In my last column, I wrote about the danger of not holding the Republican political leaders and supporters of the January 6th insurrection accountable for their actions. The Democrats have fashioned themselves as the party determined to protect democracy. Yet they have used the levers of democracy so poorly that it’s fair to also ask whether they are the right party to lead the nation.
The reality is, with the exception of a few examples, Democrats have failed to enact their policy agenda in a meaningful way for almost 30 years. These failures are interlocking and reinforcing, causing rippling political effects across American life. In most organizations, 30 years of ineptitude would lead to a change in leadership or strategy. Yet the Democrats seem impervious to change because our two-party system makes it nearly impossible to hold the party accountable through elections.
Let’s go back to the beginning of modern Democratic failure, the “Contract With America” that Newt Gingrich used to take control of the House of Representatives in 1994. That victory was the first time Republicans gained control of the House in almost 40 years. The House has gone back and forth since, despite Democrats representing a larger number of people across the nation.
Another failure of the Democratic Party has been its inability to win the presidency despite having the more popular candidate. This has happened twice since the year 2000, with both Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump winning despite receiving fewer votes than their opponents. Partisans often point to the idiosyncrasies of the electoral college for those defeats.
While it’s true that the electoral college is the mechanism for allowing the popular vote loser to become president, it’s bad politics and strategy that are the cause. Did you know that Al Gore lost his home state of Tennessee in 2000? If he’d carried Tennessee, he would’ve won the presidency even without Florida and its hanging chads. And while the announcement that Hillary Clinton’s emails were under investigation again didn’t help her, it was her campaign’s push to expand the electoral map instead of focusing on states like Wisconsin that ultimately doomed her.
There are any number of counterfactuals we can speculate about if we want to wonder how the country would be different if Democrats had won those elections. But the clearest difference would be the composition of the Supreme Court. One of the primary ways that the progressive agenda has been consistently rolled back is by the courts. Of the six conservative justices on the court, five were appointed by the Republican presidents who lost the popular vote this century. The results have been disastrous for the progressive agenda.
Democrats have positioned civil rights and women’s rights as two of the key planks of their party, and have failed to deliver on protecting the rights of those constituencies. The Supreme Court struck down important aspects of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, and Democrats have failed to pass any legislation to protect African Americans’ voting rights since. As a result, we’ve seen new laws and restrictions in multiple states that aim to disenfranchise Black voters.
Democrats have also failed to pass any legislation protecting the right to an abortion, instead relying on the precedent of Roe v. Wade. Now, that ruling is gone thanks to the Supreme Court. The party seems content to use the loss of abortion access for millions of people as a fundraising opportunity instead of putting forward a concrete plan to undo the damage of Roe’s repeal.
Political defeats are going to happen. Quirky election results are going to happen. No one gets to enact every policy they want. But the last 30 years of national Democratic politics has been loss after loss, punctuated by a few successes such as the Affordable Care Act. Yet the same elected officials who were in power in different capacities during these defeats – Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, President Joe Biden – now profess to be the team to lead their party, and the nation, into the future.
Holding the party accountable for its failures seems even more daunting than doing the same for Republican insurrectionists. Democrats have been able to successfully argue that their political opponents are so much worse that reasonable people must vote blue. The strategy worked, and Trump was defeated – by a man who has been a senator or vice president during every major setback progressives and liberals have faced.
Those losses have continued to mount, and have been offset by only the most modest gains regarding gun control and climate change. With no true third option to choose from (yes, that includes Andrew Yang’s Forward party), it’s difficult to see what our choices are between the insidiousness of the Republicans and the incompetence of the Democrats.