Stick with me here because I’m going to propose something radical: The US Democrats — and progressives, generally — need to start planning to win elections.
This may sound odd in the era of social media and micro-campaigning; of “red states” and “blue states,” including a “blue wall” of states that were supposed to cushion Hillary Clinton and safely hand her the presidency.
Contesting elections was traditionally the path that parties took to gain power and implement the policies they stand for. It was a pretty good system. Parties would present their cases to the electorate, who would consider their options and select the one that seemed best. Content that they had been heard, those who voted for the losing side supported the victor until the next election rolled around.
America in 2017 does indeed suffer from deep divisions — racial, class-based, rural-urban — but both major parties are guilty of exploiting those divisions for electoral gain. The Democratic party has been unduly content to retreat into its urban, coastal and minority community strongholds, trusting in a supposed demographic time bomb — growing minority populations — to eventually deliver perpetual Democratic victories.
I can’t help but compare the Democrats’ current situation to the Liberal Party over the last two decades. After its 1993 peak, the Liberal party progressively wrote off larger and larger parts of the country — the Maritimes, Francophone Quebec, rural Ontario, the Prairies, the BC interior — until eventually they’d run out of territory to fail in, and the Harper decade began.
But Trudeau’s 2015 victory also gives the Democrats an important lesson. Under Trudeau, the Liberal Party became a “win everywhere” party. They campaigned vigorously in parts of the country where the Liberal brand was previously toxic — rural Manitoba, the tar sands, Calgary. And they recruited credible candidates to run in difficult ridings.
Aided by a corrupt and tired Harper government and an inept NDP, Trudeau’s Liberals found themselves pulling improbable victories all over the country in 2015.
By contrast, Clinton spent most of the 2016 election campaigning in a handful of battleground states, ignoring states she thought were either safe or unwinnable. (Notably, the same cannot be said of Trump, who frequently held events in deep red states like Louisiana and deep blue states like Connecticut and New York.)
This question shouldn’t be controversial, but it is: Why would anyone want a president who’s afraid to meet voters in half the country, and takes the other half for granted?
And the discussion goes well beyond Clinton. The Democratic Party has been virtually eliminated from the congressional electoral map across enormous parts of the country, and those results are mirrored across state and local elections.
In Indiana, the Democratic party couldn’t even be bothered to field a candidate in 22 of its state legislature and senate districts. In Kentucky, 31 Republican state reps and senators faced no Democratic challengers. In North Carolina, home of major Democratic opposition to the anti-trans bathroom bill passed by a Republican State House and governor, Democrats let 39 Republicans run unopposed in 2016. And so, although Democrats unseated the Republican governor, his successor is saddled with a veto-proof Republican majority in the legislature, which is still blocking pro-LGBT laws and policies. It’s true that because of gerrymandering, some of these districts would be difficult for a progressive Democratic Party to win. But without even trying, it’s impossible.
More important though, a party that campaigns everywhere is doing what a party is designed to do — convince people to support its policies. Even if a candidate doesn’t win, organized and demonstrably progressive voters can act as a bulwark against conservative politicians who consider themselves “safe.”
Maintaining an engaged electorate is among the most important things that LGBT people, people of colour, immigrants, the poor and other vulnerable people need during times when those who work against us are in power.