America has two political parties, but only one of them has a reasonably coherent political vision, a leadership that isn’t under the thumb of an erratic reality television star, and a worldview that implies a policy agenda rather than just a litany of grievances.
Unfortunately for the Democrats, their vision and leaders and agenda also sometimes leave the impression that they never want to win another tossup Senate seat and that they would prefer Donald Trump be re-elected if the alternative requires wooing Americans who voted for him.
Consider recent developments in the state of Alabama, where the Republican Party has nominated a Senate candidate manifestly unfit for office, a bigot hostile to the rule of law and entranced with authoritarianism.
And who have the Democrats put up against him? An accomplished former prosecutor, the very model of a mainstream Democrat — and a man who told an interviewer after his nomination that he favors legal abortion, without restriction, right up until the baby emerges blue and flailing from the womb.
I know that certain of my readers may not consider this an extreme position, and imagine that people who do consider it extreme are also fitting out their wives with the lovely blue dresses from Netflix’s adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
But given that a clear majority of Americans, women as well as men, favor banning abortion after 20 weeks, it might behoove liberals to bracket the Gilead scenario for a moment and try to imagine what it’s like to believe that at least some abortions are tantamount to baby-killing. And I mean really make the imaginative leap: Imagine that whenever a politician says, “There shouldn’t be any restrictions on the right to choose,” you hear, “I think infanticide should be legal in America.”
Would you vote for a candidate who said that? I submit that you probably would not — and you might not even if his opponent were also terrible in various ways. At the very least you would be weighing evils, and that weighing process — “bigot or infanticide advocate? bigot or infanticide advocate?” — might plausibly induce you to put a bigot in the Senate.
If the Democratic Party intends to be competitive again in the South, a region where many of its own partisans call themselves pro-life, it needs to take the imaginative leap on abortion more often — as it did in recruiting candidates who helped build its last House majority way back in the misty years of 2006-08.
But maybe Democrats do not want to be competitive in the Bible Belt. No retreat on feticide, no compromise with Gilead! Fair enough. Then presumably they should want to make up ground with more secular voters somewhere else — among all the lapsed Catholics and former Mainline Protestants scattered around the Midwest, for instance.
Some of these voters pulled the lever not once but twice for Barack Obama and then voted Trump in part because of anxieties about recent immigration. So are the Democrats trying to dispel the impression that their party favors open borders? No, quite the opposite: As Vox’s Dara Lind pointed out this week, in the Trump era, no less than the Obama era, the Democrats are rejecting enforcement proposals many of them would have championed a decade ago — again, not coincidentally, the last period when they had control of Congress. Wooing immigration-wary Midwestern voters, like doing outreach to pro-life moderates in Alabama, is apparently not worth the compromises required.
Now I am a cultural conservative, so naturally issues like abortion and immigration are the places where I would like the Democratic Party to move closer to the center. One could argue instead that Democrats should stick with progressive orthodoxy on social issues and choose Bill-Clintonian economics over single-payer flirtations, to expand their recent gains among the culturally libertarian and fiscally conservative.
But the point is that a party claiming to be standing alone against an existential threat to the republic should be willing to move somewhat, to compromise somehow, to bring a few of the voters who have lifted the GOP to its largely undeserved political successes into the Democratic fold.
Instead, the Democrats are still relying on arc-of-history beliefs and long-term demographic trends. But those trends do them no political good if they move left faster than does a leftward-moving country. In 2004, they had an agenda well-suited to the American electorate of 2016; having moved leftward since, they now have an agenda well-suited to the American electorate of 2030.
If current trends continue, the Republicans will nominate a ticket of Roy Moore and Tomi Lahren in 2024 — and the Democrats, secure in their historical destiny, will counter by replacing their platform with a loving commentary on John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
As much as the country needs a conservatism with some idea of what it’s doing, some theory of the common good, it needs a liberalism that stops marinating in its own self-righteousness long enough to compete effectively for rural, Southern and Midwestern votes.
But you can’t always get what you need.