After a grueling year in the political wilderness, Democrats see a ray of hope as they close out 2017, celebrating electoral wins in Virginia and Alabama, and honing their midterm attacks on the GOP’s wildly unpopular tax bill.
But lest Democrats wake up to a giant hangover next year, they would do well to make a few New Year’s resolutions before ladling out the holiday punch. Above all, they should take care not to fall into the same traps that have snarled the GOP.
Democrats have assailed President Trump and his allies for tearing down democratic norms, spreading falsehoods, and catering to elites. But progressives have struggled with their own destructive impulses, sounding troubling echoes of the disruptions on the right. Intra-party feuding, “antifa” violence, overwrought hyperbole, and secret political spending all threaten to drag Democrats off the high road.
Democrats can’t beat Republicans if they start acting like them. Their resolutions should include:
Don’t Embrace Secret Money: In the Alabama Senate race, a mysterious super PAC dubbed Highway 31 spent $5.1 million to help elect Democrat Doug Jones. Most of that money was spent “on credit” by three Democratic consulting firms, a maneuver that shielded donors’ identities until after the election. While technically legal, the arrangement violated the spirit of campaign-finance laws that require super PACs to fully disclose their donors. In early December, Politico reported that two leading Democratic super PACs—Senate Majority PAC and Priorities USA Action—were behind Highway 31. Democrats must have wanted to avert a backlash in deep red Alabama. But the ploy went against Democrats’ claim to support transparency in elections.
Even more secretive are several new anti-Trump groups, including the Indivisible Project, Our Revolution, and Majority Forward, that have been set up as tax-exempt organizations instead of as PACs. That means that they need not disclose their donors at all—raising questions over whether “dark” money should power the resistance to Trump.
Don’t Get Cozy with Billionaires: Hillary Clinton’s Wall Street speeches and high-dollar joint fundraising with the Democratic National Committee colored voters’ perceptions of her as untrustworthy. She also failed to articulate a clear political reform message, despite a platform that included sweeping democracy reforms. Democrats who have been busy launching a new “advisory firm” for big donors may invite similar critiques. The Republican Party’s embrace of billionaire contributors has backed the GOP into a legislative corner, and unleashed forces outside GOP leaders’ control. Democrats run the same risk if they spend more time huddling with big donors than listening to voters.
Don’t Violate Democratic Norms: Not a day goes by when Democrats don’t assail Trump for tearing down democratic institutions and standards. But the September clashes between hate groups and counter-protesters at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville drew back the curtain on leftist “antifa” organizers who say violence is justified to combat right-wing authoritarianism. Trump exploited the violence, which violated the norms of tolerance for free speech and peaceful protest, to double down on his claim that the nationalists included “very fine people” and that both sides were to blame.
Don’t Become the Party of No. Republicans focused so single-mindedly on opposing President Obama’s every move that they stopped generating any new ideas. That tactic left them empty-handed when they finally came to power. Democrats fixated on opposing Trump may win on the campaign trail, but they will blow their opportunity if they assume office with no consensus on policy solutions.
Don’t Start a Civil War. Democrats’ many intra-party grievances have been well documented. Some of the party’s harshest internal critics will no doubt help Democrats stay on the high road. But reflexive harangues at the “establishment” over the perceived failings of 2016 look a lot like the populist attacks on Mitch McConnell by the Steve Bannon wing of the GOP.
Napoleon is credited with the maxim: “Never interfere with your enemy when he is in the process of destroying himself.” The internal party emails that have infuriated so many Democrats came to light because Russian hackers deliberately set out to sow discord—and Democrats fell right into their trap.
Don’t Distort the Facts: The Washington Post estimates that Trump has averaged 5.5 false or misleading claims per day—a tough milestone for any Democrat to top. Still, the Post’s “Biggest Pinocchios of 2017” include three by Democrats and one by independent Senator Bernie Sanders. These include Sanders’s claim that “36,000 people will die yearly if Republicans repeal Obamacare,” and the statement by Senator Kamala Harris of California that “129 million people with preexisting conditions could be denied coverage” if the law were repealed. If Democrats want to continue taking Trump to task for his falsehoods, they had better stick with the facts themselves.
Don’t Forget Your Principles. While Democrats are squabbling over whether to move to the left or to the center, Republicans have tacked so far to the right that Democrats need not reinvent themselves. The majority of voters already agree with the Democratic Party on a host of key policy issues. Most voters want to protect the environment and promote alternative fuels; support stricter gun-control laws; want the government to ensure health-care coverage; oppose cuts to Medicaid; and back raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Soaring income inequality, which will only get worse under new GOP tax laws, hurts all Americans, whether they are rural working-class whites, voters of color, suburbanites, or city dwellers. In 2018, Democrats should simply be themselves. That’s what Doug Jones did in Alabama. All Democrats should resolve to follow his lead.