Few pollsters on either side of the political aisle really expected a Trump win on November 8th. And while pundits and prognosticators were somewhat less certain about the outcome of state races, many were surprised—or shocked—that Republicans held on to the Senate and the House and improved their standing in state governments. Republicans now claim governorships in 34 states, up from 31. They hold both legislative chambers in 32 states, including 17 with majorities that are veto-proof. Democrats, by contrast, control legislatures in 13 states, and only four of those by veto-proof majorities. And oh, yeah—let’s not forget the U.S. Supreme Court (though some may want to). Trump is sure to nominate justices who conform to Republican orthodoxy, likely ensuring a highly conservative bench for a generation.
Bottom line: The Republicans haven’t held this much power since 1928, the year Herbert Hoover was elected and the federal and state legislatures and gubernatorial offices went decidedly incarnadine.
If you look at the situation demographically, it’s difficult to understand how this happened. As of October, 32 percent of voters identified as Democrats, 27 percent as Republicans and 36 percent as Independents. Yeah, Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein snagged a certain quantum of votes from Hillary Clinton, by no means the strongest possible candidate. Still, that doesn’t explain the rout at the state level. Moreover, America is becoming more diverse racially and millennials are expanding their presence in the electorate, both trends that should favor Democrats.
So what gives? Part of it—let’s face it—is that Democrats are really good at demonstrating and posting indignantly on Facebook, but Republicans are better at actually getting to the polls and voting. Republicans have also put in the time and effort at the local and regional levels, running for the little offices—such as school board seats—that both build grassroots power bases and generate potential candidates for higher office.
And while Democrats can seem almost preternaturally skilled at dissecting policy minutiae, they often fall short when it comes to producing the evocative slogans on the economy, the nation, and the world that really fire people up.
In 2016, the preeminent shibboleths for both parties were vague and essentially meaningless. But a first grader could tell you which was more resonant. “Make America Great Again” was declarative, definitive, a demand that we all reach for the brass ring. “Stronger Together” hit a comforting Kumbayaesque chord, but it was tentative and limited in scope.
Yes, Trump adroitly played on fears of The Other and evoked a nativism that, whether we like it or not, seems part of our national DNA. But while Democrats emphasized the mind in this election, Republicans focused on the heart—and won.
It may be time, then, for Democrats to take a page from the Republicans’ playbook.
“We have to get better at process strategies,” says Jennifer Granholm, a former Michigan governor and a lecturer at UC Berkeley Law. “The Republicans have been diligently building candidate pipelines for many years, and we’re just not as good at that. We have to do a better job of recruiting our bench. Right now it’s not very deep.”
Barack Obama, says Granholm, retained his popularity—and was able to implement many of his policies despite a hostile House and Senate during his final term—“because he made hearts soar. Hillary had great policies, she had a great coalition strategy, but she didn’t speak as substantively as Trump to the things people cared and worried about: sustenance and jobs. He intuitively understood Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Voters didn’t have that gut reaction to Hillary that they had with Trump. One way or the other, we have to make sure our next [presidential] candidate can do both—forge good policy, but also inspire people and get them to the polls.”
Further, Democrats could profit by appropriating a hallowed Republican rallying cry: states’ rights. For a long time, Republicans have energized their base (and plenty of Independents as well) through their depiction of a hegemonic federal government out to take every citizen’s money and guns and strangle mom and pop businesses with onerous regulations. Now that Democrats find themselves excluded from Washington power circles, a similar strategy might work well for them. The idea of pushing state autonomy over federal power already has been bruited about in the press, and Democratic power brokers are trying to determine the best way forward.
“Blue States wield a lot of power,” says Dan Farber, a professor at Berkeley Law. “Blue State counties collectively account for two-thirds of the American economy. So it’s not inconceivable that blue state coalitions could continue to move an agenda forward even under a Trump administration.”
There is precedent for such action, Farber says.
“When George W. Bush was elected, he basically said he couldn’t do anything about climate change. So California undertook a very aggressive carbon reduction and renewable energy program, and engaged with other (blue) states looking to do the same thing. I was both surprised and impressed by these state and local climate change actions during the Bush years. The programs are still expanding, and that’s probably going to continue under Trump, regardless of federal climate change and energy policies.”
Granholm observes that Democratic governors collectively oversee the lion’s share of the nation’s technological sector and most of its wealth, suggesting there is sufficient economy of scale to support state analogues to Obamacare and federal environmental programs, all of which are likely to be torpedoed or slashed under Trump.
“There are ways the states can challenge or find ways around regressive federal policies,” says Granholm. “We could form partnerships to pass like-minded legislation. Maybe we could cooperate on multi-state health care initiatives. I’ve also been pushing for the philanthropic community, particularly big donors, to step up for climate change, to get people like Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg to work with Democratic governors and mayors and push aggressively for clean power plants and renewable portfolio standards at the state and local levels.”
Granholm notes the same basic strategy could work for infrastructure improvements.
“When Google launched its Fiber City Challenge, about 1,100 cities responded,” says Granholm. “No matter what’s going on in Washington, the cities want high-speed fiber optic cable. And I see similar initiatives working in other areas, such as upgrading the electric grid, which requires regional cooperation. Education is another possibility. There are a lot of opportunities for state-to-state and state-to-private-sector partnerships that we haven’t explored, but which could prove extremely productive.”
Also, don’t write off the red states completely, says Farber.
“It’s a mistake to think of red states as monolithic,” Farber says. “First, even in red states, the cities are skewing blue, and we can expect that to continue. Texas is a very red state, but the big cities—Austin, Houston, San Antonio, Dallas—are all pretty progressive places.”
Second, says Farber, red states sometimes dote on specific policies that are progressive by any objective evaluation. Texas and Iowa are both very bullish on wind power, he says, while Republican mayors in southern Florida cities have expressed deep concern about climate change because of rising sea levels.
“So all in all, there could be room for maneuvering and deal-making with red states on some important issues,” Farber says.
Henry Brady, the dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy, says Democrats need to do something else: Rebuild their connections with the white working class. Like Granholm, he feels Hillary somehow forgot something her husband emphasized during his own presidential races: It’s the economy, stupid. Or, at least, it’s the economy for relatively low-skilled people who have seen the industries that employ them implode or collapse. Clinton did get more votes than Trump from lower income people as a whole, Brady observes, but she lost the white lower income vote “because the Republicans found ways to speak to those people. They emphasized love of country and fears about the future. The Democrats, on the other hand, had made their pact with Silicon Valley, they had decided the future was globalization, and they didn’t understand or care that there are losers in globalization, and something needs to be done to save them. I kept waiting for Hillary to make the case that she was the best candidate to handle the economic problems facing American workers, and she never made it. The Republicans did a far better job of running with that issue.”
Further, says Brady, Democrats need to forge an economic plan that is clear, cogent, and explicitly favors working people. Dems may have an advantage here over Trump, says Brady, given that his economic proposals articulated thus far will largely benefit the wealthy.
“The Tax Policy Center [a joint venture of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution] has analyzed the $6 trillion tax cuts that Trump wants to make,” Brady says. “They concluded that $3 trillion of that will go to the top one percent, and $3 trillion to everyone else. That’s the kind of thing the Democrats can publicize.”
Brady thinks blue state coalitions may yield some benefits. California and New York, he says, will continue to lead on climate change responses. But don’t expect Trump to passively accept aggressive state initiatives that run counter to his own agenda. States’ rights were Republican gospel as long as the trope promoted conservative interests, but November 8th changed everything. Now, says Brady, the new administration may decide to bigfoot the states.
“My worry is that the new administration will try to federalize some things,” Brady says, opining that Trump appointees and their legislative allies could claim federal standards override state statutes and initiatives pertaining to the environment, civil rights and health care.
No matter the blue state response, no one should expect the next four years to play out as a progressive idyll; elections, as has been noted far too often, have consequences. But Trump did lose the popular vote; the indications are that many of the people who voted for him are not all that smitten with him, but are hoping he may somehow deliver on his jobs-and-prosperity promises. If he can’t produce, he may well find his constituency melting away.
“If Trump follows through with a huge tax cut and massive infrastructure spending, it will dramatically increase deficits for short term gain,” says Brady, “and that bodes real trouble down the road. Discretionary spending will have to be slashed at some point, and that likely means big cuts to Social Security and Medicare. But would Trump and Congress dare to do that before the next election? Somehow, I can’t imagine it. Trump’s victory can’t disguise the fact that the Republican Party is at war with itself.”
Too, Democrats can look forward to 2018. One reason (actually, the main reason) Republicans have a lock on the House of Representatives is because of creative gerrymandering in key states in 2010. The next redistricting happens in 2020. If Democrats can improve their gubernatorial standing in 2018, which is by no means an impossibility, given that the party in power typically loses federal legislative seats, governors and state chambers in midterm elections—they could redraw many of those districts to their own advantage, a fact that has not been lost on them. Earlier this year, party operatives began soliciting major donors to fund an upcoming redistricting campaign.
Finally, says Farber, Democrats can rely on the inevitability of government inertia to succor them over the next four years.
“Trump has power, but most of the things he wants to do can’t be done with the stroke of a pen,” Farber says. “He’ll have to work with Congress, and as we know, even members of his own party don’t see eye-to-eye with him on a lot of things. And in any case, it’s always hard for Congress to get anything done. The courts are also a possible check. Democrats can’t sugarcoat the election results, but that doesn’t mean they’re not in the game.”