While the GOP’s challenges are obscured by victory, the Democratic Party’s problems are on full display.
The losing party would be foolish to minimize its failure. Hillary Clinton was unable to defeat a reality television host whom over 60 percent of Americas found unfit to be president. It is perhaps the most humiliating moment in the history of Mr. Jefferson’s party. But the effect is more than reputational. Clinton could not protect America from a serious risk to its ideals and institutions by an untested, unstable novice who flirted with authoritarianism and made enough gaffes on an average day to sink a normal presidential campaign.
Donald Trump was riding a modest electoral wave in certain parts of the country, but it was not large enough to overwhelm a reasonably capable Democratic candidate with a decent political strategy. Trump’s vote did not burst the levees; it barely lapped over the top of them in the industrial Midwest.
But why was the election close enough for bad strategy in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, or the FBI director’s utter incompetence, to matter? Trump benefited from extreme polarization. The proposition “anyone but Hillary” was tested, with Republicans (and others) rallying to “anyone.” The Obama coalition – including young, minority and college-educated voters – did not turn out sufficiently. And an appeal to racial and ethnic resentment remains disturbingly potent in politics.
But here is the largest, long-term Democratic challenge: It has become a provincial party – highly concentrated in urban areas and clinging to the coasts. But our constitutional system puts emphasis on holding geography. It is difficult for Democrats to prevail from isolated deep blue islands. In 2012, President Obama won with less than 700 counties of over 3,000 in America – a historical low. Clinton got a little over 500 – about 15 percent of the total.
This means the Democratic presidential candidate can’t prevail – at least now – when she receives less than 30 percent of the vote from white, non-college educated Americans living in between cities. Most of these voters were not examining public policy and calculating their interests – except in the vague sense that they don’t like sending American jobs abroad and don’t want anyone messing with Social Security. They were convinced Trump has their back. Democrats are symbolically estranged from white, working-class America.
What are Democrats’ options moving forward? First, there is the Bernie Sanders option – the embrace of a leftist populism amounting to democratic socialism. There is the Joe Biden option – a liberalism making an outreach to blue-collar workers while showing a Catholic sensibility on social justice issues. Third, there is the option of furthering the proven Obama option, which requires a candidate who can excite the Obama-era base.
Option No. 3 is the Democratic future on the presidential level. Clinton was correct to appeal to a version of the Obama coalition. She simply could not pull it off. But for the foreseeable future, Democrats will also need some of No. 2, including being more accommodating to religion and associational rights.
There is a serious prospect, however, Democrats will choose No. 1. There would be many political reverberations. Chiefly, America would cease to have a center-left party and a center-right party. Both radicalized institutions would exaggerate our national differences, becoming the political equivalent of the hard-left and hard-right media. And national unity would be further damaged.