Can Democrats Turn Anger Into Action? Don’t Bet On It

Presidential losses often spur political lamentation. For Democrats this has often meant a turn towards moderation. As David Weigel and Karen Tumulty write for the Washington Post:

After previous defeats, the modern Democratic Party typically plunged into a discussion between a moderate wing and a liberal wing. George McGovern’s 1972 loss led to an internal party battle against the New Left. After Walter Mondale’s 1984 defeat, a group of moderate strategists formed the Democratic Leadership Council. After the 2004 defeat of John F. Kerry, a new generation of like-minded strategists launched Third Way, with a focus on lost moderate voters.

This time is different. Rather than create a new Third Way, the Post reports that left-leaning Democrats went so far as to protest the group’s attendance at a House Democratic retreat. Some progressive members reportedly walked out.

The report is indicative of Democrats’ new post-election strategy: rather than search for moderate voters who were turned off by their leftward turn, they’re turning over rocks looking for the voters who weren’t excited enough by mainstream progressivism. In order to woo the radicals they are fighting every Cabinet nominee, amping up the rhetoric against even the most mundane actions, and organizing rallies and marches. Rather than a “third way,” it’s “my way or the highway.”

The question is whether the anger against President Trump can ever translate into political action for Democrats. Weigh and Tumulty write of the concern:

Yet even now, at every level of national Democratic politics, the discussion of how the party can win back voters it lost is subsumed by the argument about how to oppose Trump. The answer is always: as much as possible. And for the moment, that does seem to be engaging a broad, new population of activists. In the race for chairman of the Democratic National Committee, even Thomas Perez, the former secretary of labor viewed skeptically by some supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), has said that Democrats should hit Trump “between the eyes with a two-by-four and treat him like Mitch McConnell treated Barack Obama.”

The race for chairman is indicative of the problems inherent to a political strategy based on anger. Despite Perez’s promise to whack the president with a two-by-four, he is somehow seen as “not progressive enough” by the leftist, activist element of the Democrat Party.

“The question is simple: Do we stay with a failed status quo approach or do we go forward with a fundamental restructuring of the Democratic Party,” Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, said after learning that Vice President Biden endorsed Perez. “I say we go forward and create a grassroots party which speaks for working people.”

Unsurprisingly, many Democrats were upset at Sanders’ decision to re-open the wounds he inflicted on the party during a bitter primary season.

“He doesn’t get to set the standard for a party he’s not a member of,” Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist told The Hill. “It’s up to those 447 longtime members of the party. If he’d like to have a vote, he should join the Democratic Party.”

The infighting has become typical for a party that can’t agree on a strategy forward. The party, just like the candidates running to lead it, doesn’t have a proactive vision, just a reactionary one. They, like Occupy Wall Street before them, know they want to be angry, they just don’t know how to turn it into a positive, hopeful message. As Frank Bruni writes for the New York Times:

Yelling has an impact, but it takes you only so far if you don’t choose your battles, marshal your fiercest energy for ones that can yield concrete results, and buckle down to the nitty-gritty of electing legislators who can actually vote against Trump’s worst initiatives in numbers that exceed those of his abettors. …

Trump provokes ire by the minute, but the response needs to be fashioned by the day or even week, lest everything blur. Resistance is a dish best served with discernment. Too much salt and you can’t taste the food itself.

That’s the trap with Trump, and Democrats fell into it during the presidential election, either not realizing how thoroughly he became the reference point for every conversation or not figuring out a way to mitigate that. Opposition to him crowded out support for anything else. Every negative moment came at the expense of a positive one.

That won’t change so long as Democrats continue to search for moderate enemies in their midst. It’s one thing to attempt to stoke a fire, it’s quite another to self-immolate.