The Post-Election Democratic Party: It’s Time to Make the “Big Tent” a Reality

In the aftermath of the disastrous presidential election, journalists, political analysts, and other “pundits” have begun to dissect the Democratic Party in an effort to determine how the party and its candidate lost so unexpectedly and decisively.

This is reminiscent of the review undertaken by the Republican Party after its 2012 defeat – the so-called “autopsy” report. The Democratic Party has not yet begun an analysis of its problems, pending the selection of a new chairperson of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and new party leadership. Nonetheless, the current discussions point to an approach similar to that of the Republicans four years ago – an indictment of the party for overlooking key voting blocs and recommendations for engaging with them.

In this case the group most consistently mentioned is “working class” white men – but it is actually “working class” white potential voters generally – in so-called “rust belt” states. This group contained a sufficient number of Democratic voters to give Barack Obama victories in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Michigan, Iowa, and Florida, all of which Hillary Clinton lost.

Activist Film-maker Michael Moore, a lifelong resident of Michigan, predicted that Trump would defeat Clinton. He saw up close how the Trump campaign was succeeding where the Democratic campaign failed in appealing to the disenchanted, high school-educated white workers in the Midwestern “rust belt.” These workers had seen their factory jobs disappear and their incomes decline and had received no satisfactory response from the “elites,” among whom they included white collar professionals, “Wall   Street,” and especially the political class in Washington, DC.

So now, as racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic sentiments are freely and publicly expressed and as an increasing number of incidents of violence toward non-white people are reported, progressives are asked to consider how to make their party more accommodating to working class whites who found in Trump the expression of their barely suppressed emotions. Thus, progressive Democrats face the challenge of rallying their core constituencies against the Republican machinery that controls the entire Federal government and many state governments as well, while seeking to accommodate a hostile Republican constituency in the hope of regaining the political ascendancy.

A problem facing progressive Democrats is that their core constituency has been  blacks, college-educated whites in urban areas, some Hispanics (but fewer than anticipated), and the membership of some labor unions and the leadership of others. These constituencies are not sufficient for victories at the state and national levels. And some groups within this ad hoc coalition may abandon the Democratic Party for more aggressively leftist third parties and for ethnically based parties.

Therefore, it seems that the Democrats, hopefully under progressive leadership, must find a way to reach out to “working class” white voters, to whom the attribution of white privilege is considered an insult added to the injury of national indifference to their experience. Sadly, this group cannot see that the people they despise – blacks, immigrants, college graduates struggling to get a foothold in the economy – share their plight and their despair.  So outreach to them may require the same appeal to their primitive brain that proved successful for Republican candidates.

The challenge that Democratic Party leaders face is that of bringing the progressive values of the New Deal into the context of the 21st century world economy. The first step in meeting this challenge is to realistically confront the world we face through an open negotiation among the constituencies who are said to make up the Democratic Party’s “Big Tent.”

However, the “Big Tent” is not only a cliché; it is a pernicious hoax on the Democratic faithful. Rather than an arena for consensus among Democratic constituencies, it is a textbook example of a corporatist institution: an assembly of elites who sit atop the organizations identified with the Democratic coalition and claim to speak for their constituents. In fact, they dole out  rhetoric and symbolism, keeping each group in its allocated space within the party while hoarding power for themselves and their inner circles.

If the next Democratic leadership cadre wants to expand the party’s base, they must engage the “rank and file” among the groups the party needs attract if it is to re-establish its role as the representative of working people. They must acknowledge that they have not delivered on their promises to the constituencies that have been left behind by the recovery. These groups include working class blacks and working class whites, displaced industrial workers and underemployed recent college graduates, residents of inner cities and of rural communities.

This will be an enormous undertaking for a party that must simultaneously play offence (rebuilding and campaigning) and defense (against the reactionary onslaught of the Republicans). It is likely that national policies enacted by the Republicans will be successful and force Democrats to fight their battles at the state level.

This could prove fortunate. The 2018 elections will focus on candidates in the states: governors, senators, congress members, and state and local legislators. It is in the states the Republicans made the gains that allowed them to gerrymander congressional districts, limit voter eligibility, and enact laws targeting sexual minorities. And it is in the states that the Democrats must make the case that the big tent is a reality and that no constituency’s voice is unheard.