House Democrats will gather this week in Baltimore to plan their strategy in the upcoming session of Congress – the first in ten years in which Democrats control none of the levers of Washington power. They chose “Fighting for All Americans” as their theme for this year’s conference, even as many Americans have abandoned the Democratic Party’s candidates over the last eight years. In some recognition of that, CBS News reports that they will discuss an “autopsy” of the 2016 election written under the direction of Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney.
It might be the first political self-autopsy for an organization that refuses to admit its own death – and especially its own culpability in it.
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Ever since the election, Democrats have attacked the legitimacy of the election, its outcome, and its consequences. Pick a bête noire, and Democrats have blamed it for their loss in the presidential contest. They have argued that Russian hacks into the DNC’s e-mail system and subsequent release via WikiLeaks (sourcing that WikiLeaks disputes) amounted to foreign interference that made Donald Trump’s victory illegitimate. After that came a social panic about “fake news,” despite no evidence whatsoever that Facebook clicks or any type of page views for nonsensical news stories had any impact at all on voting behavior.
Add to that the strange insistence on citing popular-vote totals to argue that the Electoral College itself is illegitimate. Democrats have tried to argue that Trump should be denied some or all of the powers of the office because of a lack of “mandate,” a condition not found in the Constitution. What can be found in the Constitution is the Electoral College, the only way the US has elected its presidents for more than two centuries, and which Hillary Clinton managed to lose in what should have been a winnable election.
All of this ignores the depth and breadth of electoral losses by Democrats – not just in this last election cycle, and at every political level. Over the past eight years, Democrats have lost a net 11 Senate seats, 60 House seats, 14 gubernatorial seats, and almost a thousand seats in state legislatures. Thanks to the cyclical nature of Senate races, Democrats had a 23-10 advantage in this year’s upper chamber races and needed only five takeaways to clinch control of the Senate. They only picked up two and ended up shut out in the Republican return to single-party control. The Washington Post’s Philip Bump referred to this as “the Thelma and Louise-ing of the Democratic Party.”
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Democrats have talked themselves into believing that joining “the resistance” will restore their relevancy. However, a new poll from Morning Consult and Politico suggests exactly the opposite. While 56 percent of Democrat voters want their party to pursue obstruction, majorities of most other major demographics want Democrats to cooperate with the new president and Republican-controlled Congress, including women, independent voters, all income and almost all age demos, urban voters, and even government employees.
That is precisely the kind of data that a proper autopsy would cover – if the party itself admitted its defeat wasn’t a fluke, but the culmination of years of disconnecting from voters across the country. Republicans managed to admit that much to themselves after their defeat in the 2012 presidential election, which allowed them to create a forward-looking plan for eventual victory. Trump’s triumph didn’t exactly fit that prescription, and the party still has a lot of work to do to fulfill the vision of the “Growth Opportunity Plan.” They learned enough to realize that they had lost touch with voters in the Rust Belt and key swing states, however, and put their resources into that outreach and organization.
An honest autopsy by Democrats would tell them much the same about their descent into the political wilderness. Rather than connect with voters, Democrats adopted the kind of top-down messaging and reliance on academic models that sunk Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign. Instead of orienting their agenda to the real concerns of voters in much of America, Democrats have instead adopted an increasingly progressive agenda that prioritizes identity politics and uses that philosophy to lecture and condescend to voters.
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They continually woo celebrities to scold voters about latent bigotry (and take bizarre shots at the NFL and Mixed Martial Arts contests) rather than find messengers who can help Democrats craft an agenda that speaks to everyone equally. The map of Congressional districts in the US shows just how far that approach has marginalized them over the past eight years, now that the personal popularity of Barack Obama no longer masks the disconnect.
Why does this matter? If Democrats can’t accept reality, should we care? Yes, and we are seeing why now. For months, Democrats have remained stuck in the denial phase of the five stages of grief identified by Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. That denial generates powerful emotional connections to claims of injustice, a bedrock belief over the last three months that has driven protests, obstructionism, and downright lunacy in regard to all things Trump.
Denial is driving Senate Democrats to quixotic lengths in attempting to block confirmation of Trump’s Cabinet nominations and creating overnight sessions that only highlight their inability to have any impact on the process at all other than temporarily stringing it out. In the meantime, Democrats have held up the process longer than for any other first-term president, delaying the inevitable – but also delaying the process of transition and creating confusion along the way.
The denial of Democrats threatens to derail the credibility of self-governance, ironically fulfilling a warning Democrats repeatedly made when they assumed Republicans would end up on the losing end of the election. Only after Democrats admit that the patient is actually dead can an autopsy help. The election is over – and it’s time for everyone to get back to work.