In December 2008, as he prepared to assume the presidency, Barack Obama shared a provocative observation with Nancy Pelosi about the American system of government. The United States Senate, Obama told her, had in some ways “outlived its purpose.”
In Obama’s reckoning, the Senate had altogether too much clout and too often served to diminish the power of people of color. A partial remedy, he suggested, would be to abolish the Senate’s filibuster rule, which requires sixty votes to advance most legislation. Scrapping that archaic stricture would allow a simple majority to approve bills, thereby limiting the power of conservative factions to freeze the lawmaking process.
Obama could scarcely have found a more appreciative audience. The president-elect’s perspective was “music to the Speaker’s ears,” writes John A. Lawrence, Pelosi’s former chief of staff, in Arc of Power: Inside Nancy Pelosi’s Speakership, 2005–2010, his meticulous account of Pelosi’s early years as a congressional leader. Facing mass layoffs and crumbling financial markets, Pelosi told Obama that Democrats needed to discard “incrementalism and the old ways of thinking.” The two party chiefs hoped to resurrect a shattered economy and, in so doing, repair the country’s frayed social welfare state and strengthen the rights of workers, families, and immigrants.
They could not have known how fleeting their moment of triumph would be. Arc of Power, based on nearly nine thousand pages of notes Lawrence took over his years as Pelosi’s senior aide, is a dispassionate autopsy of Washington’s legislative battles at the end of the George W. Bush years and the start of the Obama presidency. It culminates with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, in March 2010, and the Republican landslide that came that autumn—a productive yet excruciating phase in the history of the Democratic Party.
How is it that the party could achieve such a major legislative victory but fail to respond adequately to voters’ fury about the Great Recession? With an impressive depth of detail, Lawrence’s book illuminates the painful predicament of today’s Democrats, who, even in periods of electoral success, have shown themselves incapable of creating a political coalition broad and stable enough to defeat the tangled rules of the Senate and the rural bias of the American republic. It is one of several recent books that bring into relief the scale of the work ahead for Democrats if they want to rebuild their party and the country from the ravages of the Trump era.
The Senate’s two-seats-per-state structure is a preposterously distorted one, granting the people of South Dakota or Wyoming the same voice as the people of Georgia—even though each of those western states boasts a population smaller than Georgia’s Gwinnett County.* As Pelosi put it in another conversation with Obama that Lawrence recounts, the composition of the Senate permits “senators from lily-white states” to dictate social and economic policy for the whole country.
Like many of the worst defects in the American political system, this one emerges from the careful design of the country’s founders, who devised the Senate as a coolheaded check on the impulsive passions of the House, and as an inducement for the smallest of the newly liberated colonies to surrender much of their sovereignty to a nascent federal state. Those men could scarcely have envisioned a future in which a mega-state called California existed, let alone one in which it had more voters than the entire Mountain West—and still the same number of senators as Idaho.
Nor could they have imagined that their lordly upper house might be so readily commandeered by a crude television entertainer and his cyclonic political movement. With the remaking of the Republican Party in Donald Trump’s image, America’s rural and white constituencies have swung rapidly to the right, putting Democrats at an ever-deepening disadvantage in the competition for power in the Senate. Indeed the makeup of the Republican coalition these days is so ideally suited to winning elections in sparsely populated states that it takes political malpractice and misfortune on an almost comical scale for the conservative party not to win control.
Happily for Democrats, Republicans have hit that mark on several occasions, including in 2020, when Trump reacted to his defeat in the presidential race by taking revenge on his party’s Senate candidates in a crucial Georgia runoff election. Trump gave a reprise performance in the midterm elections, installing buffoonish and offensive candidates for the Senate in swing states like Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Georgia, dooming Republicans in those races.
Yet the architecture of the Senate has kept Trump’s party within a seat or two of reclaiming the majority. The Democrats averted a midterm catastrophe, yes, but it is rather startling to consider that Republicans spent the past two years defending a corrupt demagogue, attacking the democratic process, banning abortion across much of the land, offering few considered policy ideas of their own—and having taken the House, came so close to claiming the Senate too.
Given all this, Democrats would be wise to treat the 2022 elections not as a vindication but as a stay of execution. The party still needs a better way to fight for power in what Obama and Pelosi recognized many years ago as a warped republic. The most important Democratic leaders have tended to shy away from frank and reflective discussion, at least in public, of the Senate’s fundamental unfairness and what their party might do about it.
In practice, most Democrats mainly accept that the Senate is what it is, periodically venting about the injustice of it all but making no concerted attempt either to challenge the system or to evolve as a party to better compete within its arcane structure. If the Senate makes American politics into something of a sucker’s game for the party of big cities and diverse suburbs, Democrats appear resigned to keep playing the game in much the same way, over and over again. After all, as long as Republican Senate candidates keep self-destructing on a routine basis, the competition can almost feel fair. This approach is pitiably short-sighted, as Democrats may well discover in 2024, when they must contest an even more difficult set of Senate races in states like West Virginia and Montana.
Democrats need to look this challenge in the face. As of yet, they have been unable to answer one of the greatest questions confronting them: How will the party win back the sections of the country that dominate the Senate? Any attempt to do so will mean reckoning more fully with how Democrats lost them in the first place.
Since 2008, when Democrats were on their way to a sixty-seat majority in the Senate, the map has been reshaped by a rightward swing in rural communities that has left them with only the most precarious route to controlling the chamber. This rightward swing is not an exclusively American story.
In A World of Insecurity, the development economist Pranab Bardhan explains these overlapping trends as functions of the dreadful instability of life in this century. Situating American Trumpism within a global story of the rise of antidemocratic politics in other big, diverse countries like Brazil and India, Bardhan wisely skirts the false-choice debate about whether these largely rural political insurgencies have been driven principally by malignant forces like racism and sexism or by legitimate feelings of economic injury and social alienation.
He offers instead the concept of insecurity—fear of cultural displacement, economic hardship, and “issues of even physical or sheer existential insecurity.” He writes, in a bleak catalog of life so far in the twenty-first century:
These include a rise in terrorism (particularly since September 11, 2001); war and civil strife; ecological catastrophes arising from extreme climate events like hurricanes, forest fires, floods, and mudslides; and long-running problems like the rise in sea levels, overfishing, deforestation, soil erosion, and desertification.
Living in such an environment of real or perceived—and social media–enhanced—chaos, Bardhan argues, voters naturally look for a man on horseback to protect them, their community, or their racial or social cohort. Certain voters have proved markedly more open to that appeal than others. The most enthusiastic tend to be older, less educated, and less likely to live in metropolitan areas. They are drawn to parties promising to “take back control” of an out-of-kilter world; in Britain, the Brexit movement made those three words its signature slogan.
Bardhan’s book is most disconcerting for an American reader for reasons that he himself does not quite articulate. It presents a sober contemplation of demagogues like Jair Bolsonaro and Narendra Modi, who weaken democracy with the support of disaffected electoral majorities. In the US, alas, that brand of quasi-autocratic politics consumed the federal government for years without ever winning a popular majority.
Bardhan notes that unlike other democracies rocked by strongman politics, the United States has certain safeguards against brute-force majority rule. It is possible to abuse those safeguards, he acknowledges—when a popular-vote loser triumphs in the Electoral College, for instance, or through the Senate filibuster. This approaches but does not quite reach the essential point, which is that the Senate now functions to strengthen an entrenched minority faction against a more socially tolerant electoral majority.
It was in the middle of the last decade that the Senate’s unrepresentative composition intersected with the rise of Trumpism. Not only could Trump win the presidency despite losing the popular vote, but he could also govern throughout his term with near-total confidence that his party would keep control of the Senate no matter how ferociously most of the voting public wanted to repudiate him.
In the 2018 midterms a majority of the country voted to punish Republicans. But even as Democrats gained scores of seats in the House and won the popular vote by a margin of nearly 10 million, Republicans picked up Senate seats in places like North Dakota and Missouri, states far whiter and more conservative than the country as a whole. In those places, Trump and Trumpism were not unpopular at all.
The endurance of institutions like the Senate and the Electoral College means that an American political party dedicated to opposing right-wing populism cannot be content simply to assemble a competing national majority. Instead, they—that is, the Democrats—must build a particular kind of majority that involves cracking the foundations of Trump’s electoral coalition in the most frustrated and insecure parts of the country.
That would likely require a long-range commitment from Democratic leaders to updating the party’s political brand and speaking more consistently to voters’ sense of economic and cultural vulnerability. Democrats may never appeal to the segments of Trump’s base that are animated most intensely by feelings of racial resentment or male self-pity. But the party could do far more to share a persuasive vision of the economy with working-class voters who feel victimized by a distant and dysfunctional government, by wealthy elites, by nefarious foreign regimes, and all-powerful multinational corporations. Among the forces of insecurity Bardhan identifies, these are the ones that lend themselves most comfortably to remedies from the left of center.
From the earliest days of the Obama administration, Democrats struggled to formulate a coherent message on this front. They remained a more or less conventional liberal party, campaigning on promises to expand the safety net and defend inclusive cultural values, often devoting more energy to keeping peace among the various factions of the Democratic coalition than to figuring out how to make that coalition much bigger. In Senate races, Democrats have gamely fought in tactical terms, from one campaign to the next—recruiting agile candidates, raising and spending huge sums of money—only to watch in pain and anxiety as states with outsize influence in the Senate tilt further to the right.
As early as 2009, some Democrats spoke out about the country’s degraded social fabric and what it could mean for the party. Among the most perceptive was Tim Kaine, then the Virginia governor and Democratic National Committee chairman. Kaine wrote a series of memos for his friend the new president sketching this dark landscape.
Gabriel Debenedetti, a reporter at New York magazine, discusses those memos in The Long Alliance: The Imperfect Union of Joe Biden and Barack Obama. In Kaine’s reports, Debenedetti writes, he described
not only communities struggling with their finances but also Americans in a deepening malaise with increasingly entrenched skepticism about the opportunities for them in a postcrash economy and downright cynicism about Washington’s willingness to do anything about it.
Kaine diagnosed political and economic corrosion on a drastic scale. The Obama-led Democratic Party failed to answer with imaginative policies or political vigor.
Debenedetti’s book is framed as an inside account of the Obama–Biden relationship. It is most memorable not for its nominal argument—that the political union of those two men is a partnership of singular endurance and consequence, a claim complicated by much of Debenedetti’s own reporting—but for its valuable material on the lazy response of mainstream Democratic leaders to populist forces on both the left and right, most consequentially in the form of Trump.
While Kaine was warning of a national unraveling, Debenedetti writes, other Democrats close to Obama were pushing him to present the country with a more pointed message about the economy, perhaps infused with themes of nationalism that could resonate with an electorate understandably incensed about the 2008 financial crisis. Biden was among them: Debenedetti writes that Obama’s vice-president lobbied him to put off health care reform in favor of an agenda focused on “middle-class economics,” a term that the book does not define and that Biden himself seems not to have done much to flesh out. The president ultimately dismissed his proposal. Debenedetti paraphrases Obama’s reply to Biden: “We’re already doing everything we know how to do for the economy, so all you’re proposing is giving up on health care.”
Other Obama advisers and allies had somewhat more developed ideas. Rahm Emanuel, then the White House chief of staff, and Chuck Schumer, the New York senator and his party’s chief campaign strategist in the Senate, appear in the book as proponents of a domestic agenda defined not by the Affordable Care Act but by “family investments, jobs plans, and immigration overhauls,” along with “a manufacturing program being pushed by some midwestern Democrats.” Those ideas, however, did not excite Obama, at least in comparison to health care reform. Most other Democrats would probably have felt the same way as the president, given the size of the Democrats’ congressional majorities and the apparent opportunity for New Deal–sized achievements.
Lawrence’s book tells a similar story about Obama’s instincts in that moment, as well as Pelosi’s. In an instructive passage, Lawrence describes Maryland representative Steny Hoyer, the second-ranking House Democrat, lobbying Pelosi and the White House before the 2010 elections to promote a plan for reviving the domestic manufacturing sector. Pelosi did not dismiss the idea entirely but suggested instead that Democrats “find nationalistic messages in what we’ve voted for already.”
Indeed, far from anticipating an angry uprising at the ballot box, Obama predicted to Pelosi that if their party continued to “look reasonable” and deliver on promises like reforming the health care system, then the Republican Party would be exposed as a reckless, radical alternative. “The Republicans are despised,” he reminded her as the Tea Party wave was gathering strength.
It took the thrashing of 2010 to shift Obama’s political approach, at least for a while. Powered by a combination of voters’ frustration with the recession and proto-Trumpian rage on the right, Republicans captured an immense majority in the House, seizing Democratic-held seats in rural areas from northern Minnesota to central Missouri and the Florida Panhandle, as well as in an assortment of suburbs and cities. Republicans gained six Senate seats, too, mainly in rural states like North Dakota and Arkansas, but fell short of taking the majority in part because radicalized primary voters nominated bizarre fringe candidates in several states.
When it came time for the president to seek reelection, Obama’s campaign showed real deftness in addressing Americans’ yearning for a more stable and accessible economy, and in channeling their contempt for the sharks and speculators who messed everything up. In states like Ohio and Michigan, Obama’s campaign trumpeted the federal rescue of the auto industry and derided the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, as an aristocratic private-equity raider. It was an effective “which side are you on?”–style message that resonated even in distressed midwestern areas where Obama’s popularity had slumped since 2008. He carried Ohio by three points and Iowa by nearly six, while Democratic candidates managed to win difficult Senate races in Montana and North Dakota.
But the success of those themes in 2012 did not give rise to a new way of thinking among Democratic leaders. Two years later Republicans captured nine seats in the Senate with a midterm campaign that pounded Obama and his party on a set of alarmist themes straight from Bardhan’s book: opposition to immigration, fear of Islamic State terrorism, and panic-mongering about an Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa, along with criticism of the Obama administration for its flawed implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
In Debenedetti’s account, Obama’s dim view of populism endured well into the 2016 campaign. During the Democratic primaries, Obama counseled Hillary Clinton to treat Bernie Sanders, her chief rival for the party nomination, as a “fleeting” threat and to “refrain from elevating his profile even further by responding to him,” while the self-described socialist gathered a powerful tide of discontent that helped submerge Obama’s cherished Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
When Trump eventually won the presidency, Obama initially attempted to explain it as a statement on his own great achievements; at times, Debenedetti writes, the president suggested that “people were bored with all the successes of his own administration.”
Obama’s co-star in The Long Alliance emerges as a character more in tune with the currents of populism and blue-collar anger. Biden, unlike Obama, did not dismiss Sanders but instead thought of appropriating some of Sanders’s themes in a campaign of his own, and in the summer of 2015 met with Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator known for battling Wall Street, about running together on a presidential ticket. Biden told advisers that he wanted to give a confrontational speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos and “shake” the world’s elite “to the core.” If that rarefied audience did not wake up, Biden said, then “folks would storm the gates.”
Beyond his gut sense of the country’s restive mood, however, Biden did not bring much of a vision to the moment. When he began testing the ground for a possible 2016 campaign, he assembled a squad of economic thinkers to help him develop a platform to match his political brand as “the White House’s in-house champion of regular people.” As much as Biden cherished that reputation, perhaps the most notable thing about his crash course in fighting economic inequality is that it came three quarters of the way through his term as vice-president. In the end, he chose not to run.
When Biden mounted his presidential campaign against Trump in 2020, he anchored his candidacy in promises of a return to normalcy and nostalgia for the Obama era. With a madman like Trump in office and—until the onset of the coronavirus pandemic—a low unemployment rate and a soaring stock market, Biden chose as his main theme not voters’ economic discontent but rather the threat to democracy from within the White House. He hoped to win not just the presidency but also the Senate on the strength of his support from a combination of working-class people of color—Black voters most of all—and moderate whites horrified by the Trump presidency.
That political sensibility was enough to make Biden president, with 306 votes in the Electoral College and a decisive popular-vote margin of more than seven million. But Trump’s core of support held firm and so did the Republican skew of the Senate map. Though Democrats made a concerted effort in Republican-leaning states like South Carolina, Kansas, North Carolina, and Montana, they came up short in all four and ended up with only forty-eight Senate seats after election day. Two months later, they took control in a wild stroke of luck after Trump sabotaged his party in Georgia.
Soon, Biden was in a predicament that resembled Obama’s in 2009, trying to steer a bloated legislative program through a conservative-tilting Senate, but with a much smaller majority and a more impatient collection of constituencies hounding him from the left. And of course the Republican Party did not awake from a Trump-era fever dream but plunged deeper into a culture of reactionary paranoia. Even the Democrats’ success at campaigning against Republican extremism in the 2022 elections has not jolted the GOP from its Trumpian mode.
While there is plenty for Democrats to celebrate in the recent midterm results, particularly the party’s resilience in big swing states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Arizona, Republicans took control of the House by a narrow margin and ceded no ground in the rural strongholds that are likeliest to decide control of the Senate in 2024.
It feels easy to blame a handful of passive elected officials for the Democratic Party’s failure to devise a large-scale plan for winning and wielding power in a system that disfavors liberal, urban political parties. But there are no simple answers. The shape of the American government is so impervious to revision that it’s pointless to discuss the most straightforward solutions. Democrats cannot plausibly propose to abolish the Senate, as Britain’s Labour Party has contemplated doing with the House of Lords. That would require amending the Constitution, a process as obscure and as deferential to rural power as the Senate itself.
One form of Democratic reinvention would be to swerve back toward a 1990s-vintage version of centrism and repudiate the most strident factions on the left. There is no shortage of voices counseling Democrats to jettison their most left-wing social policies, stop talking about gender identity, and take more aggressive stances on fighting crime and securing the country’s border with Mexico. This is credible defensive advice, but veiling the party’s most culturally polarizing forces is probably not enough to make Democrats newly attractive to the conservative-leaning rural voters who are so powerful in the Senate. (Not to mention that if you tell the left to take a hike, some progressive voters would surely oblige.)
What more can the Democrats do? Only hinted at in the Lawrence and Debenedetti books is another path, involving a determined effort to wrest economic nationalism away from Trump’s Republican Party. Since the onset of the Great Recession, Democratic leaders as centrist as Rahm Emanuel and as progressive as Bernie Sanders have experimented with policies to address voters’ perception that there are no longer good jobs available to the middle class and that America is losing ground to the rest of the world. But too many Democrats have not defined an optimistic vision of the economic future so much as they have promised to cushion the blow of economic dislocation with various social programs.
Whatever the merits of those ideas, they have not inspired the voters most excited by Trump’s rhetoric about restoring the great age of American industry, punishing companies that ship jobs abroad, and attacking China’s growing might in the marketplace. Before the next election, Democrats have an opportunity to claim much of that message as their own and make it a defining cause of the party—however belatedly. There is no good reason why the aspiration to take back control of a disordered world must remain the intellectual property of the right wing. Indeed, the cohort of voters who correctly believe that they have been American losers in the global economy also includes many lower-income communities of color that usually support Democrats.
The Biden administration and congressional Democrats have laid the groundwork for such a gambit with some of their major legislative projects. Biden’s biggest attempt at a lawmaking legacy came in the form of a New Deal–style social welfare agenda that collapsed in the Senate. From the ruins of that legislation rose a more limited set of important breakthroughs in clean-energy and high-tech manufacturing policy in the form of the Inflation Reduction Act, a climate bill in all but name, and the bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act, a substantial investment in boosting domestic microchip production and competing with China.
Those achievements arrived too late to transform the midterm elections, and Democrats were not in a position to break open the electoral map this year by campaigning as the authors of America’s economic future. But that political blueprint may be available in 2024 and beyond. If Biden-backed laws are poised to unleash a revolution in the American energy sector and raise colossal semiconductor plants across the country, then Democrats should treat those achievements not merely as proud entries in a compendium of liberal policies but as the core of their party’s political identity. To their lasting dismay, Democrats have not managed to match the New Deal era with a twenty-first-century social welfare agenda. But they might yet appropriate a different strain of Roosevelt- and Truman-era politics, which were defined after all not just by economic support programs but also the country’s transformation into a behemoth of aerospace and military manufacturing and government-backed technological innovation.
Campaigning on their own version of economic nationalism—a bona fide made-in-America agenda that also confronts the climate crisis and counters Chinese imperialism—Democrats might more convincingly go on the attack against a Republican Party that, for all its populist posturing, is not committed to robust industrial policy or the concept of broadly shared prosperity.
Another, potentially complementary approach might be called a strategy of ideological elaboration—not lurching away from liberal politics but embracing elevating issues that confound traditional polarization. The Democrats’ emphatic defense of abortion rights achieved this effect in the midterm campaign, after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade.
Bardhan articulates the case for this method when he writes that social democrats—a term covering most of the American center and left—“should keep in mind that their strength ultimately lies not in fighting battles on new frontiers of identity puritanism but in finding ways of transcending the divisions of society based on identity.” Bardhan offers universal basic income as a policy that could accomplish this in poorer countries.
In the United States, a relevant set of issues might include support for decriminalizing marijuana, reining in big tech companies, confronting the OPEC oil cartel and the Saudi regime, and enshrining legal guarantees of access to contraception, fertility treatments, and abortifacient drugs. Many Democrats already support these ideas, all of which address a varied set of constituencies, including parts of Trump’s base. But they emphasize these issues only sporadically on the campaign trail. Policies like these are instruments waiting for a skilled hand to take them up with greater vigor.
Of course, Democrats may prefer to continue muddling through, seeking out distinctively appealing candidates like John Fetterman of Pennsylvania and Raphael Warnock of Georgia, and hoping that the Republican Party will keep nominating cranks, rogues, and extremists, eventually careening so far to the right that their political coalition cracks up. The problem is that this method is only workable in proportion to the Republican Party’s ineptitude, a factor over which Democrats have little control. They cannot count on being able to run against Dr. Oz forever.
There is one more path available to Democrats that any honest analysis has to consider. It is less a strategy for electoral success than a shift toward another kind of political conflict. Facing a constitutional order that truly is rigged against them, some Democrats might eventually take a lesson from Trump and crusade against the legitimacy of the system itself.
No iron rule in American politics says an electoral majority greatly disadvantaged by the country’s political institutions has to operate with effusive respect for them. A Democratic presidential candidate who wins the popular vote and loses the Electoral College—like Hillary Clinton and Al Gore—is not bound by law to concede promptly. A popular president constrained by the Senate’s rural majority does not have to keep private his view that the institution is obsolete.
In the age of Trump, Democrats have developed a great sense of pride in their role protecting America’s frayed democratic norms. But there may come a moment when the euphoria of a better-than-expected midterm election is only a memory and the sense of righteous virtue that comes from defending democracy begins to wear thin. When that day arrives, many of the voters who make up the party’s base and a majority of the country—people in cities and dense suburbs, women and people of color, educated whites and young people—might find that it is no longer tolerable to be ruled by a dwindling and overempowered minority. There is only so much satisfaction to be drawn from being the sole party with an unblemished record of dutifully surrendering power.
January 19, 2023
When Diversity Matters
South Dakota has a population of approximately 895,000 people and Wyoming’s is about 579,000, according to the Census. Gwinnett County, encompassing parts of the booming suburbs outside Atlanta, is bigger than both, with about 965,000 people. ↩