The Democratic Party, fresh off its worst electoral defeat since the 1920s, is struggling to find its identity. They should learn from the UK Labour Party that shifting leftward is not the answer.
It was only six months ago that liberal outlets and television pundits regularly discussed the crippled state of the Republican Party. With candidate Donald Trump in command of a deeply fractured party and demographic changes suggesting an insurmountable advantage for Democrats, analysts suggested an autopsy of the GOP was necessary. On November 8th, that all changed. In a remarkable turn of events, Republicans gained control of the Executive and Legislative Branches, along with a majority of Governorships and state legislatures. Still reeling from the result, the Democratic Party continues searching for answers to how they can succeed in the future.
In this period of uncertainty, Democrats remain fiercely divided. The traditional factions of centrist, conservative and liberal are no longer relevant in a party where members are characterized as either establishment or progressive.
The establishment camp encompasses Democratic standard-bearers of past and present. It includes former leaders, such as President Obama and the Clintons, as well as the current Party heads of the House (Nancy Pelosi), Senate (Chuck Schumer) and Democratic National Committee (Tom Perez). This group largely champions the long-established Democratic beliefs of social and economic equality, expressed in policies that include healthcare expansion, social programs, labor union support and affordable college tuition.
Conversely, the more liberal progressives offer a very different future for the Party and country. Led by Independent Senator Bernie Sanders, this group includes popular figures such as Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Keith Ellison. Building on Democratic beliefs, the liberal progressives advocate for more substantive national reform, moving the country towards a welfare state. Policy positions for this faction include universal healthcare via a single-payer system, reducing inequality through substantial taxation and regulatory reform, tuition-free college, Social Security expansion, and energy independence.
Energized (and angered) by the election results, the progressive message and leadership have gained traction and support. According to a national poll released on April 11th, Senator Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, is among the most popular politicians in the United States. This follows progressive Congressman Ellison’s narrow defeat for the Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairmanship in February, of which he was later appointed deputy chair.
On the other side of the aisle, the Republican Party is struggling with its own competing factions. During the first 100 days of the Trump Presidency, the Party has been unable to unify behind the commander-in-chief and its own Party leadership. This was made strikingly clear with the failure to propose a passable health care bill in the House of Representatives last month. Developed by House Speaker Paul Ryan and supported by the President, the American Health Care Act was unsuccessful in large part because of a coordinated rejection by the right-wing House Freedom Caucus.
With Republicans stumbling, the Democratic Party has the opportunity to mount a strong and effective opposition. Rather than uniting around conventional Democratic beliefs, the Party is flirting with adopting the platform of passionate far-left progressives. If the Democrats want to win elections and regain relevance, they would be ill-advised to do so. To understand the negative impact shifting leftward has on party success, Democrats should learn from the floundering UK Labour Party.
No Fruits for Labour
Much like the Democrats last year, members of the UK Labour Party were blindsided by the results of the 2015 general election. Believing they would defeat the Conservatives and likely coalesce with the Scottish National Party (SNP) to form a government, the loss of 26 Parliamentary seats and Tory control of government left the Labour Party in disarray. Adding to the mayhem, Labour Leader Ed Miliband resigned the following day.
Unsuccessful and leaderless, the Labour Party began searching for its identity by selecting a new head. In a leadership election crowded with moderates, long-time Member of Parliament (MP) and hardline socialist Jeremy Corbyn emerged victoriously. Garnering nearly 60% of the vote, Mr. Corbyn was elected in spite of interventions by former party establishment figures advocating against the leftist. His legitimacy as Labour Leader was further challenged after a 172-40 vote of no confidence by MPs, stemming from Mr. Corbyn’s lackluster support for the Remain campaign in the UK referendum. Challenged by fellow MPs, a second leadership contest was held last September. With the support of millennials and fervent party loyalists, the incumbent won by an even greater margin than the previous election.
With Mr. Corbyn at the helm, Labour has become an increasingly irrelevant and powerless opposition party. As the Conservatives have broadened their base and adopted more socially liberal policies, Labour has been unwilling to compromise or modernize on its economic platform.
Opting for leftist idealism over actionable reform, Labour has lost much support from its core working class voters in northern England. For many months, the Labour Party has been polling far behind the Conservatives and is even losing ground to minor parties, such as the UK Independence Party and SNP. In a recent poll, Tories held a 17 point advantage over Labour.
Attempting to explain away the poor polling numbers, Mr. Corbyn blamed the media and Party infighting. In a show of support and attempting to fend off further Party revolt, his Deputy Minister Diane Abbott wrote that the Labour Leader is singlehandedly responsible for 18-20% of the Party’s polling, which currently sits at 25%. Along with being unsubstantiated, these numbers add support (albeit unintended) to the belief that Labour suffers from a personality cult around its leader. A visit to the Labour Party website, where nearly all images and posts center around Mr. Corbyn, helps affirms this claim.
At a time of great uncertainty with Brexit on the horizon, now is not the time for a weak opposition party. An unchecked government is not healthy for a working democracy. Former Tory Leader David Cameron acknowledged as much during Prime Minister’s Questions before resigning last year. “It might be in my party’s best interest for [Mr. Corbyn] to sit there” he claimed. “It’s not in the national interest. I would say — for heaven’s sake man, go!”
Substantially weakened and with little prospect for future success, Labour ventures on with the self-inflicted wound that is Mr. Corbyn’s leadership. With upcoming local and national elections in early May and June, the Party is set to lose more seats. Across the pond, the DNC would be wise to learn from Labour’s missteps in moving forward.
Bold Strokes or More Votes?
While the current state of the Party may seem grim, Democrats now have an opportunity to rebuild. In expanding Democratic appeal, gravitating towards populist progressivism is not the answer. While it maintains a small yet fervent following within the Party, leftist progressive policies will not lead to electoral success. A wholehearted adoption of progressivism only resonates with a small portion of the population and has minimal potential for growth.
Under America’s two-party system, a political party succeeds when it can move towards the center and draw a majority of votes. This usually occurs after primary elections, where candidates must first gain support from the party base before broadening their message. Similarly, elected officials largely accomplish their goals and pass legislation by negotiating and compromising with the opposing party. (Think Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill.) Progressive Democrats, who have little appetite for moderation or working with Republicans, do not provide a practical strategy for electoral success.
In addition to flirting with progressivism, Democrats are struggling to unite around a coherent strategy for challenging the Republicans. If they want to win, the Democratic Party cannot merely be the Anti-Trump party. This strategy did not work in the 2016 election, and there is no indication it will work in the future. Americans want something to vote for, not just someone to vote against.
At a panel discussion at the University of Chicago earlier this year, South Bend Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg explained the importance of organizing around Democratic values and policies rather than solely against the opposition. “In the same way a broken clock is right twice a day, he might do the right thing once in a while,” he said. “We will have many things to fight him on. I don’t think we should spend our energies on something he might wind up doing well.”
While sensible, this position is not widely held within the Party. Increasingly, elected officials on the left are feeling pressure from fringe progressive groups to oppose the President at every turn. One movement, aptly named We Will Replace You, is threatening to challenge Democrats in primary elections who do not consistently oppose President Trump. These initiatives are not good for the Party.
You Can’t Always Get What You Want…
If hardline progressive policies and habitual presidential opposition are not formulas for victory, how can Democrats effectively proceed? Much like President Obama’s successful 2008 campaign, the DNC should invest its energies into developing a sustainable grassroots and local initiative. With the assistance of analytics and traditional strategies, the DNC can develop its farm system, whereby liberal talent at all levels of government can be cultivated, ascend within the Party and succeed electorally. Spending on initiatives that inform, connect and turnout voters to elections at all levels would also be beneficial.
During this period of soul-searching, the DNC should better understand the needs of voters in all parts of the nation. To his credit, Mr. Perez has embarked on a cross-country tour with Mr. Sanders to speak with Americans in cities and rural areas. This is a good first step for a party that has gradually lost support amongst its traditional base of working class citizens. As President Obama stated in December, rural voters view modern Democrats as “coastal, liberal, latte-sipping, politically correct, out of touch folks.” To succeed electorally, it is essential that the Party broadens its current base of mostly millennials and minorities, two groups that have a historically low voter turnout.
To improve its appeal and relevance to working class voters, the Democratic Party must have a cohesive and actionable economic message. Over the past year, Democrats have often cited the 75 months of continuous job growth under President Obama to support their economic plan. Although factual, numbers like these are not tangible for several voter groups, many of whom have lost jobs to globalization and automation.
Understanding this, President Trump connected with working class Americans during the election by providing simple solutions to complex problems. Similar to populist leaders in Latin America and beyond, much of the economic plan the President campaigned on is impractical and unrealistic. Globalization, automation and international trade may be temporarily stifled, but they are not reversible phenomena.
Herein lies an opportunity for Democrats. In addition to challenging President Trump when his economic initiatives fall short of expectation, the Democratic Party can present their own message to voters who prioritize personal circumstance over party identification. This is no simple task, as selling the benefits of openness and globalization has been historically challenging. One way the Party can do this is by investing in and retaining citizens for the economy of the future, particularly for jobs in the digital economy and renewable energy. Supporting infrastructure development and apprenticeships as an alternative to universities will also create jobs for working class citizens.
Another policy area to emphasize is the development and support of small and medium size businesses. According to the Small Business Administration, small businesses in the US account for nearly half of all private sector employment and are responsible for about two-thirds of all new jobs created. Promoting this sector through specific deregulations, tax credits, and other economic incentives can result in the greater business creation and, in effect, more jobs.
For a party regularly criticized for being anti-business, easing the difficulty of starting and maintaining a small business can greatly improve the Party’s perception and effectiveness. As a recent study by the OECD on promoting productivity and equality shows, adopting such initiatives can result in middle-class growth, job creation, a reduction of inequality and an improvement in productivity. This approach and its subsequent effects should appeal to mainstream Democrats, anti-Wall Street progressives and independent voters alike.
The road ahead for Democrats is a tough one. Faced with the internal challenges of rebranding and infighting, the Democratic Party must also confront gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts by external forces. In spite of these, the Party has an opportunity to develop a powerful opposition and regain control of the government. The DNC, whose purpose is to win elections, should not botch this by adopting hardline progressive policies. This approach was adopted by the UK Labour Party, whose current preference for leftist idealism has made them largely irrelevant for the foreseeable future. With midterm elections approaching, Democrats should learn from Labour that moving leftward is not the solution.