The experience of labor and civil rights in the midcentury is instructive today. Those movements pushed for legislative policy, but their biggest long-term impact came once they had driven a new generation of legislators into office, who gradually shifted the party’s baseline platform. Over time, it became more centrally associated first with labor, and then with civil rights. Today’s liberals should follow this model. If they want to change the country, they should focus on changing the Democratic Party, rather than passing bills that are only going to die in the Senate or get booted off Trump’s desk in the Oval Office.
So what does that mean for 2018? As Ayanna Pressley, the congresswoman-elect from Massachusetts’s 7th District, put it so succinctly on the campaign trail earlier this year, “Change can’t wait.” But the Democrats in Congress have to be disciplined. They should focus on advancing bills built around big-picture, long-term policy solutions rather than incremental compromises. House Democrats such as John Sarbanes of Maryland have called for a sweeping reform agenda that includes renewed defenses for voting rights, a reordered public financing system, and major changes to lobbying and corruption laws. It is true that such bills are unlikely to overcome Republican opposition in the Senate. And some moderate Democrats may not be convinced either; Representative Cheri Bustos warned a few weeks ago that reforms should be “doable,” focused on winning “folks in the middle.” But advancing ambitious proposals in a moment when real legislative change is unlikely is not actually impractical.
Despite centrist unease with “identity politics,” the reality is that the Democrats’ long-term electoral coalition rests on young, multiracial constituencies, people whose politics are committed to directly addressing issues of inequality and racial justice. Recent public opinion research focusing on “missing voters”—who turned out for Obama but stayed home in 2016—suggests that they are further to the left than traditional “swing” voters on major issues like health care and regulation. Big ideas will appeal to them more than some uninspired compromise that only Donald Trump could love.
That might start with an economic plan focused on public goods, like Medicare for all, free college, universal access to broadband. Democrats should think of ways to protect workers in an era of precarious employment and unrivaled corporate power. Propose improvements to infrastructure and draft regulations to create more affordable housing. Draft a new Civil Rights Act that focuses on modern areas of concern with public accommodations, environmental justice, and the desegregation of cities and schools. And enfranchise citizens—by restoring voting rights for former felons, as Florida did, and by passing redistricting reform, independence for Puerto Rico, and statehood for the District of Columbia. These are wildly varied plans, ambitious and aspirational, and it’s unlikely any of them will be signed into law, but it doesn’t matter: They could shift the values within the party, and serve as trial runs for broader change in 2020 and beyond.
If Democrats are smart, congresswomen like New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, and Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar will represent the future of party leadership. Democrats have traditionally relied on norms of seniority to decide leadership positions, and all indications are that Nancy Pelosi will return as speaker. But Democrats would do better to elevate someone new who can mobilize young communities of color and argue for political ideals free of the baggage of previous decades of political conflict.
None of these tactics could rightly be called a legislative agenda. But perhaps they add up to something more fundamental: a far-reaching strategy for social change. Democrats are today engaged in a struggle over ideas, and not just with the GOP and Donald Trump, but with themselves. To make a better party, and a better country, one that makes the setbacks and suffering of the past two years worthwhile, Democrats may have to lose some fights in this next Congress. Lose now, lose the right way, and the future could be theirs.
While everyone will have at least some different priorities, K. Sabeel Rahman makes an excellent point. Let’s jump right in, right now, before anyone can accuse us of being only “against Trump.” Let’s make these bills so good for the people that anyone standing in their way is out.
If we do ask Trump to join us in, say, lowering drug prices, we ought to have a firm line that we will not cross. People love a hero that stands up for what is right in the face of corruption and hypocrisy.
I may not be around much, but it’s also a place to hang your hat, as jcitybone says.