When the Democrats look back at the Women’s March on Washington, which took place on 21 January, they will see both the start of a new movement that could perhaps propel them back to power and the last throes of a defeated generation. Although the half-million protesters in pink hats were a reminder that Donald Trump is despised by much of America, the march also revealed the leadership void at the top of the Democratic Party.
The veteran feminist campaigner Gloria Steinem inadvertently highlighted the problem as she took the stage, wearing a red scarf and sunglasses. She named those who had given up their lives in the cause of progressive politics: John F Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King. Yet the biggest cheers came as she described the “great leaders” who are still part of the struggle: Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Bernie Sanders. “Hillary Clinton is alive and definitely not in jail,” she said to some of the loudest cheers of the day. “She who told the whole world that women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights.”
The Obamas, however, are out of the White House and the Clintons are licking their wounds in upstate New York. Bernie Sanders is 75 years old. The numbing election defeat leaves progressives in the wilderness, without leaders and facing a scramble to find a winning candidate for 2020.
Few progressive journalists seem to have stuck around in the nation’s capital to watch Trump’s inauguration. Not many Democrats attended the media parties; they were replaced by Republican lobbyists jockeying for influence. Erick Sanchez, a Democratic public relations specialist, opted to spend the weekend in Miami. He and his friends had only just recovered from the first wave of disappointment after the election last November. “For those of us in Washington, the second wave is seeing this government take shape,” he said, shortly before leaving for the airport.
The repeal of Obama’s legacy began almost immediately. Trump signed an executive order designed to undermine Obamacare within hours of taking the oath of office.
With the Republicans in control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives, the Democrats know that they face a long struggle to defend Obama’s policies on health care, environmental protection and workers’ rights, as well as his more internationalist foreign policy.
The first test at the ballot box will come with the midterm elections in 2018. Regaining control of the Senate looks impossible. Democrats (or allied independents) hold 25 contested seats, several of which are in Republican states, making them eminently losable. Only a couple of the Republican seats are winnable. The House offers more hope of a majority for the Democrats, but there is a sense that things could get worse before they will get better.
The answer is to pick the right fights, the ones that can drive a wedge between Trump’s supporters and those Republicans who are sceptical about being led by a reality TV star; and that will remind voters that Democrats did economic populism long before Trump. Backing his plans for investment in infrastructure (once they are revealed) could promote both the Democrats’ objectives and raise the hackles of low-tax, small-government conservatives.
Trump’s presence on television as his own best salesman will provide his opponents with opportunities to make political capital, according to Stuart Rothenberg, a veteran Washington analyst. “They have to blame him,” he said. “Over the next couple of years, they have to make it clear that this is Donald Trump’s economy, Donald Trump’s Congress, and they are going to hold him accountable.”
They will be helped by public opinion. Trump took office with record low approval ratings – at 40 per cent, according to one poll – and after losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by 2.8 million. The country’s demographics and its shrinking proportion of white voters point in the right direction. The high turnout at protests in all 50 states also leaves many Democrats sanguine about the struggles to come.
Ben LaBolt, who served as a press secretary for Obama and now works as a political consultant, said: “Public opinion is going to matter and organising is going to matter. Ultimately, if [Trump is] trying to push through changes that the American people oppose, we’ve got to ensure that Congress hears those concerns.”
But that still leaves a personnel gap at the national level. Clinton’s defeat stripped away a generation of leadership. Although Sanders fights on, he will be 79 by the next election. He has also angered party officials by saying that he will not necessarily hand over the database of supporters that he amassed during his run for the nomination. “Right now, the Democrats being the Democrats, [they] seem very divided,” said Rothenberg.
Maybe that does not matter. Perhaps a new intake of senators (including the much-lauded Kamala Harris in California and Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire), along with more established stars such as Cory Booker in New Jersey, can make inroads. Elizabeth Warren is gathering support for a possible run in 2020 and Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, has begun his manoeuvring with a string of eye-catching initiatives.
Or perhaps a more radical, Trumpian solution is needed. Wait until late enough in the night, when the wine has given way to whiskey in the DC bars, and the conversation sometimes turns to fantasy politics and which figures might excite the public in the way that Trump’s candidacy did. What about Mark Zuckerberg, who plans to visit all 50 states this year, or George Clooney, with his history of activism?
That leaves plenty of questions to be answered. What sort of party do the Democrats want? Should they fight from the centre or the left? For now, after the pain of defeat, it is enough to seek out the silver linings in a Trump presidency.
This article appears in the 26 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The eclipse of the West