Will Rogers, an early 20th-century humorist and social commentator, once remarked, “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.”
A century later, in the wake of midterm elections that saw less of a Blue Wave and more of a gentle swell, his words are still an apt description of the U.S. political system. In the face of a growing Republican bloc that shows few cracks in its armor, Democratic disorganization — from campaign platforms to party leadership — can no longer be swept under the rug. If Democrats are to make gains in Congress or win the presidency in 2020, they will need to become a more consolidated group.
The Democratic Party has historically had a broad base that includes young adults, minorities, urban populations and the working class, among other groups. The Republicans, conversely, have been reliant on a relatively homogenous voting bloc made up of older white Christians in rural and ex-urban areas. There are other, smaller Republican factions, like Cuban immigrants in Florida, but the Republican coalition has a clear majority group, while Democrats are more of a bricolage.
Democratic heterogeneity is likely the inevitable result of Republican leaders doing their best to alienate nearly every marginalized group in America. The Republican Party has supported policies to disenfranchise black voters, eliminate protections for gender and sexuality minorities and reduce immigration opportunities for Latinx and Muslim groups, among others, leading many voters to seek refuge with the Democratic Party. Democrats should celebrate this variety as a mark of inclusivity, but it still comes at a political cost, which was apparent in the midterm elections. Diverse groups yield diverse opinions and interests, making it difficult for Democrats to develop a universally-appealing platform on both state and national levels.
These disparate interests can be seen in the varied content of political advertisements. According to a Bloomberg News analysis, agriculture was a key issue in Nebraska and North Dakota, where the recent soybean trade war with China has threatened farmers. Immigration and border security were hot topics in Arizona, New Mexico and Florida. In Oklahoma, where public school teachers had a nine-day walkout to protest low salaries, over half of the Democratic campaign ads emphasized education.
Democrats don’t just highlight different issues — they sometimes pursue incompatible policies. For example, Senator Joe Donnelly of Indiana is anti-abortion, reflecting his state’s large evangelical population. Senator Heidi Heitkamp and Representative-elect Kendra Horn both affirmed their commitments to the Second Amendment during their campaigns. North Dakota and Oklahoma, their respective states, have long traditions of gun ownership. In Florida and Nevada, which have recently experienced mass shootings, Democratic candidates promoted gun control measures to quell voters’ fears. In addition, Massachusetts’ Amendment Three, which prohibits discrimination based on gender identity in public places, may not have made it on the ballot in more socially conservative states, even ones led by Democrats.
Is it possible for Democrats to consolidate these interests into a consistent party platform? The midterm results seem to suggest not. In statewide governor and Senate races, states with more disparate groups of Democratic voters tended not to elect Democratic candidates. Take Georgia, for example — it has young people in urban centers and college towns, a large African-American population and the remnants of the more conservative coalition that elected Jimmy Carter as governor. Stacey Abrams, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, faced the impossible task of reining all of these interests into a single message. Her fate remains to be seen, since ballots are still being counted, but her prospects against Republican Brian Kemp do not look promising. Likewise, in Texas, Beto O’Rourke failed to fuse together factions that ranged from Latinx college students to white evangelical women. Meanwhile, in states like Connecticut, Hawaii and even New Mexico, where Democrats are demographically and ideologically more homogenous, every gubernatorial and Congressional race went blue. The outcomes of these races indicate that a universally-appealing Democratic message may be a futile undertaking, especially on a national level.
If the Democratic Party is struggling to form unifying messages for candidates on the state level, how will it fare on the national level in 2020? As we saw in 2016, the Electoral College system requires victorious candidates to win state’s individual popular votes, not just the national popular vote. A future Democratic presidential candidate will need a platform that appeals to their broad coalition without ignoring any one group’s concerns or alienating independent voters. This may be more feasible with a moderate than with an extreme-left candidate. Candidates might be tempted to fall back on the “minimal message” of being anti-Trump, but they should be careful not to do so, since they risk riling up Trump’s base in the process.
Changing the Democratic platform may necessitate changing the party leadership. Mainstays like Representative Nancy Pelosi and Senator Elizabeth Warren have alienated other Democratic politicians and voters across the country, suggesting that their messages are no longer appealing to a party with increasingly diverse interests. In addition, if House Democrats are to take action against the Trump administration, they will need to converge around specific targets. If their interests are too disparate, they risk having nothing happen, letting the President’s corruption fester.
In the midterms, Democratic candidates were able to pick up seats in the more localized, homogenous House races, but they tended to lose larger-scale statewide elections where they had to appeal to more diverse interests. These results show that if the Democratic Party is to win in 2020 and beyond, it should reform its platform to focus on issues that all types of Democrats care about, like health care and climate change. If candidates target topics that are more controversial on the national level, like abortion, they risk losing potential voters. The “Culture Wars” are widening the gap between red and blue, but they are also fracturing the Democratic Party itself.
On the other hand, as Will Rogers once said, “Democrats never agree on anything, that’s why they’re Democrats. If they agreed with each other, they would be Republicans.” Perhaps diverse ideas are essential to the Democratic Party’s identity and should not be stamped out in order to create a more marketable candidate. After all, these diverse ideas produce the most progress.