Analyzing election results
Democrats won across America in the election held on Nov. 7. Some wins surprised no one, while others were tossups. Two major shocks were that the Democrats won more seats in the Virginia House of Delegates than they had in nearly a century, and when a Washington Post story with 30-plus sources alleged that Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore had solicited teenage girls at custody hearings, high school classes and shopping malls.
At moments like this, opinions tend to overestimate current trends and pretend that what ended up happening was unavoidable. Looking at the 2017 elections, neither is true. But looking at the two parties as they sit right now, there are conclusions to draw, and they give Democrats reasons to be excited.
The best way to summarize the Republican Party in 2017 is to say that the party of personal responsibility and individual liberty has become the party of shortcuts. Flirting with white identity politics, phony flamboyance, rampant lying, fear-mongering and insubstantial culture war polemics are all shortcuts because they substitute tribalism and passion—and not much else—for realistic, workable policy solutions.
Trumpism is an ideology of shortcuts. It grew in the GOP more than in the Democratic Party because older Republican staples—gerrymandering, opinion-wrapped-as-news, systematic gridlock—are shortcuts too. But as President Donald Trump warns in “The Art of the Deal,” “You can’t con people, at least not for long. … If you don’t deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on.” The shortcut party is reaping what it sowed. It deserves to lose.
Recognizing the cheapening of the GOP brand, there’s one big implication: Trumpism without President Trump is not a safe bet. Virginia GOP nominee Ed Gillespie failed to win a winnable race using the formula that worked for President Trump. Other politicians will notice.
Meanwhile, Roy Moore is facing far more backlash from the national party for sexual allegations against him than President Trump ever did. This is a more tangible takeaway for other Republicans: none of them are as important to the party as his actions may not have repercussions, but theirs will. The massive shortcut that is Trumpism will not win the GOP every race.
At the same time, Democrats are learning how to campaign. Groups like Indivisible, Black Lives Matter, Let America Vote and even the Democratic Socialists of America are bringing the elite, meritocratic left back into the neighborhood canvassing and town hall meetings that win local elections and build national movements. Young people of color are building on their neighborhoods’ social bonds to win power for their communities by protesting, reading, organizing and running for office. The list goes on. Not all of these citizen groups even support the Democratic Party, but by mobilizing ordinary voters, they’re motivating the party to follow.
The reason for all this? A year ago, President Trump’s victory left vast swaths of America feeling targeted or ignored by his treacherous, lying, white-focused campaign. So ordinary Americans stood up for themselves, organizing, marching, rallying, forming platforms and making calls to legislators when their rights were threatened. And they’re not done yet.
Just as important as these activists’ passion is what they’re fighting for. This year, Democrats are seeing that “diversity issues” and “economic issues” don’t necessarily contradict one another. In the past year, droves of pundits have fretted that the American left is hung up on a platform of radical inclusion, at the expense of appeals to a broad coalition of voters. This was never true in practice, but it led some in the Democratic coalition to fear that this “economic appeal” was just a justification to ditch painfully underrepresented minorities in favor of white voters. In other words, answering a shortcut with a shortcut yet again.
The 2017 elections should show us that this is not the case for the Democrats. Their much-mocked “Better Deal” is a serious platform, with emphasis on labor unions, rural and urban development and corporate concentration, as well as civil rights. It’s a thoroughly credible platform for candidates of every ethnicity, gender, education level, zip code and sexual orientation. Case in point: Virginians elected Danica Roem as the first transgender person to win state office on a platform of filling potholes on local highways. If this trend is real, it looks like the Democrats have rejected another shortcut: the idea that you can’t fight for pluralism and economic dignity at the same time.
Back in Alabama, Democrat Doug Jones’s appeal to voters is a dignified balance of “tabletop issues” like healthcare, jobs and education with his history of fighting for civil rights. If he wins, it will be a clear mandate to Democrats that the path to victory isn’t just about going to the center, to the right or to the left. It’s holistic and starts from the bottom. It’s about listening to the concerns, fears and hopes of ordinary Americans, enlisting their help and their voices, translating those voices into real, credible platforms, handing those platforms to credible candidates and running like hell—in every town and in every district. And that’s no shortcut.