For virtually my entire life, the Republican Party has had one rule- move right. I was born in 1983 and Ronald Reagan had already married social conservatism to fiscal conservatism and hawkish foreign policy, laying the groundwork for today’s GOP. From starting his campaign in Philadelphia, MS, to attacking unions and “welfare queens,” to huge increases in the Defense Budget, to tax cuts for the wealthy, the party of Reagan wasn’t wildly different on policy from the party of Trump. It moderated more, and it was more reasonable, but it was just an earlier model of the same beast.
The GOP’s lurch right didn’t end there. Newt Gingrich’s 1994 “Revolution” pushed Reagan policies, mixed with weaponized personal attacks. George W. Bush pushed the most Hawkish foreign policy in American history, while using social conservatism to divide America and motivate his base. Mitch McConnell weaponized governmental obstruction in ways Newt Gingrich wouldn’t even do. Donald Trump came along and offended our senses, but he’s really just the next logical step along the ugly, negative vein of our politics that Sarah Palin unleashed. All through it, the same principles remained. Tax cuts for the rich. Crippling deficits that we use to justify cuts to spending that helps marginalized people. A huge war machine. De-regulation for banks and corporations. Appeals to nationalism and religious identity.
Folks, this is who they are.
I actually think most of the country gets what the GOP is, at least on some level. I actually think the majority of America is bothered by it, at least on some level. Every once in a while, we see a revolt against it. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both were elected in part as responses to the GOP’s failings in government. The 2006 mid-term was virtually entirely a response to the Bush 43 Presidency. In 2017, the Democrats made historic gains in state legislatures, particularly Virginia’s, as a response to the Trump Presidency. Americans are uncomfortable on a basic level with an incompetent, fundamentally unfair government. They don’t approve of how things are done. Look at the polls in the Trump era- and even before that. People aren’t happy.
Yet, the facts are the facts- Americans vote for Republicans anyway. The GOP has held the majority in the U.S. House for 20 of the last 24 years. They’ve held the U.S. Senate for nearly 15 of the last 24 years. They’ve held most Governorships for eight years running now, and most of the state legislatures too. In fact, the GOP has held four of the last six Presidencies too, and therefore has had a stranglehold on our courts. America has been governed by Republicans for most of my life. The question we have to ask is easy: how?
The issue is that while the public may not be in love with the Republican Party, the Democratic Party isn’t what they’re looking for either. If the Democratic Party was considered to be the answer to the GOP’s over-reaching ideology, extremist policies, and governmental incompetence, they’d probably win a lot more elections. America sort of sees Democrats as just the opposite of the Republicans though. Democrats aren’t viewed right now as the reasonable alternative, but rather as the polar opposite of the GOP. Democrats have their own ideology. Democrats, like the Republicans, increasingly seem content to concede certain groups of voters. Democrats, like Republicans, seem to want to concentrate their policy solutions for America on their political base. Democrats seem to want to make America to be what they want it to be.
This would be fine, but Democrats have paid a bruising price for their vision, while the GOP has not. In the Democratic waves of 2006 and 2008, Democrats saw tremendous gains in suburban America. They gained seats in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York, and Cleveland. They gained blue-collar seats in Iowa and Wisconsin. They even won some rural seats in places like South Dakota. The party was seen as fixing the problems created by George W. Bush. Over just four years though, nearly all of those seats disappeared. Democrats were viewed as not representative of those districts anymore. Some of that directly traces back to the people who live in those places, and who they are. A lot of it also traces back to Democratic messaging though. Even very broad-based policies, like raising the minimum wage, aren’t discussed in broad based terms, but rather are tailored to explain how they help our base. To many voters, if they aren’t even a part of the Democratic message, they don’t view themselves as part of the Democratic Party. The 2016 campaign of Hillary Clinton only made that issue worse. We all know about her lack of attention in Wisconsin and Michigan, but what about her lack of visits in places like Wilkes-Barre, Reading, and Allentown, PA? What about her not visiting rural African-American voters in Eastern North Carolina? This goes far beyond a matter of racial politics- it’s a case of a party that wrote off large portions of America’s geography, and didn’t expect to see a loss of votes. The Democratic Party can’t win by only concentrating on the very liberal politics of America’s biggest cities. We’ve been shown that. Frankly, we should have learned that while winning in 2006, 2008, and even 2012.
The Democrats pay a price that Republicans don’t for their ideology. If the Democratic Party is going to emerge from it’s wilderness time out of power strong enough to hold a lasting majority, it won’t get there through a complete buy-in to being a Bernie Sanders style socialist party, or through the “Brooklyn progressive” vision of Hillary’s campaign. It’s just not what the voters who decide general elections typically are looking for us to offer.