The Democratic Party is debating the wrong things.
As after every election loss, Democrats are discussing what ideas and policies to support to win future elections. This discussion is based on the mistaken belief that our elections are still just about the direction of the country in terms of public policy.
That would be true in a contest between two political parties fighting to determine who will represent the people as a whole. However, the core of the Republican Party and the conservative movement behind it do not seek to represent everyone and cannot be represented by the Democratic Party. The core of the GOP is a particular tribe of people demanding that the GOP represent that tribe’s claim to the right to rule over everyone else.
The most obvious example of this are white supremacists who explicitly argue for a white dominated nation. But it’s not just them. When the religious right argues that America is a Christian nation, they’re implying that this country belongs to them and not people of other faiths. When the tea party leaders talk about themselves as the ‘real Americans’, they are implying that the rest of us are somehow foreigners with no real claim to the country. More subtly, conservative legal minds have for decades now argued that conservative interpretations of the constitution and the American Revolution are the only legitimate interpretations, implying that only those advocating such interpretations have a claim on the country. What’s more, the conservative rejection of the notion of multiculturalism implies a belief that America should have a single culture and that such culture should be theirs. Even the economic arguments for capitalism are tinged with arguments for a society based on a hierarchy in which the wealthy ‘job creators’ at the top should have free reign to make decisions for the rest of us.
On the basis of these views, large groups of conservatives have rejected the legitimacy of the last two democratic presidents and have done everything in their power to undermine them. They spent millions of government dollars on partisan investigations that mostly found nothing. They successfully impeached the first on a matter of no import to the country and obstructed much of the agenda of the second. In Obama’s case, much of the right even denied his legitimacy as an American citizen. What’s more, there was every indication — from the Republican presidential candidate himself — that they intended to respond the same way with the next Democratic president had she won.
Conservatives are entitled to their vision of America, but so too are liberals. In a country of equal citizens with an equal claim on the country that means both sides must compromise to reach a shared vision. The refusal to compromise at all is a sign of a group of people putting into action their belief that they own the country and as owners have the right to set the rules.
The truth is that for decades now significant elements of the right have been waging a cold civil war against the rest of America and even in some quarters against its foundational ideals. Spend any time reading, listening to or viewing conservative media and you will see Democrats and liberals demonized as a group and even portrayed as enemies of America. In fact, you will even in some places, find people speaking the language of war and directing it at their fellow Americans who are not conservative. That they view it as war is evidenced by the moral compromises they are willing to make to achieve victory, even backing a man like Donald Trump who violates many of their core beliefs. It’s also seen in their obsession with guns, the development of the militia movement and the mass stockpiling of weapons. Conservative commentator Sean Hannity made the thinking clear in his 2002 book, Let Freedom Ring, when he characterized liberals as un-American enablers of terrorists and wrote, ‘It is therefore our job to stop them. Not just debate them, but defeat them.’
Over and over again in the last 40 years, Democrats have dismissed the hard right elements of the Republican Party as fringe only to see them gain more and more influence over that party. The time is long past to recognize that they are the core of the conservative movement and that moderate Republicans are their hapless stooges. It’s also time for Democrats to recognize the existential threat that this situation poses to a liberal/moderate vision of America and the very concept of equality.
Democrats cannot work with or seek the support of people who do not recognize our right to exist as Americans or as political equals. We also cannot work with those who enable them. Winning over voters prejudiced against us with better policy ideas is impossible and ultimately beside the point. Nor can we defeat them by calling them racist or sexist.
Ultimately all political parties and movements represent people not abstract ideas and policies. Ideas merely serve as the means by which people are brought together and directed toward a common purpose. The Democratic Party’s people are, first and foremost, those who believe in a country that includes everyone as equal citizens regardless of background or belief. If that definition excludes some of the white working class. So be it. The party cannot represent the rights of all people and those who would countenance taking rights away at the same time. Besides that, there is no future for America as a free, democratic society without full acceptance of everyone as equals. This is simply a line in the sand that cannot be crossed.
Democrats must stake their claim to the country and work to make the right recognize it. We must argue for the legitimacy of our constitutional interpretations and visions for America. We must point out the ways in which America’s forefathers supported a stronger central government, regulation of the economy and the spending of tax money to improve the general welfare. We must demand acknowledgement that America is and always has been multi-ethnic, multilingual and multicultural. We must demand that they recognize that all the different groups that have come to America have contributed to its success and that the country was not built solely by white, male Christians. We must demand that they stop smearing us as a group and lying about our candidates and make it an issue every time they do it. We must reject as illegitimate any vision that would give one group of Americans greater claim to the country than another, especially those claims based on inherent qualities such as race or gender. We must likewise forcefully reject a vision that would claim greater ownership for a particular religion or a particular culture or a particular economic system, especially given that these often serve as a rough proxy for distinguishing people on the basis of race.
We must demand that the progressive vision of America be accepted as a legitimate vision even if it’s not one everyone agrees with and that those advocating it are legitimately American. Then we must demand that such acknowledgement mean something. It must mean that the right is willing to compromise with liberals to create a shared vision of the country because the country belongs to liberals too.
Until the demands outlined above are fully met the Democratic Party must regard the core of the Republican Party the way it regard Democrats — as a foreign people who happen to inhabit the same country. This doesn’t mean Democrats need be hostile toward Republicans just like we need not be hostile toward the British just because they are foreign. But it does mean we must realize in every negotiation with them that they are looking out for the interests of their people not the interests of everyone.
When the Democratic Party could reasonably hope to represent all of the American people it made sense for its ideas and policies to reflect the whole of America and the whole of America’s interests. In that instance, the Clinton strategy of triangulation, of playing off the extreme left against the extreme right, made sense as a strategy to represent the interests of the whole. Now, however, every negotiation and compromise with the Republican Party needs to proceed from the understanding that the Democratic Party only represents those who accept everyone’s claim to the country as political equals. Anything less is a betrayal because this is not politics as usual. This is political warfare between two peoples for the fundamental founding ideals of the country.