought to be: “that’s a religious issue, not a political issue” which is presently (and incoherently) advanced to explain religious Democrats’ opposition to abortion. It seems to me that this logic holds at least some water when applied to same sex marriage while in the case of abortion, it seems to suggest that the question of ending of human life ought to be confined to one’s place of worship.

The policy implications of such a move would mean that the Human Rights Campaign would need to be encouraged to enjoy the fruits of their moral and legal victories while being magnanimous to those in defeat. Publicly shaming anyone who does not give total and full throated allegiance to the new sexual orthodoxy or leading corporate boycotts of states trying to pass RFRA laws is simply Maoism, carrying out the very cultural revolution they abhorred the Religious Right for attempting to wage. Furthermore, gay rights advocates need to understand that the GOP just elected the most pro-gay president in history. Democrats ought to be concerned that they are not advancing a version of the sexual revolution that is both unattractively toxic, and ideologically homogenous. Put another way, violent protests like those at Berkeley (and other colleges) end up having the curious effect of making right-wing gay provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos seem both palatable and punk rock by comparison. Instead of continuing to fight battles they’ve already won and police thought crime, the sexual revolutionaries of the Democratic Party will need to turn down the heat, or risk a Thermidorian reaction from the Right.

Identity Politics

I see no reason for the Democratic Party, as a tactical matter, to moderate its pitch to ethnic minorities. It might, however make it a more concrete message. Articulating how ethnic minorities’ lives will be made better by particular policy programs is preferable to signaling over and over how outrageous it is that people are still racist. If white privilege is, as Ta-Nehisi Coates and others claim, a persistent reality, America’s original sin from which there is no escape, then it might be helpful to produce a plan of salvation for its perpetrators. Much of the discomfort and disagreement with the new racial consensus–which has been just the unexpected popularization of a junior college version of post-structuralist theory–is misinterpreted as self-justification or evidence for more white privilege. Instead, it’s simply been recognition that it is fruitless to live as a flagellant. It seems that the only way to combat white privilege in oneself is to be constantly unmoored, to denounce oneself so frequently and virulently that no one can deny the depths of your shame. This rhetoric is distasteful to absolutely everyone, except perhaps the speaker, and does nobody any real good. While leaving young bright eyed suburban liberal whites no recourse but to wallow in their own shame may feel momentarily satisfying, it will only end up building a coalition of fear rather than camaraderie. Instead, young liberal whites (and old ones too) need to be offered a “path to citizenship” in the rainbow coalition. This will have to be both a political and intellectual exercise in charity. Social Justice Warriors will have to learn to sing together again and embody the promised land they want to lead people to if they want to make gains.

Humbling Hollywood

Democrats have grown used to celebrities cozying up to their cause, throwing fundraisers, and making what they suppose are funny ads that will reach the youths. But it’s important to realize why Hollywood’s fawning support is more liability than asset. First, it seems to validate Trump’s appeal to lower classes. Working class voters (of all races) do not know or care what Elizabeth Banks thinks about the country. Hers and her celebrity peers’ lives are so far removed from those of the average voter, that their weighing in on political matters can only be received as self-serving, well, theater. Nobody seriously believes that Elizabeth Banks’s life will change one bit no matter who is in the White House, so her political preference is just that: preference. Worse still, actors, musicians, and directors have lately cultivated the fantasy that they are some sort of counterculture. Children of the ’60s and ’70s, they have presently cultivated the fantasy that they constitute something between a marginalized minority and a community charged with providing the nation, nay the world, with a prophetic moral vision. Hence, Meryl Streep can contend, with a straight face, that the crowd at the Golden Globes is a persecuted community who shares in the sufferings of persecuted minorities and the working poor. They are, in fact, a group of people who are each worth the GDP of several small countries who have had the good fortune to benefit from an affluent society’s appetite for titillation and escapism. They entertain everyone but inspire no one, and so they ought to be treated as a circus tent of performers, not illumined messengers with their fingers on the pulse of culture. Courting favor from Hollywood is no way to win over people left behind by the digital revolution, minorities, or just about anyone else who votes in large numbers. A class of wealthy, attractive nobles ought to discomfit a party who claims to understand and work in the interests of the poor, and Democrats need to work to make sure Hollywood types are kept at arm’s length.

Donald Trump’s own brand of celebrity appeal ought to provide its own lesson for how the media landscape has evolved past simplistic endorsements from highly paid celebrities. While Robert Downey Junior and others made smug, tongue-in-cheek appeals to vote Democrat, Trump was gaining free exposure from supporters photoshopping memes and attacking on social media. It turns out that attention isn’t exclusively commanded by beautiful, famous people. This election cycle, a cartoon stoner frog turned out to be more effective in getting out the message than comedians delivering an entertaining, left wing take on the news. Ugliness has its own dark appeal in the internet age, and transgression will always have an edge over good clean fun. While Clinton was pitching to moviegoers, Trump won the Adult Swim crowd. The sooner Democrats realize that Hollywood represents a dull and outdated establishment, not the edgy fringe, the sooner they can find better and more relevant spokespeople.

This is the future I see for a robust Democratic Party. I wouldn’t necessarily vote for it, temperamental conservative that I am, but I’d also find it a lot harder to vote against it than what I was offered in 2016, especially considering the presently enthroned alternative. On Democratic cultural policy and rhetoric, here’s to change, progress, and victory.

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