The Democratic Party is in trouble. While they were well-positioned demographically and operationally to make Barack Obama a two-term president, their control of state legislatures and governorships wilted. Republican strategist Rory Cooper summed it up in a single tweet:
Under President Obama, Democrats have lost 900+ state legislature seats, 12 governors, 69 House seats, 13 Senate seats. That's some legacy.— Rory Cooper (@rorycooper) November 4, 2015
Echoing a report by U.S. News and World Report, Matt Yglesias argued in Vox that this proves “Democrats are in denial” and show no sign of regaining the lost ground. While the latter claim is undoubtedly true, Democrats are far from in denial. Indeed, Cooper’s tweet more or less paraphrased a Democratic task force autopsy (for lack of a better word) from 2014, which dissected the scope of their “devastating losses” with, if anything, excruciating self-awareness.
If there’s any source of denial, it’s not in the recognition of having a problem, but in the underlying cause of the problem and how the party plans to solve it: Expanding registration, mobilizing the vote, and building a “national narrative” around “Democratic values.” Easier said than done.
Republicans Are Natural Community Organizers
The Republican victories across state governments have been 30 years in the making. It has not been due to the stratagems of Newt Gingrich or other top party operatives, either. Rather, it’s the result of a bottom up-process that no task force or party consultant could ever hope to design.
The disparity between the two parties comes down to one of basic temperament. Rural and suburban Republicans tend to be church goers, belong to community organizations, run for school boards, and so on. In short, they come predisposed to the sort of localism and volunteerism that engenders robust civil society. These apolitical structures can then be grafted into support for political coalitions without needing cajoling from grand narratives and idealistic leaders. This is what explains the higher Republican turnout in off-year elections.
It’s not that liberal Democrats don’t do these things. But with labor unions in terminal decline, liberals have few other places to turn outside of direct activism. The typical liberal urbanite can’t help but approach close-knit communities with some mixture of suspicion and ironic detachment. In rejecting the content of social conservatism, liberals have also rejected its form—and thus the ability to construct grassroots organizations that last longer than a flash in the pan. The Unitarian church is the ultimate example. While its message of humanism and pluralism is noble and rings true to many on the Left, it is anything but an effective unit of social mobilization.
Liberal America Votes Alone
Speaking of church, over the last two decades religiosity has declined precipitously in the United States (though unevenly across party identification). Among the contemporary non-religious, strong Democrats outnumber strong Republicans 7 to 1, and are three times as likely to never attend a religious service.
Surveys show these new non-religious are not exactly atheists: a large fraction still believe in a god. Rather, they have simply lost their focal point, and have thrown off the coordinating role of organized religion in favor of spiritual and political independence. If we take religious identification as a proxy for underlying social capital, one begins to grasp the scale of the problem facing Democrats. Liberal America isn’t just bowling alone. It’s voting alone, too.
White liberal America, to be more accurate. Black congregations have bucked the secularization trend, and mobilized effectively to make race a defining issue of the present Democratic platform. Nonetheless, they haven’t proven to be as effective outside a narrow band of issues, nor at building support for state representatives.
Politics is about collective action. But spontaneous collective action, the kind that occupies Wall Street, marches out of university classrooms, or overthrows despots, is rarely sustainable. There are simply too many people to coordinate. As David Harsanyi recently put it:
if you believe credible or constructive solutions emerge from the mob you haven't been paying attention to history.
— David Harsanyi (@davidharsanyi) November 10, 2015
Effective political coalitions are composed of hundreds of smaller overlapping groups, united by a common narrative but fundamentally self-governing on their own terms. Members of smaller groups are motivated to win school board elections, or volunteer on a state-level campaign. They have a sense of mission that isn’t lessened by being lower on the org-chart than the federal cabinet.
The Left Prefers Central Power and Politicians
Community organizers notwithstanding, it’s therefore no wonder that the political imagination of the American Left has turned its attention to issues with strictly national-level policy levers. For example, I had recent Twitter conversation with a left-wing columnist on why progressives have been so slow to embrace land-use reform. My thinking was that restrictive land-use rules drive up rents and disproportionately harm the poor. So Democrats should be all on board!
His argument, in reply, was that since county and city governments control land use, it doesn’t lend itself to a federal solution. Instead, we need more public housing and large-scale income redistribution. Of course, with the right political mobilization, more local reform could be enacted on a county-by-county basis. Alas, the allure of turning all political debates into DC political debates is too strong for idealists to resist.
In many ways, the collapse of the Democrats’ grassroots is an echo of the New Left countercultural movement of the ’60s and ’70s. In identifying conformism as the root of all evil, it eschewed the hard work of politicking in favor of a revolution in consciousness built around higher ideals.
Modern progressives have thus converged with libertarians to the extent that they both find the political process fundamentally distasteful, often to their detriment. The problem is that politics isn’t about policy, much less a competition between reified value commitments. Party politics is about being a team player, building up networks, and being satisfied with modest, incremental change.
So, shout it from the rooftops: There’s more to a republic than its president. Indeed, the essence of American republicanism is the exact opposite of monocentric government. Federalism demands a broad diffusion of power, not just in the trinity of executive, judiciary and legislative branches, but more importantly through the devolution of power in nested hierarchies: state and local governments, community organizations, and civil society of all types.
A national narrative based on telescopic ideals is therefore the last thing that will save the Democratic Party. Indeed, it may be the source of their strife.