In the realm of state government, the Republican Party is wiping the floor with the Democrats. The 2016 elections are remembered for the presidential race, but they also gave the GOP control of sixty-eight state legislative chambers to the Democrats’ thirty-one. Amazingly, the lives of almost half of the national population came under the sway of a Republican trifecta—that is, a state government with all three branches controlled by the GOP. Even after the 2018 Blue Wave, the score was 61–37, Republican to Democrat.
What’s salient here is that Republican dominance represents an extraordinary political overperformance. Republican state governments strongly align themselves with the national party leadership—and by conventional measures, and certainly by comparison with the Clinton and Obama administrations, the national GOP has long been a disaster. Every Republican administration from Reagan onward has crashed the economy and exploded deficits. (Trump has already achieved the latter.) Their track record on health care is one of failure. Their handling of national security has been catastrophic (see the September 11 attacks, the rise of ISIS, Trump-Russia, climate change). Their criminality and corruption is scandalous: fraud, perjury, bribery, Boland Amendment violations during the Iran–contra affair, obstruction of justice, tax evasion, theft, and misuse of public funds are just some of the crimes committed by Republican administration officials and operatives—and that’s without counting those chalked up under Nixon and Trump.
And it’s not as if red-state governments have been better. For at least a quarter-century, GDP growth in blue states has exceeded that in red states. Living standards—educational attainment, household income, life expectancy, tax equity—tend to be distinctly higher in blue states. These disparities are mitigated by what economists call “fiscal flows”—blue staters subsidizing red staters in the form of federal taxes. When states go all-in on Republican economic strategies, not even fiscal flows can avert disaster, as the fates of Kansas and Oklahoma have revealed. Some red states even reject fiscal flows: fourteen have refused the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid, with predictable consequences. If you wanted to tank the country, or part of it, your best bet would be to get Republicans to run things.
So why do they keep winning state races? To put it another way, why do Democrats—the party of prosperity—keep losing to them? Can this be changed? How much does it matter?
Meaghan Winter’s All Politics Is Local: Why Progressives Must Fight for the States looks into these questions with remarkable clarity and tenacity. She closely inspects liberal grassroots activism in three states—Missouri, Colorado, and Florida—that “are not places where it is inevitable that right-wing politicians will control the narrative and agenda. Nor are they places where a progressive movement is easy to assemble.” Her method was to visit these regions repeatedly over a period of years; to intimately acquaint herself with the local issues and people and developments, which involved spending hours watching legislative committees at work; and to attempt to gain insight into what a sustainable and progressive reinvigoration of the Democratic Party might require.
Winter’s starting point is that effective political engagement at the state level is not only intrinsically desirable but that, “especially ahead of redistricting, there is no way for a political party or social movement to win long-term without building strategic power in cities and states.”
This might seem obvious. The maps of most congressional districts are determined by state legislatures. After the midterm election of 2010, Republicans used their state-level wins to ensure dramatic partisan overrepresentation in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Texas, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Virginia, Indiana, New York, and Michigan. This guaranteed a Republican majority in the House of Representatives that could be undone only by an election like the 2018 Blue Wave. Gerrymandering was also applied to statehouses. This gives the GOP a continuing advantage, in states like Wisconsin and Ohio, in the redistricting that will follow the 2020 census.
Nonetheless, the importance of regional politics hasn’t been obvious, or obvious enough, to the Democratic powers-that-be: as Winter writes, “for years, it has been an open secret in political circles that Democrats and progressive interest groups have prioritized federal candidates and policy at the expense of the states.”
Winter suggests that this is because, first, there has been a generational conviction among baby boomers that federal politics is the most instrumentally effective. And second, the liberal political apparatus is “largely guided by the moral whims of rich people.” She gives the billionaire presidential candidate Tom Steyer as an example. Liberal megadonors with private foundations are reluctant to invest in uncharismatic, long-haul grassroots projects. They are typically afraid of appearing “political.” Instead, they favor ameliorating the plight of the visibly needy:
As David Callahan, founder of Inside Philanthropy, said, most foundation grant makers end up “thinking like a social worker instead of thinking like a Bolshevik,” the very opposite of the approach taken by those doling out the Koch and Mercer fortunes.
Thus the problem isn’t money: “The annual spending of centrist and left-leaning foundations far exceeds the annual spending of the conservative Heritage Foundation or the Scaife Family Foundation.” The problem is that, for around half a century, right-wing donors have spent their money more productively. They have created and supported entities (the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, the State Policy Network, Americans for Prosperity, the Federalist Society, etc.) dedicated to developing durable structures of power and fanaticism. Most significantly, they have gradually taken control of state offices—the offices responsible not only for redistricting but for elections and voter registration, for state jurisprudence, and for the local regulation of abortion, health care, workers’ rights, and gun safety.
It can’t be disputed that this effort has worked. Indeed, it has produced a kind of Bolshevik dreamland in which a few billionaire hypercapitalists and libertarian extremists oversee a sizable cadre of professional ideologues and organizers who do the boring, technical, and persistent work of radicalizing, training, rewarding, and controlling conservative legislators, policy theorists, media figures, propagandists, administrators, evangelists, and judges. This produces a self-sustaining vanguard with real power, real expertise, and a ferocious dedication to victory that increasingly surpasses any allegiance to the ethical and civic norms associated with a modern democracy. Gerrymandering, voter suppression, intellectually dishonest judicial rulings, and systematic disinformation are now essential Republican tactics. There’s a reason why the GOP, for all its substantive uselessness, is such a formidable political foe. It plays to win.
The left, in the meantime, has kept losing—not only elections, but crucial structural assets such as trade unions. Its last holdout is the campus. But at a time when students are targetable by social media campaigns of influence, that too could change. And while college graduates may be good at disagreeing with Republicans, they hardly constitute an army of Democratic Party loyalists. The liberal instinct tends to interrogate power, not exercise it; to shine a light on injustice rather than do the proactive, obscure, potentially dirty work of changing the structures of justice. The ACLU is perhaps the most treasured of all liberal institutions. Its job is merely to “defend and preserve” our liberties, not to expand them. Winter writes:
Progressive groups have raised more money and attracted more members during eras when their missions have been threatened, as during George W. Bush’s presidency, than when they have secured wins. No matter how loud or organized they have been in the past couple of years, Democrats and progressives are still conforming to that historic pattern; they are more politically energized when they are obviously losing.
In case you missed it, Winter is literally describing a movement of losers—a movement that has practically forgotten what winning means. The Democratic national leadership of the last thirty years has embodied this. The likes of Joe Biden and Barack Obama and Chuck Schumer seem actually averse to defeating Republicans. Unlike their opponents, they don’t appear to think that the job of Team Blue is to take on the other side as forcefully as possible. On the contrary: to this day, they apparently believe that the very idea of a Team Blue is distasteful and that Democrats should, whenever possible, bolster the GOP’s standing as a good-faith party with goals and principles as valid as their own. Their core mission is to practice a ceremonial innocence about the unshakable virtue of American conservatism—and to do so even as the worst, full of passionate intensity, are cleaning their clocks.
Recall, for example, the 2016 nomination of Merrick Garland to fill the Supreme Court seat that had been held by Justice Scalia. A sixty-three-year-old centrist, Garland was the most elderly and GOP-friendly candidate that President Obama could have chosen. When the Republican Senate, led by Mitch McConnell, announced that it would block any nominee, Obama lamented that it “defies the Constitution, defies logic.” He added, “I understand the posture they’re taking right now. I get the politics of it, I’m sure they’re under enormous pressure from their base and their constituencies around this issue. I’ve talked to many of them, and I’ve told them I’m sympathetic.” As late as July 2018, Schumer, the Senate minority leader, advised President Trump to renominate Garland “as a way to unify the country.” After McConnell learned of Schumer’s advice, @TeamMitch (an official Twitter account of the senator) posted a GIF that showed Michael Jordan rocking with laughter. Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh.
The challenge of winning everywhere is complicated by the vastness and variety of the United States. The longstanding Republican tactic has been to compress the playing field by aggressively promoting certain “values.” These values have little to do with conservative ideals—theoretically, to reduce the power of the state in favor of market forces—and everything to do with creating a highly partisan political tribe. The tribe is made up of white Christians and those in their orbit. Many of the tribespeople are former Democrats. What they have in common is a conviction that their core values and traditional sources of social capital are existentially threatened by the Democratic Party and its urban hordes of nonwhites, immigrants, snobs, and sexual deviants. They also have in common membership in an information community—Fox News, right-wing Facebook groups, talk radio, etc.—that transcends geography and builds ideology.
Contrary to popular belief, the attachment of many Americans to the Second Amendment isn’t natural. It is the product of an innovative and disciplined nationwide campaign started by the NRA in the late 1970s. The success of the anti-abortion movement is rooted in institutional grassroots work by the National Right to Life Committee, an organization founded and financed by the Catholic Church in the 1960s. You don’t get people singing from the same hymn sheet unless someone is writing the hymns, printing and distributing them, and building choirs everywhere.
Winter brilliantly illuminates the subject by zooming in on Missouri. She closely studies how “pro-life” advocates in that state responded to Roe v. Wade (1973) by fervently lobbying state authorities, and how the NRA got concealed-carry laws off the ground. She is told “time and again…that a wide portion of the rural voters made their decisions based on ‘God, gays, and guns.’” The venerable Democratic status quo in Missouri, with its emphasis on trade unions, was divided and finally outmatched by relentless right-wing activism on abortion and gun rights. Missouri liberals found that far-away allies like Planned Parenthood and NARAL and the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence were powerless to help them much. For years, Planned Parenthood’s focus, in Missouri, had been on “mobilizing supportive voters” rather than doing movement work to promote reproductive rights. There was no left-wing corollary to local gun clubs and churches.
In Florida, Winter is told the same thing:
The Democratic Party, and other independent political groups, had spent their energy mobilizing voters, rather than organizing them…and that was the heart of the problem. Mobilizing meant encouraging people to show up to perform a short-term function like voting or protesting. Organizing meant getting people together, empowering them, giving them the responsibility and freedom to bring in more people, expand the agenda, take on more work.
She conducts a detailed post-mortem of the 2010 and 2018 Florida gubernatorial races, which the Democrats, Alex Sink and Andrew Gillum, respectively lost to Rick Scott, the Medicare profiteer, and Ron DeSantis. Sink’s defeat was set in motion immediately after Obama’s victory in 2008, when
the permanent staff of the statewide Florida Democratic Party shrank back to about ten employees tasked with organizing and keeping energized 4,800,890 registered Florida Democrats, raising funds to compete for upcoming races for governor, attorney general, and other cabinet positions, plus about 20 state Senate and all 120 state House seats, not to mention keeping tabs on the various Democratic commissions in sixty-seven counties and calling public attention to legislation rolling through the Republican-controlled assembly in Tallahassee. And Tallahassee was roughly five hundred miles away from the majority of the state’s Democrats, who live in South Florida.
The staffing gap was filled by consultants. “Consultants don’t commit to field operations,” Cynthia Busch, chair of the Broward Democratic Party, tells Winter. “There’s no money being made running the field operation.” Scott beat Sink by one percent, with turnout very low in blue South Florida:
“We were just being outstrategized and outmessaged,” Sink told [Winter]. “[Scott]’s a broken record, and all he says is ‘Let’s get to work.’… He was out there repeating the same glib sound bites everywhere he went. It stuck with people. I had much better policies and much better plans, but my team was never able to come up with, ‘What’s Alex’s soundbite going to be that’s effective?’ I think Democrats in general are really, really bad about that kind of messaging stuff.”
Gillum raised $52 million, an enormous sum. Blue-chip organizations—America Votes, the League of Conservation Voters, Next Gen, Planned Parenthood, For Our Future, WIN Justice PAC—threw their weight behind him, along with reputable grassroots groups like New Florida Majority (aimed at Latinx and black voters) and Organize Florida (community leaders fighting for lasting change). Surely this gigantic, all-out effort would at last overcome the resilience of Florida Republicans and the dysfunctionality of the Florida Democrats.
Even with the Blue Wave crashing over the rest of the country, Gillum lost. In the Florida state races, the Democrats went nowhere, netting only one Senate seat and ineffectually reducing the GOP representation in the state’s House from seventy-five to seventy-three. Winter has no good answer for why this happened. Gillum could suggest only that the “muscle memory” of GOP voters was simply too powerful. Florida, it turns out, is an extremely complex electoral market that either needs a fiendishly sophisticated outreach or a fiendishly simple one. Or both. Nobody knows. Florida apparently remains beyond the reach of political science.
The story in Colorado is more transparent—and, from the Democratic viewpoint, much more heartening. Democrats there are on a winning streak that culminated, in 2018, with a state-government trifecta. Republicans had dominated the Colorado legislature since the 1960s. What happened?
In the early 2000s, Winter relates, a quartet of rich, politically inexperienced liberals (“the Gang of Four”) decided to stop entrusting political outcomes to the Democratic powers that be and to take matters into their own hands. Applying a “business mentality” and adopting the mantra “Check your shit at the door,” they decided to scrap policy debates and instead to do “whatever it took to put Democrats in office, under the assumption that having more Democrats in general would be better for any one donor or organization’s preferred cause, whether gay rights or labor law.”
Concentrating on state elections, they funded “a blitz of negative ads against Republican candidates.” In 2004, when Democrats all over the country were losing, Colorado Democrats flipped their House and Senate. The most interesting part was yet to come. After these victories, the Gang of Four “expanded their giving and strategizing so that they cultivated a generation of talented leaders, and a whole new political culture.”
One beneficiary was New Era Colorado, founded by recent college graduates in 2006. Its mission was to engage young voters, and its culture was relentless grassroots work. Its website asserts, “Building power for our generation requires political engagement at every level: Registering voters, getting out the vote, passing progressive policy, and training new leaders. We do it all, we do it well, and we make it fun.” So far, they’ve pulled it off: young Coloradans vote at exceptionally high rates and turn out for important but obscure votes: thanks to a 142-vote margin, “Boulder became the first city in the country…to break away from its investor-owned utility.” Winter is clearly impressed:
New Era found a method for solving a riddle at the heart of all political work. Political strategists have coveted low-propensity voters’ attention for decades. New Era figured out how to get young people to want to participate in elections—and in political organizing and advocacy. That is the whole game.
The tricky part of the Colorado model, which others are trying to adopt, is that not every state will be able to cultivate a persistent, can-do crew of young, pragmatic-yet-on-fire progressives. Colorado is a high-tech, booming place with “local billionaires willing to bolster statewide progressive organizations,” and it’s relatively free of the entrenched divisions and cronyism that the Democratic Party struggles with elsewhere. In this regard, the case of New York—which is beyond the scope of Winter’s book—is telling.
In the aftermath of the 2016 election, New Yorkers began to notice that the State Senate, in Albany, was in the hands of the GOP, even though Democrats were in the majority. This was largely because a group of Democrats, the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), caucused with the Republicans in return for various payoffs. The arrangement was encouraged by the seemingly omnipotent Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo.
Fired up by the presidential election, a handful of citizens, most of them women, decided to do something about a state of affairs that seemed to those in Albany as immovable as the Catskills. Two separately founded new groups, No IDC and True Blue NY, launched a coalition. Staffed almost entirely by political neophytes and volunteers, they recruited and campaigned for candidates who would challenge the IDC senators (and another turncoat, Simcha Felder) in the 2018 primaries. Overcoming huge financial and institutional disadvantages, the challengers won six out of nine primaries. After the November election, the Democrats took control of the Senate and, driven by the new intake, implemented a historically progressive legislative agenda: ambitious carbon goals, plastic waste regulations, driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, criminal justice reform, voting reform, tenants’ rights protections, new rights for victims of violence and harassment.
It’s important to grasp the magnitude of this: a self-appointed, part-time group of political novices, heavily reliant on social media and with only a tiny budget, managed to transform government in a state with a population of almost 20 million and a GDP greater than Russia’s. The total votes cast for the six primary winners amounted to less than 160,000. Two months earlier, in Queens, fewer than 16,000 voters ensured that Representative Joe Crowley lost his primary to an unknown named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—one of the very few New York politicians who had quickly and clearly supported the IDC challengers. That is the promise of local races. They’re winnable, and they can produce outsize results.
Of course, recent progressive victories could turn out to be ephemeral—a product of political energy contingent on Trump’s presence in the White House. In American Resistance: From the Women’s March to the Blue Wave, Dana R. Fisher, a sociologist of political activism, documents the seven Trump-era marches (the Women’s Marches in 2017 and 2018, the March for Science, the Climate March, the March for Racial Justice, the March for Our Lives, the Families Belong Together protest) that each brought between 10,000 and 800,000 demonstrators to Washington. Her larger aim is to study the Blue Wave phenomenon in order to understand what it would take for “the American Resistance”—an “unwieldy movement” that includes “Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, and the women’s, antigun violence, and climate movements, among others”—to successfully persist.
Fisher offers three notable findings. First:
The demographics of participants in these seven marches is remarkably similar and was dominated by highly educated women who are about forty years old…. This finding stands in sharp contrast to earlier research that found men were more likely to participate in protests in the civil rights movement, and more recent work that found no significant differences in protest participation by gender.
Millennials were not disproportionately present at the events, which were overwhelmingly white. At the March for Racial Justice, only an estimated quarter of the marchers identified as black or multiracial.
Second: “What gets disconnected nonjoiners off their sofas and into the streets and town hall meetings? The answer is moral shocks.” That is problematic:
Moral shocks can be an effective tool for mobilizing strangers to participate in a march or, potentially, a number of marches, without personal ties to groups that do the work of organizing, but it is difficult to sustain activism.
Third, the 2018 midterm victories were a function of “distributed organizing.” The phrase describes a new phenomenon: spontaneous, diffuse, people-powered political action. It stands in contrast to the top-down methods that the Democratic Party especially, with its heavy reliance on centralized get-out-the-vote operations and the charisma of its presidential candidates, has used. Distributed organizing involves the masses creating and running their own networks, social and political: see, for example, Moms Demand Action, Flippable, Swing Left, Indivisible, and No IDC. It’s scattered, informal, and driven by inexperienced but highly motivated volunteers who figure out for themselves how to effect change, local change in particular. It has little to do with the Democratic Party and the party organs (the Democratic National Convention, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the congressional leadership) entrusted with countering the GOP and its network of political allies.
Like Winter, Fisher’s research leads her to the general conclusion that dogged local activism is central to everything. She is told again and again that the Democratic Party’s lack of local infrastructure and community engagement lies at the root of its failure—and, ironically, its recent success. The absence of local party structures forced into existence groups like Indivisible. These groups understand, as Fisher puts it, that they “must put in the time and effort and lay down roots where the party’s base lives, works, and votes, mobilizing people locally and engaging them in a meaningful way.”
It’s possible to derive a magic formula from all of this: millions of highly capable and morally outraged women plus digital tools equals local activism equals victory.
Fisher and Winter suspect, with good reason, that the magic formula may only work for a while. It is noticeable, now that Democrats control the House of Representatives, that the #resist and #BlueWave hashtags are less prominent on social media. A lot of focus and money has moved to presidential primaries and Washington dramas. That’s only natural—and it didn’t harm Democrats in the November 2019 elections. What’s also natural is the inclination to rely on leaders rather than to keep doing all the work oneself. And outrage, because it is exhausting, is naturally provisional. President Trump won’t be around forever. What then?
The question refers to the long term, not only to the short. We live in a two-party system in which one party poses existential threats to our democracy and the habitability of the planet. The Democratic goal must be to exercise power year after year, as monopolistically as possible, at every level of government. No other goal is rational.
Any good answer to this question must consider a development that Fisher and Winter don’t reckon with: the financing of local progressive politics has been revolutionized. The nonprofit donation platform ActBlue, started in 2004, has suddenly grown into a grassroots fundraising monster. Someone in Anchorage, say, can easily donate to a pro-solar public service commission candidate in Georgia. In the 2018 election cycle, ActBlue took in over $1.6 billion from almost five million unique donors at an average of $39.50 per donation. This money—$400 million more, for midterms, than Hillary Clinton raised in a presidential election—went all over the country to 9,300 recipients running for office at every level of government. Immediately after the 2018 results, Mitch McConnell identified ActBlue as the “heart of the problem” for the GOP, which has now responded with its own platform, WinRed. However that pans out, Democratic power will more than ever be located at the grassroots. It’s where the money and the will to win is located, not to mention the talent.
Thanks to the excellent work of Winter and Fisher and others—see, for example, the recently published We Are Indivisible: A Blueprint for Democracy After Trump by Leah Greenberg and Ezra Levin—we know enough about how power is won and lost in America to outline a dominant Democratic strategy. It would entail three overlapping to-dos. First, prioritize the grassroots. Second, dismantle and counter the GOP’s structural voting advantages. Third, in order to achieve the first two goals, change party politics in Washington. Let’s deal with each in turn.
Prioritizing the grassroots means supporting distributed organizing, which is now the most effective method of building the kind of community engagement that delivers election victories. That means incentivizing and empowering movement workers who have most at stake, notably women, African-Americans, and the young. To do this, you fund their long-term community work; encourage a state of partisan moral shock by constantly publicizing what Republicans (not just Trump) are doing or planning (the GOP has done something similar for decades); focus on midterm and special elections, which are important to, and winnable by, local activists; reward effective activists with laws and policies they’ve fought for; and vigorously publicize the rewards to make clear that working for Democrats leads to payoffs. For example, New York Democrats need to boast more about their 2019 legislative success, and they also need to pass sensible laws (fair taxes for the very rich, campaign finance reform) that are important to the people who put them in power. If they don’t, their trifecta won’t last for long.
In the matter of electoral structures, we know that fair districts, and fair voting rolls, are secured by winning state legislatures and seats on redistricting commissions. It follows that Democrats must focus at all costs on state races. The open question, for Democrats who hold state power in 2021, will be whether or not to counter GOP gerrymandering with gerrymandering of their own. The current preference of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, led by Eric Holder and backed by Obama, is to promote nonpartisan redistricting commissions even in a blue state such as Colorado. Is this a winning strategy? Bear in mind that Republicans will certainly gerrymander states they control; will (in Arizona, for example) do everything in their power to subvert ostensibly nonpartisan bodies to their advantage; and, in the Supreme Court, might even rule that nonpartisan, citizen-run redistricting commissions are unconstitutional. The Supreme Court, it will be remembered, recently decided that even the most extreme partisan gerrymandering is not federally remediable.
One structural way to mitigate the gerrymandering problem, indeed all kinds of electoral obstacles, is to exploit the favorable, and currently underrealized ideological sympathies of the under-forty cohort. Those must be turned into an enduring partisan asset (see the New Era Coloradans).
The subject of what should be done differently by Washington Democrats, in Congress and in the national organs of the Democratic Party, is a huge one. In essence, Democratic officials are about as useless as they could be in the matter of turning, and keeping, the political map blue. They need to change how they think about their jobs and their responsibilities.
They need to embrace partisan commitment. It is mystifying and demoralizing for grassroots activists that their basic assumptions (say, that the Republican Party, not just the Republican president, is unfit for power in a democracy) find no echo among their Washington representatives. When ordinary people are emptying their wallets, getting arrested, and putting their careers on hold to fight for the cause, the least they expect of the well-paid professional politicians they have worked to elect is that they will conduct themselves with equal determination and will side with them, not Republicans. Republican politicians, some Democratic officials seem not to grasp, are not guys in a bar with opinions different from your own. They are people who have chosen to devote their lives to undermining the core interests of your supporters and their families and communities. When Representative Peter King, a Republican from Long Island and a loud Trump fan, recently announced his retirement, he was lauded by Schumer for being “principled” and having “stood head & shoulders above everyone else.” If the Democratic Party is to remain viable, that kind of thing has to stop.
Democratic officials also need to start outmaneuvering the Republicans in Congress. Here, Democrats have a couple of no-brainers. The fact that each state is allocated two Senate seats, regardless of population, means that a Republican majority will likely prevail in the Senate for at least four of every six years—which in turn means that judicial appointments will remain largely in Republican hands. It’s essential, therefore, that Democrats at the first opportunity grant statehood, and four Senate seats, to the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. It surely goes without saying that they should immediately naturalize 11 million undocumented Americans, ideally with voter registration as part of the administrative process.
They need to favor proactive policies that address the concerns of their grassroots base rather than the wishes of corporate donors or of mythic pipe-smoking moderates in Ohio.
Finally, and very importantly, they need to use their national visibility to message effectively and develop a clear “brand.” This is another enormous subject. A powerful brand has deep structural benefits. A successfully Democratic branding strategy would involve, at a bare minimum, negatively branding the GOP, not just Trump, at every opportunity—on the economy, on national security, on American values.
This is a feasible program. It will probably require a generational overhaul of Democratic officialdom. There are promising signs. The new chairman of the Wisconsin Democrats is Ben Wikler, formerly of the progressive action group MoveOn. His up-to-date grassroots expertise has ensured that in Wisconsin, a must-flip state for the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, local partisan activism is at an extraordinary level a full year before votes are cast. Wikler is thirty-eight years old. He thinks very differently from, say, Joe Biden. Biden, like so many other Democratic leaders of a certain age, possesses sensibilities, strategic instincts, and values shaped by decades of losing ground to the GOP. He asserts that, once Trump is gone, Republicans will have an “epiphany” and discover inner moral resources. You could call Biden and his ilk Charlie Brown Democrats. They believe, against all the available evidence, that Lucy van Pelt will one day let them kick the football, and eventually they hoof at the ball in the unconscious hope that Lucy will indeed whisk the ball away. This generation of whiffers views Republican dominance as natural and, ultimately, acceptable. That won’t cut it.