Many analysts of our current political landscape are seduced by the idea of a dichotomy of ideals, a polarized electorate neatly cleaved into two sides: conservatives versus liberals, as symbolized by the Republican-Democrat split. For progressives, that is supposed to translate into: “Everything that Donald Trump does is bad, and everything that his opposition does is good.” (For Trump supporters, it is reversed.) This works conveniently for both parties, and especially for Democrats who benefit from the wrath of Trump’s critics and revel in their position of representing the opposition against a deeply unpopular president and party. All that Democrats have to do is not be Trump and they can expect to sail to victory.
But every now and then, issues come up that jolt the good-versus-evil fantasy. North Korea is a case in point. For years there has been a bipartisan consensus on antagonizing North Korea through close military and economic cooperation with South Korea. Trump, taking advantage of the coincidental timing of peacemaker and South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s presidency (or perhaps because Trump truly “fell in love” with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un), has managed to usher in hope for Korean unity and peace between the U.S. and North Korea in a way no other recent president has managed to do.
Surely the Democrats would fall on the side of peace over war if their ascribed progressivism were sincere. Surely they would be urging Trump to do even better to ensure peace in the region instead of preserving the status quo of indefinite hostility. But some of the strongest howls of protest against peace with North Korea have come from Democrats. While there is much to criticize regarding Trump’s posturing with North Korea—chiefly, the whitewashing of a brutal dictator like Kim—the prize of cross-border peace and unity is seen by both Koreas as worth it.
Another issue is trade. Sensing deep dissatisfaction against the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Trump made the renegotiation of the deal one of his central positions on trade. Indeed, he has just strong-armed a new trade deal—albeit one that is deeply flawed—to replace the decades-old NAFTA. Surely Democrats ought to have been front and center in the trade debate, demanding a renegotiation of NAFTA on the basis of better labor and environmental protections for all three member nations. Instead, we heard the loudest critiques of NAFTA coming from Trump—a man who appears to have at best a rudimentary understanding of trade and international finance—while Democrats largely stayed out of it. And there are many other examples of dissonance between progressive ideals and the Democratic Party.
Despite the enthusiasm that voters now have for Democrats over Republicans ahead of the midterms, we see little fire from many party leaders. Take the political spectacle of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week featuring Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and a woman who accused him of sexual assault, Christine Blasey Ford. Republicans were bursting at the seams with aggression and anger. In contrast, Democrats—although they had the moral right to stand firm against Kavanaugh, and the force of grass-roots activists backing them inside and outside the hearing—appeared weak, insipid and lacking the courage to push back vociferously against their Republican rivals. The Democratic Party cannot even count on unified opposition to Kavanaugh within its own ranks, with so-called red state Democrats engaging in hand-wringing on the upcoming Senate vote instead of agreeing on a firm “no” against Kavanaugh at all costs.
In other words, Democrats lack the fighting spirit that is desperately needed to win back all the rights we have lost in the past year and a half. They don’t appear motivated by fierce ideals of equality and progressivism in the same way that Republicans appear driven by a near-religious fervor to destroy the modest gains that Barack Obama built and all that progressives hold dear.
All of this is to say that after peeling back the layers of our political landscape, we are not in a clearly defined arena of Democrats representing all progressives, even if party leaders would like for it to seem so. The pressure to identify with a major party is so great that many ordinary Americans who identify as progressive may not have noticed the fact that we allow party leaders to set an agenda based on their whims and not our demands. If the Democrats back a plan, we are expected, as liberals, to adopt those same positions. If the Democrats oppose North Korea at all costs, progressives are expected to toe the same line. If the Democrats never met a free trade deal they did not like, rank-and-file party members are expected to embrace the same position. All in the name of beating back Republicans and Trump.
But there is a reason so many voters were disaffected by the Democratic Party in 2016 and either did not vote in the presidential race or voted for Trump or a third-party candidate. They had had enough of inaction from both parties on important issues such as jobs, wages, health care, war and more. Now, with Trump’s horror show in full swing, Democrats are glibly implying, “Don’t you wish you had backed us,” and hoping mass Trump hatred will carry them to victory in the upcoming midterms.
There is a subconscious fantasy we are all carrying around inside our heads: that once the Democrats win the House, and maybe even the Senate, they will form a bulwark against all the efforts by Trump and the Republican Party to destroy the nation. The fantasy extends to the 2020 presidential race, when a Democrat will supposedly win the White House, and we will finally see every horrific undoing of our rights reversed. Departed federal staff will be reinstated, Environmental Protection Agency deregulations will be reversed, fuel-efficiency standards will be restrengthened, and the Paris Accord rejoined. Immigrants will be freed from detention, allowed to remain in the country safely, and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency will be abolished. Future Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh will be impeached (and maybe even Clarence Thomas!), and so on and so forth. Such fantasies are a coping mechanism for the despair we are feeling.
But given the lack of fiery conviction among Democrats, none of those things will come to pass, and at best we can expect a holding pattern against worse damage. Democrats want to ride to victory on the wave of Trump hatred and resume business as usual. But nothing will change unless we push them hard to be so much more than simply “not-Trump.” Not only does the party need to actively undo Trump’s damage once it takes power, it needs to go well beyond what Obama achieved and address the very ills that generated the rise of Trump in the first place. Yes, it is a tall order. But then again, so much of our safety and security is at stake.
We have (sort of) been here before. During the last months of George W. Bush’s presidency, liberal and progressive activists, horrified by his regressive policies, poured all their energy into replacing Bush with anybody but a Republican like him. Once progressives met Obama, we were enamored by just how different he was from Bush on the surface, and, like a handsome boyfriend who gets away with abusive behavior by virtue of his attractiveness, we let Obama get away with far too much because we were carried away by the romantic notion of progress he offered, simply by being so different from his predecessor—articulate, brilliant, seemingly empathetic and compassionate. Ultimately, Obama helped make some modest gains toward a progressive future but fell short in so many ways.
If the past two years has taught us anything, it is that we must remove Republicans from power and do so with aggression and righteous anger. If that means replacing them with Democrats (or independents or third-party candidates), then that is our immediate task, first and foremost. Our next task is to hold Democrats’ feet to the fire with as much fervor as we demanded an end to Trump and Trumpism. It is imperative that we remember Democrats are politicians, not activists. They want power and have adopted lip service to the ideals of liberalism to get it. They are not inherently compassionate and progressive. It is we who are and we who must keep the fire under them alive.
So much depends on the outcome of the November midterm elections for our short-term national outlook. It is imperative that Democrats win, and win big, in order to bring the Trump agenda to a screeching halt. In the longer term, we ought to view the Democrats as part of the problem.