It is over. Donald J. Trump, the 45th President of the United States, will be replaced by former Vice-President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. on Jan. 20, 2021.
As exhaustive of a defeat toppling an incumbent president may appear, the Democratic Party’s moments of victory on Nov. 3 were concerningly rare. In Upstate New York, one Democratic candidate after another lost key local races. Throughout the various federal contests, Biden’s coattails were abnormally short and failed to carry numerous promising candidates for the House and Senate with him. The Republicans made a net inroad into the Democratic majority in the House and retained control of the Senate, at least at present. Parenthetically, two toss-up Georgia special elections will decide the particular fate of the Senate, and by extension the circumstances awaiting Biden on Capitol Hill.
There is plenty of time in the future for prognostications into optimistic and pessimistic scenarios for the incoming Biden Administration. At this moment, however, an analysis of the Democratic Party’s failures for this election cycle seems more appropriate. I write with the firsthand experience of working as a Field Organizer for Jim Barber’s New York State Senate Campaign. After six months as a campaign staffer and listening to stories from hundreds of voters, much of my following analysis is drawn from these experiences.
First, the Democratic Party has stranded itself on a lonely island of identity politics. Much of the modern political marketing within the Democratic Party depends on identity politics, summed up in the following sentence: “I will vote for Candidate X because he/she is most similar to me in physical appearance or social background and will therefore represent my interests while in office.” The inequities that exist between genders, races, and sexualities in American life are all very substantive and systemic, and the Democratic Party has historically put forth public policies to attack them. Within the past forty years, however, it has become far easier for party elites to market female candidates simply on the basis that her gender is an indication of her progressive policies. Yet in 2020, more female G.O.P. candidates than ever before were elected to Congress, including 17 fresh House members. It goes without saying that most of them support policies of environmental deregulation, corporate welfare, privatizing health insurance and innumerable other elements of the Republican platform unfriendly to the American working and middle classes. There are just as many Democrats who support similar corporate-friendly agendas. Those of us who are invested in the political process should evaluate candidates based on policies and their records, rather than opaque standards of identity. We owe this to our neighbors struggling to put food on the table or afford their prescription drugs.
Second, the Democratic Party has identified political correctness (PC) outrage as fodder strong enough to win electoral campaigns. The party’s messaging has reached a point where slogans and rhetorical choices have become insular and rigid. “Abolish the police” and “Abolish ICE” are two clear examples of this: political missteps that have only provided the Republican Party with ammunition. Such messaging proved to be so foreign and hostile to middle America that 70 million voted for Trump. Without a doubt, there are substantive issues within the policing and immigration enforcement systems that can only be ameliorated through policy reform. These slogans do not promise anything for families who cannot obtain proper mental health treatment from their local municipality. They leave out rural Americans who lack broadband service. For voters rightfully outraged about authoritarian police brutality and human rights violations of undocumented immigrants, these slogans are easily digested and fail to deliver on palpable solutions. It is possible to improve all lives, not just select groups, when Democratic candidates run on specific policy plans like fixing the broken property tax system or transitioning to a green energy economy.
The Democratic Party must become a workers’ party that advocates for all working-class Americans, rural or urban, gay or straight, black or white, religious or atheist. It must rediscover its populist origins in the New Deal and the War on Poverty and translate these successful political strategies to twenty-first century versions. If it does, it will become the party of the good neighbor and unlock the hearts and minds of those Americans that it has excluded from its ranks.