The Democrats' 50-State Strategy Must Start Today

Politics Features Doug Jones
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The Democrats' 50-State Strategy Must Start Today

In the event that Roy Moore won last night’s special Senate election, I was all set to write a post encouraging frustrated Democrats not to take their anger out on Alabama. Tempting as it would be to chase a fleeting catharsis by trotting out old stereotypes, the only way to achieve a true progressive agenda in America is to create a 50-state party that can be competitive everywhere, not just in traditionally blue and purple states. And calling Alabama residents dumb rednecks, or whatever else, would only contribute to the partisan divide, and reinforce their tribal notion that “liberals” and “coastal elites” are an enemy worth fighting under any circumstance—even when your own guy is an abomination. Venting that kind of superior rage would also ignore the hundreds of thousands of good people who didn’t choose Moore. It would be like spitting on the fertile soil on which the future can be built.

Well, Roy Moore didn’t win. Alabama elected a pro-choice, pro-ACA Democrat named Doug Jones, and the seat occupied for years by Jeff Sessions has turned blue. With it, the GOP lead in the Senate has been reduced to 51-49, and a blue wave in the 2018 midterms—which looks incredibly likely from where I’m sitting, even with an allegedly unfavorable map—would restore a Democratic majority and put a serious crimp in the final two years of Trump’s term.

By all means, rejoice at this result. Sure, it took an extraordinarily terrible Republican candidate to bring it about, and in ruby red Alabama even literal sex crimes are just barely damning enough, provided you belong to the correct party—the cynical lesson here is “assault underage girls, lose a Senate race in a squeaker.” But lose he did, and that’s the result that matters most. As Greg Sargent pointed out, the night represented the death of several narratives:

To me, the most important takeaway from last night, as Sargent alluded to, is the proof that progressive ideas can take root and flourish even in the harshest political climates. Conventional wisdom would have you believe that Jones should have hedged his bets on abortion and gay rights and Obamacare, put out a dog whistle or two, and generally signaled to voters that he was a moderate Republican at heart—a respectable alternative to the batshit Republican. Instead, he stuck to his guns. In an interview on MSNBC, he said the following:

“I’m not in favor of anything that is going to infringe on a woman’s right and her freedom to choose,” Jones said in the MSNBC interview. “That’s just the position that I’ve had for many years. It’s a position I continue to have. But I want to make sure people understand, that once a baby is born, I’m going to be there for that child. That’s where I become a right-to-lifer.”

Moore’s campaign immediately attacked, the talking heads predicted Jones’ demise. But rumors of his death were greatly exaggerated, and here we are.

The broader point is this: Since the ‘90s, at least, so-called moderate Democrats (read: neoliberals), led by the Clintons, have employed a policy of triangulation designed to win middle-ground voters and dominate elections. It led to the party shifting rightward and abandoning its progressive base, and while it was marginally successful in national elections for a time, the long-term effect was the passing of crypto-conservative policy, especially in the economic arena. It turned off the working class and the poor, and when Republicans stepped up their culture war, they were able to siphon off huge chunks of the voting public. By trying to be both Democrat and Republican, the triangulators instead became nothing. And in the meantime, they lost big in essentially every political theater short of the presidency. Congress, gone. State houses and state legislatures, gone. Local government, gone. Republican control at the state level has become so pervasive, in fact, that they’re within a hair’s breadth of being able to change the constitution.

At the same time, the cynical strategy of national Democrats to fight only in swing states, to nickel-and-dime their way to electoral college wins, effectively ceded huge swaths of territory to Republicans. The DNC became an entirely impotent organization—a pocketbook for whoever was running for president—and in places like the American southeast, you were hard-pressed to even find any local Democratic messaging. This absence, of course, occurred in a sea of Republican media, from TV to talk radio to local newspapers. The creeping red tide overwhelmed the Democrats in these areas, and the worse it got, the more Democrats retreated. They threw up their hands, chalked it up to cultural differences, and treated red states like they were political deserts, inside which nothing could flourish.

Fundamentally, this was a very stupid strategy, and it yielded stupid results. To have any control over the direction of our country, Democrats must compete everywhere. To do otherwise is to damn themselves to a constant tug-of-war in which resounding victory is impossible because of the entrenched Republican areas that can never turn blue.

The good news is, recent events have shown just how quickly a 50-state strategy might take root. Close calls in Montana, Kansas, and South Carolina special elections showed that even in very red territories, voters respect an honest politician that has the courage of his convictions, even if those convictions allegedly conflict with their own agendas. Then, last month, a blue wave swept over Virginia—even the rural, supposedly unwinnable parts. A socialist won. A transgender woman won. In other parts of the country, the wins kept coming. Now Jones has defeated Moore, and we’re starting to see the possibilities unfold.

Trump and the Republicans are going to lose support. It’s already begun—his approval rating is low, everybody hates the tax bill, everybody hated the idea of losing the ACA. And that’s aside from the culturally repugnant aspects—the racism, the voter suppression, the scapegoating. They’re getting hammered on the increasingly transparent fact that they are the party of the rich. That message, when conveyed by a politician with integrity and a commitment to helping poor and working class people, will be effective everywhere. It may be harder to reach deep red voters, but it’s nowhere near impossible—they can see wealth disparity and economic injustice just as clearly as anyone in a blue state.

And there’s another key component here: People are changing. Young people are more liberal, and our economy isn’t good enough to transform them all into conservatives when they age. The demographics are shifting with every year, and it’s time for the Democrats to start planning. They will lose early, and they may lose often—this change doesn’t happen overnight—but it’s absolutely critical to be competitive in every corner of the map. If the battle starts today, it won’t be long before they see dividends. Against a party that is corrupt to its core, amidst the forced awakening of the American electorate, they can only lose if they don’t fight.