Democrats have to come to terms with populism.
Will Republicans lose the Senate in 2018? Will Democrats make gains in the House of Representatives? Will President Donald Trump be reelected in 2020?
Who knows. Democratic victories in November 2017 show the strength of anti-Trump sentiments. But progressives are wrong to think that getting rid of Trump will make Trumpism go away. Trump harnessed a pre-existing dynamic. And that populist dynamic—white identity politics, nationalism, anti-free trade—will continue without Trump.
Democrats and the mainstream media, though, don’t have a good track record for making predictions. During the 2016 primaries they predicted that Republicans wouldn’t nominate Trump. Then they predicted a revolt at the Republican National Convention. Next they said Trump would not win the presidency. Then they said he’d be impeached within a few months of taking office. Some still think Trump will be impeached.
Even if Trump is eventually impeached, the Republican establishment won’t come roaring back. Writing for Arc Digital Media, Nicholas Grossman declares that “the Republican civil war is over—the populists won.” Republican Senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker framed their retirements as a principled decision, but really it’s a retreat.
Meanwhile, Democrats are doubling down on their support for the establishment, purging Bernie Sanders supporters from the Democratic National Convention.
Resting on their laurels and expecting dissatisfaction with Trump to provide Democratic electoral victories in 2018 would be a mistake. An alternative is for Democrats to listen to and talk with middle America. But identity politics truncates real discussion because it creates a power competition.
Mark Lilla’s postmortem of the 2016 election—The Once and Future Liberal—is controversial. Lilla writes that,
Speaking as an X…sets up a wall against questions, which by definition come from a non-X perspective. And it turns the encounter into a power relation: the winner of the argument will be whoever has invoked the morally superior identity and expressed the most outrage at being questioned. …I think A…now takes the form, Speaking as an X, I am offended that you claim B.
He says that “JFK’s challenge, What can I do for my country…became…what does my country owe me by virtue of my identity?” Republicans historically have focused on our shared identity as Americans—as citizens of a democratic republic. But Democrats focus on “our identification with different social groups within it.”
As conservatives co-opt identity politics, however, their focus on our shared identity as Americans withers. And barely more than a third of Americans approve of Trump’s performance—lower than any president in recent memory. Generic polls asking whether possible 2018 voters prefer Democrats or Republicans vary from a three point Democratic lead (The Economist and Yougov) to a fifteen point Democratic lead (FOX News). Of course, a lot can change in a year. And we can’t assume that a general preference for Democrats will apply to specific House and Senate races.
But the Democratic Party leadership getting solidly behind the establishment is perhaps a bigger mistake. The populist wave that brought Trump to power—and which almost enabled independent Bernie Sanders to become a usurper in the Democratic Party—is not a fad.