It is not an exaggeration to say that the Democratic Party is in shambles as a political force. Not only did it just lose the White House to a wildly unpopular farce of a candidate despite a virtually unified establishment behind it, and not only is it the minority party in both the Senate and House, but it is getting crushed at historical record rates on the state and local levels as well. Surveying this wreckage last week, party stalwart Matthew Yglesias of Vox minced no words: “The Obama years have created a Democratic Party that’s essentially a smoking pile of rubble.”
One would assume that the operatives and loyalists of such a weak, defeated, and wrecked political party would be eager to engage in some introspection and self-critique, and to produce a frank accounting of what they did wrong so as to alter their plight. In the case of 2016 Democrats, one would be quite mistaken.
At least thus far, there is virtually no evidence of any such intention. Quite the contrary, Democrats have spent the last 10 days flailing around blaming everyone except for themselves, constructing a carousel of villains and scapegoats — from Julian Assange, Vladimir Putin, James Comey, the electoral college, “fake news,” and Facebook, to Susan Sarandon, Jill Stein, millennials, Bernie Sanders, Clinton-critical journalists, and, most of all, insubordinate voters themselves — to blame them for failing to fulfill the responsibility that the Democratic Party, and it alone, bears: to elect Democratic candidates.
This Accept-No-Responsibility, Blame-Everyone-Else posture stands in stark contrast to how the Republican National Committee reacted in 2012, after it lost the popular vote for the fifth time in six presidential elections. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus called Mitt Romney’s loss “a wake-up call,” and he was scathing about his party’s failures: “There’s no one reason we lost. Our message was weak; our ground game was insufficient; we weren’t inclusive; we were behind in both data and digital; our primary and debate process needed improvement. … So, there’s no one solution: There’s a long list of them.”
The RNC’s willingness to admit its own failures led to a comprehensive 1oo-page report, issued only a few months after its 2012 defeat, that was unflinching in its self-critique. One of the report’s co-chairs, GOP strategist Sally Bradshaw, warned upon issuance of the “autopsy” that “public perception of our party is at record lows. Young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the party represents and many minorities think Republicans don’t like them or don’t want them in our country.”
The report itself also took aim at the GOP’s chosen candidate, containing analysis that was “pointed in its critique of Mitt Romney, specifically pointing to his ‘self deportation’ comment as turning off Hispanic voters.” The report began by warning that at the federal level, the GOP “is increasingly marginalizing itself, and unless changes are made, it will be increasingly difficult for Republicans to win another presidential election in the near future.” Rather than maligning the voters who rejected his party, Preibus accepted responsibility for losing them: “To those who have left the party, let me say this, we want to earn your trust again, to those who have yet to trust us, we welcome you with open arms.”
One irony of 2016 is that the candidate who won the GOP nomination, and ultimately the presidency, not only ignored many of the autopsy’s core recommendations but embodied everything it warned against. Nonetheless, the reaction of Republican officials after 2012 was to accept responsibility for their loss, admit their own fundamental errors, and vow to fix what was wrong with themselves: the exact antithesis of the instinct Democrats have thus far displayed in the face of a much more sweeping and crushing defeat.
The self-exonerating mentality of Democrats is particularly remarkable in light of how comprehensive their failures have been. After the 2012 election, the GOP immersed itself in unflinching self-critique even though it still held a majority in the House and dominated governorships and state houses. By rather stark contrast, the Democrats have now been crushed at all levels of electoral politics, yet appear more self-righteously impressed with themselves, more vindicated in their messaging and strategic choices, than ever before.
While Democrats point fingers at anyone they can find, the evidence mounts that all critical sectors of their party’s apparatus fundamentally failed. Their renowned strategic geniuses were blinded with arrogance and error: “David Plouffe, who ran Obama’s 2008 campaign, said that Clinton was a ‘one hundred per cent’ lock and advised nervous Democrats to stop ‘wetting the bed,’” reports The New Yorker’s David Remnick this week. The party’s operatives and pundits used bullying tactics to clear the field for an obviously weak and vulnerable candidate, and then insisted on nominating her despite those weaknesses, many of which were self-inflicted, and in the face of mountains of empirical evidence that her primary-race opponent was more likely to win; Remnick writes:
In a retrospective mood, staffers said that, as Obama told me, Clinton would have been an “excellent” President, but they also voiced some dismay with her campaign: dismay that she had seemed to stump so listlessly, if at all, in the Rust Belt; dismay that the Clinton family’s undeniable taste for money could not be erased by good works; dismay that she was such a middling retail politician.
Clinton’s campaign staff, drowning in a sense of inevitability and entitlement (again), ignored pleas from worried local officials for more resources to states that proved decisive. The Democratic Party’s last two chairs were compelled to resign in scandal (one from CNN, the other from the DNC itself). And the party is widely perceived to be devoted to elite Wall Street tycoons and war-making interests at the expense of pretty much everyone else, and chose a candidate who could not have been better designed to exacerbate those concerns if that had been the goal. As Steve Bannon put it: “Hillary Clinton was the perfect foil for Trump’s [anti-establishment] message.”
In sum, there is a large list of fundamental, systemic problems with virtually every aspect of the Democratic Party. Those are the deficiencies that explain its monumental electoral defeats. Acknowledging one’s own responsibility for failure is always difficult, which is why scapegoating and finger-pointing at others is so tempting.
The Democrats’ failures need not be permanent. The two parties’ fortunes are often cyclical; after 2004, many Republicans believed they had created a permanent majority, and then many Democrats believed the same after their own sweeping victories of 2006 and 2008. Democrats have won the popular vote in six out of the last seven elections. Had Clinton won the electoral college as expected, and been able to control the next Supreme Court appointment(s), Democrats would have controlled two of the three branches of government, and one could have plausibly argued that they were the dominant political faction in the U.S., at least at the federal level. So none of this is irreversible.
But as is true of anyone who wants to reverse their own failures, Democrats need to accept responsibility and blame, and stop pretending that they were just the victims of other people’s failures and bad acts. They’re not divinely entitled to support from voters, nor to an unimpeded march to victory for their preferred candidate, nor to a press that in unison turns itself into Vox or a Saturday morning MSNBC show by suppressing reporting that reflects negatively on them and instead confines itself to hagiography. In fact, this entitlement syndrome that is leading them to blame everyone but themselves should be added very near the top of the list of self-critiques they need to begin working promptly to address.
Correction: November 18, 2016
This article erroneously noted that the GOP controlled the House and Senate after the 2012 election; it has been edited to reflect that while they did control the House, they won Senate control in 2014.