Why the Trump Era Could Be an Opportunity for Democrats

Albin Lohr-Jones/Sipa via AP Images

President-elect Donald Trump is seen in the lobby of The New York Times' offices on Eighth Avenue in midtown Manhattan in New York City on November 22, 2016

The late Israeli diplomat Abba Eban famously said of the Palestinians that they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. And today, Democrats and liberals have the opportunity to show that they won't miss this opportunity.

I say that not to discount or minimize the horrors that the next four years will bring. The repeal of the Affordable Care Act, the cancellation of climate regulations, the war on unions, the evisceration of the safety net, mass deportations, potentially the repeal of Roe v. Wade—it's all on the table. And that's before we even get to the kind of catastrophes that could be produced by Donald Trump's unique combination of ignorance, impulsiveness, and vindictiveness.

The cost will be enormous, and in some cases it may take decades to undo the damage. But the left can use the next four years as a time of rebuilding and reinvigoration—if they're smart about it.

Ironic though it may seem, being out of power—or at least being out of the White House—can be very good for a party. Just look at how far the GOP has come in the last eight years. When Barack Obama took office in January 2009, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. Twenty-eight of the 50 governors were Democrats. They controlled both houses in 27 state legislatures, while Republicans had full control in only 14.

The turnaround since then has been absolutely stunning. When Donald Trump takes the oath of office, Republicans will have the White House and both houses of Congress, 33 governorships, and full control of 32 state legislatures, compared to the Democrats'. That shift happened despite the fact that their party is deeply unpopular; these days only a third of the public has a favorable view of the GOP, while the Democratic Party rates about twelve points higher.

There are multiple reasons for the change that took place during the Obama years, but the most important one is the most basic and structural: The president's party almost always loses ground in down-ballot races. Voters take out their displeasure with the president or with Washington on his party's candidates at the state and local level, as irrational as it might be. Unencumbered by governing, the opposition party doesn't have to make difficult choices and can just blame the president for everything that's less than perfect, often to great effect.

But that doesn't mean Democrats can just sit around and wait for the tide to turn, because the decisions they make now mean the difference between reversing only some of their losses and reasserting the kind of control they used to have.

So what should they do? The agenda is long, but the most pressing priority may be fixing the voting problem. Republicans have done a spectacular job making it as cumbersome as possible for people—particularly the kind of people who vote for Democrats—to actually register and vote. Their assault has been a comprehensive one, involving legislatures, the courts, and administrative policies down to the local level. The Democratic pushback has to be equally encompassing, including not just legal challenges to voter suppression but the creation of a permanent mobilization system that registers voters and prepares the ground for get-out-the-vote efforts when the next election comes. It may be grossly unfair, but as long as Republican-appointed courts validate Republican-passed voter suppression measures, Democrats have to do twice as good a job of registering and turning out voters.

So it isn't enough to ramp up a few months before the next election; that ground effort should start now and be ongoing. Memo to any liberal billionaires out there: This would be a great place to put your money, and not into some super PAC that's going to make a bunch of lovely TV ads that don't change any minds.

That next election will be a critical one. Chances are good that in 2018 there will be a great deal of discontentment about the Trump presidency; as we learned in 2014, 2010, and 2006, off-year elections can have seismic effects. But in midterm elections the deck is already stacked against Democrats, since many of their voters, particularly young people and minorities, are less likely to turn out than the older white people who make up the Republican base. That makes it even more more important for Democrats to start preparing now.

One excellent way to do that—and an area where Democrats can make progress even in states where Republicans control the levers of power—is with initiative campaigns that can make progressive policy change and mobilize voters. It got lost in the news of the presidential election, but this year progressives did extremely well with ballot initiatives. They increased the minimum wage in four states, and overturned one law that had created a sub-minimum wage for young people. They passed laws loosening regulations on marijuana in eight of the nine states where the issue was on the ballot. And they saw gun safety measures pass in three of the four states where they were offered.

There's no question that these are going to be dark days for liberals, and the steady stream of outrages from the Trump administration and the Republican Congress will tempt some to become despondent. But outrage is also a powerful motivator. Let's not forget that the last Republican presidency saw an explosion of grassroots energy, driven by opposition to the Iraq War and organized through the new and exciting liberal blogosphere. If progressives think creatively, plan early, put their resources in the right places, and work hard, they could have a similar rebirth. But it won't happen by itself.

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