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For many of us, election night 2016 induced shock, dismay, horror, disbelief, depression and, over a longer term, a kind of PTSD. It also generated all manner of reexamination, some of it analytical and data focused and much of it sheer hand wringing – "how could this have happened?” Today, the “Deliver Us From Trump” (DUFT) party (which includes Democrats, Independents and Republican Never Trumpers and Not Trump Again) is exhibiting energetic enthusiasm for whatever it takes (and generally whoever) to elect a Democratic president in 2020. Nevertheless, the DUFT party is afflicted with doubts and fears driven mainly by the 2016 nightmare and by the kaleidoscope of advice from all corners advising how to avoid catastrophe in 2020 and by the nagging question in everyone’s mind: "Can it happen again?"
In 2012 the Republicans engaged in a very simple post-mortem, which was sensible and resulted in a blueprint that, if implemented, would have moved the party toward the center and would have spoken effectively to groups that have been traditionally supportive of the Democratic party. But they chose to ignore the analysis and went in the opposite direction. Still, they elected Donald Trump, who quite simply – if completely disingenuously – promised to Make America Great Again.
The Democrats’ 2016 post-mortem is more complex, more nuanced and, ultimately, so complicated that it has failed to yield any clear remedial plan for 2020. What has evolved is a combination of two sources of energy but lacking a clear design for action. The first is DUFT – “I would vote for my neighbor’s dog vs. Donald Trump.” The second is the fierce debate between the Restoration party and the Renaissance party.
To oversimplify, Restoration party believers are seeking – and promising – a return to a quieter, more peaceful, more harmonious time in politics and society when mutual respect, collaboration and empathy marked social and political interaction. To oversimplify again, Renaissance believers identify fault lines in society which they blame for the decades’ long growth of unequal sharing of resources, opportunities and wealth creation. They promise a fight to institute structural change that will reallocate those benefits more equitably.
At the end of the day, however, I think Democrats are struggling with a very simple question – and challenge. It is “Why did the U.S. elect Donald Trump president?” It is to be hoped that the answer to this question will help to avoid his re-election in 2020.
I do not pretend to have the answer. Nevertheless, we’re at no loss for advice and critiques with respect to 2020 and the array of candidates:
· Biden is too tired and not assertive enough.
· Warren and Sanders are too extreme, too far left, and too socialist.
· Harris lost the Mojo she had early on and had to drop out.
· Buttigieg is too young, too inexperienced and outside the cultural mainstream.
· Oh, yes, we can’t win this or that or the other state with so-and-so at the top of the ticket.
A further complicating factor is that much of this advice comes from current and former Republicans, including the Never and Not Again crowd (e.g., Bret Stephens, David Brooks, Ross Douthat, etc.).
In fact, the Democratic primary has blessed the country with a data driven, historically based and politically informed discussion of the big issues. For that we should be thanking all – or virtually all – the Democratic candidates who have put their personal lives to one side and devoted themselves almost exclusively to talking sense to the American people. Moreover, in spite of the apocalyptic declarations of doom and defeat associated with one or another candidate and one or another policy prescription, the front runner has seen his insurmountable lead evaporate followed by a recovery of sorts and a maintenance of strength some predicted would have disappeared by now.
Similarly, the Improbables given little or no chance at the outset have fashioned formidable and sustaining challenges that could well ripen into victory (Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg). And, finally, I think it noteworthy – to state the obvious – that not a single vote has been cast in any caucus or primary election. In other words, we are still scrimmaging in the exhibition season with the regular season of primaries and caucuses yet to begin.
I have two or three prescriptions for our predicament – despite lacking an ultimate answer to the basic question of how we can be sure to evict Trump from the presidency next November.
The first is this. Support one or more candidates with everything you can muster: advocacy with friends, acquaintances, associates and people you meet on the street plus whatever you can spare in the way of financial contributions. Pick one if that suits best. If you can, designate two or three as worthy evangelists on your behalf and support all of them until one or the other begins to move toward victory.
The second is this. Recognize, adopt and promote (with enthusiasm) the most expansive reach of the Democratic tent possible. Some sense of this precept is to be found in this op-ed published in the New York Times. Not only can we not ignore its message – we fail to comprehend and act upon it at our peril. But our challenge is not confined to the rural folks described in the article. The Democratic party must empathize with, defend and speak for women, people of color, young people and the forgotten middle class, in addition to the traditional constituencies that have sustained it for decades. And it must do this effectively.
The third is this. Let’s understand and accept the fault lines in our political discussions. One is policy versus politics. We must win. If we fail to win control of the Congress and the Presidency, we will not have the ability to effectuate change responsive to the country’s needs. To do that we must have values, a vision, a program and policies that persuade voters to elect our candidates.
Another is me versus them. To paraphrase JFK, I am talking about the things your country can do for you vs. the things your country can do for them. There is a place for each if we understand when and how each is influencing our thinking and that of the larger national discussion. It is especially important, however, that we understand when what our country can do for them is actually what is best for us.
I’ve just read a book which speaks to this last point. It is a big, analytical, theoretical attempt to explain what has happened to America in the past 60-70 years. It is an epiphany. It is a thought provoker. I cannot recommend it too highly or too emphatically. The name of the book is The Meritocracy Trap. Its author is Paul Markovitz.
I know that’s a ton of stuff. I hope it is stimulating, provocative and interesting. In any event, please keep the faith. Keep believing. Keep up the struggle.
Sunny Side Up!
With best regards.
- Mike Schell