With Democrats in control of the House, they are now faced with the question of how best to use their legislative authority. Nancy Pelosi has already drafted a lengthy list of goals: lowering prescription drug prices, investing in infrastructure, restoring background checks for gun buyers, protecting Dreamers with legal residency status, among others. President Trump has signaled at least some interest in cooperating on a few of these, telling Fox and Friends in October that he shared many areas of “commonality” with Democrats. Trump has always had a putative willingness to break from GOP orthodoxy. Perhaps, with a divided Congress, his ideology-free approach to policy could combine with Democratic fears of being tagged as “obstructionist,” and grease the wheels for compromise.
Chasing quick policy victories may be tempting. But compromise measures that can pass the House, gain Republican support in the Senate, and be signed into law by Trump are unlikely—to put it mildly—to be particularly progressive. And handing the president public-relations victories that he can campaign on—He finally pivoted to infrastructure! He lowered prescription drug prices!—might undermine future Democratic presidential hopefuls seeking to run on those issues in 2020.
"Democrats are today engaged in a struggle over ideas, and not just with the GOP and Donald Trump, but with themselves."
Beyond tactical advantage, there is a more important reason to spurn a short-term agenda: Any legislation passed in 2019 is not really about policy, but an opening salvo in the larger battle of political ideas and values the country will face in the coming years. Democrats should see this next Congress as a first phase of what could be a thoroughly transformative era of American politics.
There will be many Democrats taken with the desire to return to “normal” in politics. What could be more normal and forward-looking than solid policy victories forged out of common ground with the president? Yet these are not normal days. The United States is in a moment of dramatic ideological flux. The rise of white nationalism as a political force—and Trump’s election enabling its full absorption into the modern GOP—have opened a moral rift in the nation’s politics. This division cannot be wiped away by a return to policy-making norms. Congressional Democrats should forget about just doing something, and pursue a legislative agenda that offers a clear moral vision—even if they don’t pass a thing in 2019 or 2020.
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.
Despite centrist unease with “identity politics,” the reality is that the Democrats’ long-term electoral coalition rests on young, multiracial constituencies, people whose politics are committed to directly addressing issues of inequality and racial justice. Recent public opinion research focusing on “missing voters”—who turned out for Obama but stayed home in 2016—suggests that they are further to the left than traditional “swing” voters on major issues like health care and regulation. Big ideas will appeal to them more than some uninspired compromise that only Donald Trump could love.
That might start with an economic plan focused on public goods, like Medicare for all, free college, universal access to broadband. Democrats should think of ways to protect workers in an era of precarious employment and unrivaled corporate power. Propose improvements to infrastructure and draft regulations to create more affordable housing. Draft a new Civil Rights Act that focuses on modern areas of concern with public accommodations, environmental justice, and the desegregation of cities and schools. And enfranchise citizens—by restoring voting rights for former felons, as Florida did, and by passing redistricting reform, independence for Puerto Rico, and statehood for the District of Columbia. These are wildly varied plans, ambitious and aspirational, and it’s unlikely any of them will be signed into law, but it doesn’t matter: They could shift the values within the party, and serve as trial runs for broader change in 2020 and beyond.
If Democrats are smart, congresswomen like New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, and Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar will represent the future of party leadership. Democrats have traditionally relied on norms of seniority to decide leadership positions, and all indications are that Nancy Pelosi will return as speaker. But Democrats would do better to elevate someone new who can mobilize young communities of color and argue for political ideals free of the baggage of previous decades of political conflict.
None of these tactics could rightly be called a legislative agenda. But perhaps they add up to something more fundamental: a far-reaching strategy for social change. Democrats are today engaged in a struggle over ideas, and not just with the GOP and Donald Trump, but with themselves. To make a better party, and a better country, one that makes the setbacks and suffering of the past two years worthwhile, Democrats may have to lose some fights in this next Congress. Lose now, lose the right way, and the future could be theirs.