Save the Party, Save the World

Joe Biden
Joe Biden; illustration by Ellie Foreman-Peck

Somewhat unexpectedly, ensuring the success of the Democratic Party has become the most important political project in the world. The United States remains the world’s largest economy and superpower, and its constructive international leadership is essential if the climate crisis and other world-historical dangers are to be overcome. This can happen only if Democrats dominate the national government for the best part of the next ten years or so. Republicans cannot be trusted with meaningful power precisely because they form one of the world-historical dangers that must be overcome. Noam Chomsky has accurately described the contemporary Republican Party as “the most dangerous organization in human history.”

The politics that this state of affairs calls for—working to make certain that one party defeats another throughout a series of legitimate elections, in order to avert catastrophe—is a novel one. Canonical political theory doesn’t engage with the scenario. Neither does customary political practice. Even reliably partisan voters don’t feel obligated to be partisan. They reserve the right to calibrate their support for a party in accordance with private criteria that could be trivial or morally serious. It’s a free world, right? But acting in accordance with private criteria, however virtuously, begins to feel absurd at a time when global heating has ripped open the “climatic envelope” that Homo sapiens has occupied for the last six thousand years.1 As for elected officials, their outlook is largely determined by the everyday demands of constituents and donors, by institutional maneuvering, and by personal careerism. Democrats are no exception. They didn’t go into politics thinking of themselves as emergency custodians of the biosphere or as firefighters combating the arson of American democracy. They too find themselves with philosophies and wish lists and time frames that have lost their currency.

Our political situation, then, makes an unfamiliar and potentially repugnant demand on us, namely that we quickly develop a loyalty to the Democratic Party as such. To a degree, this is already happening. The 2018 “Blue Wave” midterms produced an extraordinary partisan grassroots mobilization for a wide variety of candidates. Two years later, Angela Davis and Bill Kristol, whose political views couldn’t be more different, both support the presidential candidacy of Joe Biden. But transpartisan electoral alliances, however useful in the short term, are obviously insufficient to enable the Democratic Party to edge out the Republican Party for the next decade. Much of today’s political energy on the left is not profoundly Democratic or pro-Biden, and it’s not even profoundly anti-Republican. It’s a very narrow negative partisanship—support that is significantly motivated and energized by antipathy against one figure, Donald Trump. What happens to that energy when Trump goes? How will the Democratic Party fare without it?

The long-held approach of the Democratic establishment won’t solve this problem. That approach—to minimize interparty differences in the hope of winning over politically…


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