What good does it do?

Rhetorically, there were a number of moments in last night’s debate that seem to have captured parts of the liberal imagination. Hillary Clinton appealed to a basic right to bodily autonomy and to make that right accessible with support for Planned Parenthood and related medical providers. Bernie Sanders unequivocally declared that Black Lives Matter. Martin O’Malley almost captured something similar by stating that bigotry had no room in the Democratic Party, but Jim Webb’s own comments throughout the night called that belief in such a categorical progressiveness into question. Even in that case, Webb’s presence highlighted his out-of-place status in the broader Democratic Party. As Jamelle Bouie put it:

In short, Webb being there only underscored the stated commitments to addressing racial, gendered, and other inequalities. There aren’t really any Dixiecrats anymore. This is what the Democratic Party has become.

So with a tight field of candidates largely competing to be a presidential nominee who could advance that sort of US self image at the highest level in the country, what’s not to love? The Democratic Party has won the popular vote five out of six times in the most recent elections (which translated into four uncontested wins). The Reagan Revolution seems to have been more of a momentary happenstance of White Flight from the Democratic Party that could make the White House an insurmountable Republican fortress.

While White people continue to be a majority of residents of the US, and disproportionately represented in electoral registration and participation, enough didn’t flee the Democratic Party that they and a growing number of voters of color can be a surprisingly effective electoral coalition. It’s tempered by all of the problems inherent in national coalitions – it’s slow-moving, continually renegotiated, and subject to limited radical action – yet it can at least promise to get a lot done and seemingly mean it.

Part of the implied problem there is that there are limits to what any political party can do. Almost by definition, they operate within a standard political process. The closest thing to an alternative are parties like Sinn Féin or historically India’s Congress Party, which are political branches of counter-state forces. The Democratic Party’s origins are rather different from that sort of an organization, and the type of imperial conditions that encourage those types of political parties haven’t existed in the US for several centuries. In the absence of that, a mainstream, gradualist policy-tinkering has become the order of the day.

Even that however is difficult for Democrats to enact on a national scale as the brief window in 2009-2011 showed. As a Party, they held the presidency and majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Healthcare reform debates choked out almost every other reform issue, leaving us with the current situation in which many hallmarks of the Bush era linger – most obviously widespread warfare, indefinite detention centers, and mass surveillance. Deportation actions increased, Guantánamo remains open, and we’re using drones more than ever. Weren’t the Democrats interested in ending all of that? Weren’t there great flowery statements in debates and elsewhere on the campaign trail against those exact things?

There’s a number of other, less intractable factors that could be blamed for that, from fickle Blue Dogs to Filibuster-enabling Joe Lieberman. As much as the Democrats can’t deliver on everything because of the political and electoral system they must work within, there’s also a question of what they can do with a presidency dependent on how well they do in Congress and the states. Tomorrow and later this week I’ll take a look at the prospects of the Democratic Party in down ticket races and what they could potentially make of 2016.

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One thought on “What good does it do?

  1. […] As I mentioned yesterday, enacting significant reform on a laundry list of issues is something that the Democratic Party by its very nature is going to have trouble doing. At an absolute minimum, it’s something they will need to do at the least by controlling three national centers of power: the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the White House. With that in mind, many of the vague predictions you can make this early about how the major parties will do in the coming 2016 election have found reason for the Democrats to celebrate. Rachel Maddow, admittedly an often optimistic voice, noted that as a presidential election year turnout will likely be higher, favoring the Democrats in down ticket races. What’s more, elections in the Senate are built around six-year terms, so a number of the seats that Republicans have to defend within that body will be freshmen elected in the unusually Republican-favoring midterms in 2010. […]

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