It is hard not to be sympathetic to the Democrats in their current congressional battle. They are fighting a Republican Party unwilling to grant the same rights to some American citizens as it does to others, solely because their parents entered the country illegally. Regardless of one’s views on immigration, we should all treat immigrants with compassion and humanity, affording them the same respect that we would anyone else. It is therefore tempting to paint the Democrats as righteous and just in their current fight, resorting to a “nuclear option” in order to prevent such rights from being stripped away. However, no matter the nobility of their cause, they are not in the right to shut down the US government and, like the Republicans before them, put the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of federal government employees at risk. In doing so, not only did they disrupt the effective working of government and the employment of so many of their fellow Americans, but they also fed into the very narrative that won Trump the presidency in the first place.
The 2013 US government shutdown made one thing very clear: Congress was so dominated by partisan interests that Republican legislators were more than happy to shut the whole government down in order to get what they wanted. Two years later, Donald Trump declared he would be running for President, promising to Make America Great Again and to cut through the partisan squabbling that was endangering the nation – or as Trump puts it, draining the swamp. If the Democrats think that the way to stop such an anti-establishment demagogue is by emulating the very tactics which contributed to his rise to power, they are sorely mistaken. Doing so will do only reinforce the image held by many that the Democrats only care about the interests of minority groups and the liberal middle class. Using the mechanisms of Congress to achieve their aims in this way will win short-term victories (and these are victories in a very high-stakes game which affects real lives), but will have less positive long-term consequences.
If the Democrats want to win back Congress in 2018…they must do so by espousing more than just a narrative of elite resistance.
Part of what felled the Democrats in 2016 – aside from Trump’s immense “good luck” that Comey opened a new investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server shortly before election day – was that as the governing party, they seemed to represent everything your average blue-collar American thought was wrong with the way they were governed. Though it was, in fact, the Republicans who spent 2009 to 2017 playing obstructionist games with real people’s lives, it was far easier for swamp-draining populism to take over in a party which had recast itself as the party of opposition (despite having been the 20th century’s natural party of government). The solution to this persistent problem facing the Democratic Party is not to become the party of pedantic obstructionism, and in the long term doing so only gives the impression that the Democrats don’t want to get on with running the country. It doesn’t take a Roger Stone to realise how effectively this could be turned into a weapon by Republican candidates in the upcoming 2018 or 2020 elections.
If the Democrats want to win back Congress in 2018 despite the hugely gerrymandered electoral system which stands in their way, they must do so by espousing more than just a narrative of elite resistance. They must reach out both to those resisting on the ground in the form of women’s marches and Black Lives Matter protests, and to those disillusioned with the Democratic Party. This does not mean engaging in a nakedly cynical embrace of populist sentiments. There must be substantial engagement with the white working-class voters who once made up the base of the party and their concerns around low wages, a growing opioid epidemic, and a sense that they have been left behind – particularly considering the fact that the wage of an average white worker has not risen since the 1970s. These disillusioned voters have in the past turned out for the Democrats, but now they form the bedrock of the Trump coalition. Losing their votes lost the Democrats the Rust Belt, a region which needs to be won back if the Democrats hope to decisively win the Presidency in 2020. When the Democrats were at their most successful, the party found staunch support from the New Deal coalition. A similar coalition of northern liberals, marginalised minority groups, and the white working-class could be assembled again to defeat the American right. If all the Democrats focus on for the next two years is partisan battles, this won’t happen.
Next time, the Republicans may not be so willing to reach a compromise
While I am sympathetic to Congressional Democrats and understand why they chose to shut down the US government, it was not the right thing to do. With a Republican Congress and a Republican President, compromise and obstruction are the only two options available. However, too much obstructionism can lead to the Democrats being painted as opposed to fixing the system in favour of stopping any progress. The government shutdown can be considered to have had a positive outcome in that it secured a compromise which has helped, to some extent, to secure the position of the “Dreamers”, but one would caution against using such tactics again. Next time, the Republicans may not be so willing to reach a compromise, and Congressional Democrats will struggle to explain to a disaffected population why a serious, crippling long-term government shutdown was not their fault.