Scott MacKay Commentary: Whither the Democratic Party in 2018?

Jan 26, 2018

Democrats from Washington, D.C.  to New England and beyond are hopeful about their electoral chances in this year’s midterms. But RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay cautions that the party must do more than embrace the Women’s March and Black Lives Matter movements.


Democrats were once the party of workers, regardless of race or ethnicity. Too often these days the party of Roosevelt, Kennedy and Obama seems captured by educated coastal elites and minorities.

Republicans control two thirds of the nation’s state legislatures and an equal number of governorships. You can drive thousands of miles through the southern and midsections of the nation and not bump into a blue state or county. And no Democrats needs to be reminded about the results of the last presidential election.

Revulsion with President Donald Trump will help the Democratic Party this year, particularly in the blue states of the east and west coasts. The party’s victories in special elections so far this year have boosted Democrats –particularly the improbable win for a Senate seat from the deep crimson state of Alabama.

Still, the partisan fissures within the party threaten Democratic unity in an important campaign year. Progressives and centrists are battling still and wounds from the Bernie Sanders-Hillary Clinton primary elections fester.

Cobalt blue Rhode Island was once home to one of country’s strongest Democratic organizations. Democrats still control the Statehouse and all of the congressional delegation. Yet fights between women’s rights advocates and party regulars from the old urban and ethnic Roman Catholic side of the party persist.

Democrats organized as a women’s caucus felt disrespected and patronized at a party state committee meeting six weeks ago. Gov. Gina Raimondo stood up for the women, who included such elected officials as state Sen. Gayle Goldin of Providence and Pawtucket City Councilor Meghan Kallman.

And the organization of progressive Democrats in the state regularly take shots at such party leaders as House Speaker Nick Mattiello of Cranston, who represents a conservative district that comfortably backed Trump.

You have to wonder what it will take for Democrats to come together. Mark Lilla is a professor at Columbia University who has written a new critique of identity politics called “The Once and Future Liberal.” He laments that Democrats have become too much in thrall to movement, identity politics that overly emphasizes marginalized groups, such as transgender citizens, at the expense of speaking to struggling workers.

In the party’s sincere desire to protect vulnerable groups, such as blacks, women and gay Americans, Democrats have invested in social movements at the expense in the hard work of party politics, such as organizing and winning elections.

Movements and marches are great, but the energy they bring needs to be channeled into victories at the polls for true social change. As Lilla points out, the Civil Rights revolution of the 1960s led by Dr. Martin Luther King came to fruition only after the presidential election of Lyndon Johnson, a wheeler-dealer Texas pol who forged approval of the 1964 Civil Rights legislation and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Lilla blames much of the Democratic dilemma on the rise of the university as a political force. It is true that a party focused more on the faculty lounge instead of the union hall is going to reach fewer white working class voters.

It’s been said that Democrats fall in love but Republicans fall in line. While Republicans have factions, the party has been able since Ronald Reagan to coalesce around a few simple messages –smaller government, lower taxes and self-reliant individualism.

The recent Republican tax cut bill is seen by many as unfair, a sop to big business that will usher in larger federal deficits. But in the short-term this injection of a Keynesian sugar rush into the economy is already paying off for some workers as companies hand out bonuses.

Rhode Island Democratic Chairman Joe McNamara of Warwick says the dust up over the women’s caucus was just a “growing pain.” He says Democrats believe in a wide tent and have no litmus tests on social issues. Yet he acknowledges that a push in the current legislative session to guarantee abortions in Rhode Island if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the Roe vs Wade standard will be divisive.

Too many progressive types see movement politics as an alternative rather than a supplement to the hard work of winning elections. That attitude isn’t going to stop Trump and Republicans from dominating American politics.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our “On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org