The democratic party’s soul search

JFK didn’t randomly decide to land the first man on the moon. His announcement that we’d be the ones to do it by the end of the decade came on the heels of fifteen years of escalating competition with the Soviets. They were grilling us in the space race and this was how we were going to best them. Two years earlier, as a way of competing with the communistic vision of the future, Nixon co-hosted highly televised exhibitions with Khrushchev where they each showed off the latest and greatest home appliances their countries had invented. It was 1961 now and winds of rock and roll, sexual liberation, and civil rights were catapulting us out of the domestic centrifuge of growth and progress that had powered the previous decade, which was quickly starting to seem quaint. It was audacious, but only natural, that the moon would be our next frontier.

Ever since the day after the 2016 election, media commentators have been talking about how the Democratic Party needs to “do some soul searching”.  About how we need a bold new vision that inspires people to be a part of the party beyond just being anti-Trump. Like JFK’s call to land man on the moon, we need something big, something new, that galvanizes us and brings us together.

The conversation always manages to trail off before they reach the specifics, though. Two years in and it still lives in this esoteric, hypothetical lull. Concrete policies aren’t listed—not definitively, at least. It just needs to be something, the commentators conclude before moving on to the latest breaking Trump news.

The weird part of this conversation’s seemingly permanent hypothetical state is that you don’t have to look around very hard to see a bunch of distinct movements on the ground, or national conversations on the verge of movements. All of the following has started or grown significantly since Trump got elected: People are talking about single-payer healthcare a lot. A report just came out that climate change is escalating way faster than we thought it was—and conversations about a “Green New Deal” are the most excited people have been about solving climate change since An Inconvenient Truth came out. Tens of thousands of low-income workers have been marching about the fact that they live in poverty while working forty hours or more per week—they’re calling for a $15 minimum wage, and cities are starting to agree. We’re losing a record number of teachers because they’re paid so abysmally—posts about teachers having to cover their classroom supplies routinely go viral, and the nation watched as public school teachers protested about their wages and pensions in the conservative states of Kentucky and Oklahoma. Millennial college graduates are talking about how they’re straddled in student loan debt and can’t afford the basics of life; economists are talking about how this is going to drag our economy.

The only way to explain the fact that this conversation about the Democrats’ plan still goes nowhere, which is a conversation between professional politicians and media commentators who are trained to observe America, is that they don’t want the solutions these people are calling for to be the party’s platform. It’s not that they can’t think of any possibilities, it’s that they can’t think of any within the confines that bind them. Sure, they want a bold plan that invigorates and inspires voters—you’d better believe they’re coming up with one for 2020—just not this one. Of course they’re going to propose solutions that alleviate Americans’ suffering—just not the ones that are already drawing thousands of them out of their houses and into the streets.

What they have yet to realize is that movements have to be a natural outgrowth of the places that the times are driving people towards. You can’t observe where the masses are headed and be like, “nah—but how about some other thing instead?”

You can choose to lead a movement, or you can choose to resist it. What you can’t do is capture all of the energy of a group of people fighting for something without delivering on anything that gave them the energy in the first place.*

We’re barreling towards 2020 without a platform—not on purpose, but by accident, because we have a fallback. Forward movement isn’t the only human driver: fear of moving backwards can be, too. And it’s a lot easier to respond to the latest astonishing Trump thing than to come to terms with the fact that you’re holding your own people back.

*An example of the Democrats trying to capture the energy of a movement sans movement: when scores of media commentators and centrist Democrats said to Bernie, when he lost the primary, “you’re going to deliver your base to Hillary, right?!?!?!” They were of course saying this out of strategic necessity, but I want to point out the glaring error in their assumption that the leader of a movement can corral their followers like that: the reason Bernie had such an enthusiastic base in the first place was because of what he was offering that others weren’t. And the thought that he could inject that somewhere else that didn’t offer those things and conjure the same enthusiasm reveals how shallow the Democrats’ thinking on voters and platforms is.