The Democratic Party’s current festival of re-examination is both necessary and justified. They have just lost to the most unpopular presidential candidate in recent memory. Lockstep media support and a much larger war chest were not enough to save them from losing not only the presidency, but also in state races across the country.
Since President Obama’s first election, Democrats have lost control of the House and Senate, as well as a dozen governors’ houses and roughly 900 state legislative seats. Republicans have control of all levels of government in 24 states, while Democrats have total control over six. Overall, the party seems incapable of reaching out to the middle part of the country, white and middle-class voters.
This contrasts with the 1990s, when a group of party activists consciously rebuilt the party to appeal to middle-class Americans. Groups like the Democratic Leadership Council — for whose think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute, I worked for several years — pushed notions of personal responsibility, welfare reform, tough crime policies and economic growth that, embraced by Bill Clinton, expanded the party’s base in the Midwest, the Appalachians and even the Southeast.
Such a shift to the middle is unlikely today. Progressives generally see Hillary Clinton’s loss as largely a rejection of her husband’s neoliberal policies and want to push the party further to the left.
This parallels developments in the United Kingdom, where, following their defeat in 2015, the Labour Party promoted a far-left figure, Jeremy Corbyn, as its leader. This was driven by grassroots progressives — deeply green, multiculturalist and openly socialist. Many, including several high up in Labour’s parliamentary party, believe the party has little chance to win under such leadership.