Democrats are waiting for the future. In the meantime…
Photograph of Beto O’Rourke in 2018 by crockodile
In Texas, Beto O’Rourke came within three points of capturing a Senate seat from Ted Cruz. The excitement generated by his campaign may have made this loss seem like a heavy blow to his supporters, but he did remarkably well to get so close. His strategy, to concentrate on turning out ‘natural’ Democrats – the young, the college-educated, the metropolitan, the non-white – in sufficient numbers to overwhelm his opponent, was probably always destined to come up short against a well-oiled Republican machine. But demographic destiny appears to favour the Democrats in the South. The young will age without necessarily changing their more liberal attitudes. The white majority will progressively shrink. The cities will continue to swallow up the countryside. It is only a matter of time.
Yet there lies the trap that Trump has set. Democrats are waiting for the future. In the meantime, Trump defines it. Ask yourself this: can you imagine what the world will be like in ten or fifteen years if the president’s agenda remains in force? It is not hard, even though it is not pretty. It would be more protectionist but less regulated, more nationalist but less collaborative; work would be plentiful but much more precarious, public discourse coarser and a lot more violent; international institutions weaker and international relations on a knife-edge; the political landscape of America would be fractured as states got to do their own thing (including on abortion). What, though, would a world run by Democrats be like? I can offer some generalities: more civil, maybe, or at least more insistent on certain civilities; more tolerant, perhaps; more concerned with justice; more environmentally friendly; better, somehow. It’s fuzzy where Trump’s world is in focus. And in politics, something still beats nothing.
The problem for US Democrats, and more generally for social democrats around the globe, is that at a time of rapid and alarming change they don’t have as sharp a vision of the future as the people who want to go back to an imagined past. The centre-left can provide better policy prescriptions, but policy is never enough to produce a clear picture of politics. All the vivid images are coming from the populist fringes. Promising a world without Trump is the best the Democrats have to offer.
Whether Trump has been normalised or normality has been Trumpified, the prognosis looks the same. Presidents who lose their first midterms tend to go on to win a second term.