Gerson: Democrats arrive at a crossroads

Michael Gerson
Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON – While the challenges of the GOP — its long-term demographic difficulties, its erratic leadership, the bitter struggle for its ideological soul — are obscured by victory, the problems of the Democratic Party are on full display. Republicans suffer from heart disease; Democrats have an ugly, gushing head wound.

The losing party would be foolish to minimize the scale of its political failure. Hillary Clinton proved incapable of defeating a reality television host whom more than 60 percent of Americans viewed as unfit to be president. It is perhaps the most humiliating moment in the long history of Mr. Jefferson's party. But the effect is more than reputational. The Democratic candidate and her team could not protect America from a serious risk to its ideals and institutions by an untested and unstable novice who flirted with authoritarianism and made enough gaffes on an average Tuesday to sink a normal presidential campaign.

Donald Trump was riding a modest electoral wave in certain parts of the country, but it was not large enough to overwhelm a reasonably capable Democratic candidate with a decent political strategy. Trump's vote did not burst the levees; it barely lapped over the top of them in the industrial Midwest. The "blue wall" was too low by just a foot or two.

But why was the election even close enough for bad strategy in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, or utter incompetence by the FBI director, to matter? Trump obviously benefited from extreme polarization. The proposition "anyone but Hillary" was tested, with Republicans (and others) ultimately rallying to "anyone." The Obama coalition — including young, minority and college-educated voters — did not turn out in sufficient numbers. And an appeal to racial and ethnic resentment remains disturbingly potent in our politics — the continuing evidence of America's original sin.

But here is the largest, long-term Democratic challenge: It has become a provincial party. It is highly concentrated in urban areas and clings to the coasts. But our constitutional system puts emphasis on holding geography, particularly in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College. It is difficult for Democrats to prevail from isolated islands of deep blue. In 2012, President Obama won the presidency with fewer than 700 counties out of more than 3,000 in America — a historical low. Clinton carried a little under 500 — about 15 percent of the total.

This is another way of saying that the Democratic candidate for president can't prevail — at least at the moment — when she receives less than 30 percent of the vote from the white, non-college educated Americans who live in the spaces between the cities. Most of these voters were not examining public policy and calculating their interests — except in the vague sense that they don't like sending American jobs abroad and don't want anyone messing with their Social Security. They were convinced that Trump has their back. Democrats have become symbolically estranged from white, working-class America.

What are the Democratic options moving forward? First, there is the Bernie Sanders option — the embrace of a leftist populism that amounts to democratic socialism. This might also be called the Jeremy Corbyn option, after the leftist leader of the British Labour Party who has ideologically purified his party into political irrelevance. Second, there is the Joe Biden option — a liberalism that makes a sustained outreach to union members and other blue-collar workers while showing a Catholic religious sensibility on issues of social justice. Third, there is the option of doubling down on the proven Barack Obama option, which requires a candidate who can excite rather than sedate the Obama-era base.

Democrats should not overlearn the lessons of a close election. Option No. 3 is the Democratic future on the presidential level. Clinton was correct to appeal to a slightly modified version of the Obama coalition (fewer African-American and millennial voters, but more support from Latinos and college-educated women). She simply could not pull it off. But for the foreseeable future, Democrats will also need a dash of No. 2, including a more accommodating attitude toward religion and associational rights. In this election, evangelicals and white Catholics sensed real hostility to their institutions from law school liberalism.

There is a serious prospect, however, that Democrats will choose No. 1. There would be many reverberations for our politics. But chiefly, America would cease to have a center-left party and a center-right party. Both radicalized institutions would exaggerate our national differences, becoming the political equivalent of the hard-left and hard-right media. And the cause of national unity would be damaged even further.

Michael Gerson is a columnist for The Washington Post.