What is the future for “once and future liberals”?

Democrats have to come to terms with populism.

Somewhere in northern Arizona. © Dave DuBay

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.


Author: Dave DuBay

Dave is a social worker from Phoenix, Arizona. He blogs at thepaintedporch.net. He's also at twitter.com/Dave_DuBay.

3 thoughts on “What is the future for “once and future liberals”?”

  1. Meanwhile, Democrats are doubling down on their support for the establishment, purging Bernie Sanders supporters from the Democratic National Convention.

    Which proves to me, (as an outsider with no love for Hilary Clinton who if I were American, would have voted for begrudgingly), that they have not learnt their lesson of 12 months ago.

    I never thought I could get behind somebody like Jeremy Corbyn (on my side of the Atlantic) or Bernie Sanders (on yours), but the establishment failed, failed and failed again in 2016. It’s only hope for continued legitimacy lies with French President Emmanuel Macron and he may yet prove an anomaly.

    it’s time to do something new. In many ways, Corbyn feels like a Prime Minister in waiting. While I’m not a flag-waving Corbynite, I will breathe a sigh of relief when it does happen. I suspect the same is true of Sanders – if not the man, then certainly his message. It’s going to be turbulent but interesting.


    1. There’s a split among Democrats just as there is among Republicans, except that Republican populists seem to have won. Who knows if populist Democrats eventually will. But on both sides of the pond politicians need to take this populist wave seriously.

      The Corbyn-Sanders comparison is interesting. I’ve seen articles predicting that Corbyn will be the next PM, but I wasn’t sure what to make of that.


      1. The (tax dodging billionaire) media have thrown everything they have at him for more than two years. When he was elected as Labour Party leader in 2015, his inclusion was a joke. Nobody felt a traditional left candidate could ever win here again. But he won with a landslide. The Blairites of the party did everything they could to undermine him and launched a leadership bid in summer 2016. He was re-elected as party leader with an even larger majority than he had before. Even though the party chair did everything they could to rig it against him by refusing new members from signing up and throwing their weight behind his opponent.

        Cut to June this year, the Tories had a 20 point lead in the polls over Labour. The Blairites rubbed their hands with glee at the prospect of the electorate doing to Corbyn what they couldn’t. Yet, within just six weeks, he overturned that enormous lead to just two points and the Tories were forced into a minority government using an extremist party in the DUP to support them.

        Corbyn’s appeal is that he’s promising hope and investment in the country’s infrastructure and to renationalise those national assets that have been privatised and have been a disaster since privatisation.

        He is basically a PM in waiting because the IMF said his plan is a sound one and his programme of investment presented in the manifesto at the last election was fully-costed.


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