Despite their success in November, the left must remember that political transformations don't just happen. Previous periods of change emerged after painstaking, decades-long work of building grassroots movements and advancing bold, compelling ideas. That the center of gravity has shifted in mainstream party politics is often only apparent after the fact.
Consider the First Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century, when the country faced a surprisingly similar confluence of problems: widening financial inequality, rampant corruption and concentrated corporate power, and a judiciary hostile to reform. It was at this low societal ebb that the organized labor, consumer rights, and antitrust movements, among others, came into being. Coinciding with these national trends were experiments in democratic reform at the state and local level--autonomous policy-making power for cities, the rise of ballot referendums--as well as early efforts at regulating monopolies, railroads, and establishing consumer protections. Many of these policies were pioneered by state legislatures, and then attempted--with varying degrees of failure and success--in Congress during the Progressive Era. Together, they acted as a sort of social "proof of concept" for what more robust economic regulation, labor rights, and consumer protections might look like. They paved the way for the more radical and transformational public policies implemented in the New Deal a decade or two later by understanding how important it was to set standards rather than merely win.
Another lesson this Congress might take from history would be the importance of changing party structures from the inside. The labor movement achieved some of its most important political victories in the midcentury only after it gained a foothold within the Democratic Party. Similarly, it was the alliance with the GOP that helped make the NRA the potent political force it is today. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, a multiracial labor union founded in 1935, occupied the left flank of the New Deal coalition, where it pressured FDR to resist compromise with congressional conservatives. The CIO also shifted the balance of power at the state level: As Northern politicians increasingly sought African American votes, the CIO was able to convince state parties to add civil rights planks to their platforms decades before 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was finally enacted. And in this, the CIO's influence extended far beyond a single election or legislative session.
The experience of labor and civil rights in the midcentury is instructive today. Those movements pushed for legislative policy, but their biggest long-term impact came once they had driven a new generation of legislators into office, who gradually shifted the party's baseline platform. Over time, it became more centrally associated first with labor, and then with civil rights. Today's liberals should follow this model. If they want to change the country, they should focus on changing the Democratic Party, rather than passing bills that are only going to die in the Senate or get booted off Trump's desk in the Oval Office.
So what does that mean for 2018? As Ayanna Pressley, the congresswoman-elect from Massachusetts's 7th District, put it so succinctly on the campaign trail earlier this year, "Change can't wait." But the Democrats in Congress have to be disciplined. They should focus on advancing bills built around big-picture, long-term policy solutions rather than incremental compromises. House Democrats such as John Sarbanes of Maryland have called for a sweeping reform agenda that includes renewed defenses for voting rights, a reordered public financing system, and major changes to lobbying and corruption laws. It is true that such bills are unlikely to overcome Republican opposition in the Senate. And some moderate Democrats may not be convinced either; Representative Cheri Bustos warned a few weeks ago that reforms should be "doable," focused on winning "folks in the middle." But advancing ambitious proposals in a moment when real legislative change is unlikely is not actually impractical.