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Are We Witnessing the Birth of a New Democratic Party?

Democrats trying to adapt to Trump and a new political reality

Credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Two weeks after a crushing defeat in an election in which Democrats thought they were playing to their strengths of sober competence and tolerance in the face of extremism, a change has already occurred.

Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders is acting as the voice of the party far more frequently than anyone could have imagined just a few years ago. And his prescription last week? “When you lose the White House to the least popular candidate in the history of America, when you lose the Senate, when you lose the House and when two-thirds of governors in this country are Republican, it is time for a new direction for the Democratic Party.”

Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, a staunch progressive, is the most talked-about candidate for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee, with backing from progressives like Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, as well as from party stalwarts like outgoing Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and his successor in the next Congress, Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York.

Ellison couched his DNC candidacy in the language of renewal, saying the party had not been committed enough to addressing the struggles of working people, leaving voters unmotivated to go to the polls.

A similar disaffection with current party leadership inspired Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan to challenge Nancy Pelosi for the House minority leadership, as well.

Robert Reich, former Labor secretary under President Bill Clinton, told Roll Call he also sees a party that “needs to be completely reinvented.”

“Young people are looking to the Democratic Party as a vehicle for re-establishing a progressive vision of what the country can be,” he said. “A vision that gives voice to a lot of people who have been left behind: the white working class, African-Americans, Latinos, everyone else in the bottom 60 percent of the income ladder.”

Some have blamed the Democrats’ collapsing support among the white working class on cultural politics and liberal diversity rhetoric that has alienated white people who no longer find the party welcoming.

Reich finds that argument unconvincing, saying that when it comes to fighting racism and helping the working class, “You can’t do one without the other.”

“The only way to create a winning coalition is to connect working-class and poor whites with working-class and poor nonwhites. Absent that core, Democrats can’t win the presidency, and probably can’t win the Senate or Congress either,” he said.

Though Sanders and Warren have signaled they’re willing to work with Trump if he actually pursues policies to “rebuild the economy for working people,” as Warren recently put it, Trump’s early Cabinetpicks and nods towards repealing the 2010 health care law and privatizing Medicare don’t look promising for progressive Democrats. Sanders’ hope of working with Trump quickly turned sour quickly when the senator derided Trump’s proposed infrastructure plan, perhaps their most likely source of common ground, as a “scam.”

For now, rhetoric and opposition are likely to be all that Democrats can offer as they prepare for 2018 and beyond.

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