The Democratic Party needs serious reviving.
There are several noteworthy things about the recently launched 2020 U.S. presidential election campaign. First, it’s taking place at a time of unprecedented polarization within American society and the political system. Second, Democrats’ task (and that of the traditional political elite in general) is not simply to get to the White House, but also to avenge the humiliating defeat suffered in 2016, to restore their dominant position in the political process, and to overcome the crisis in the Democratic Party that was sparked by this defeat.
So, the current campaign shows how much the Republican Party has changed in the last few years, and what the figure of Donald Trump means historically and for the development of the U.S. Many saw Trump’s victory in 2016 as a historic misunderstanding, which occurred entirely as a result of so-called Russian meddling, and which they needed to get past as soon as possible so that things could return to normal. Today’s situation shows that this isn’t possible. Trump’s presidency has already changed America and is continuing to do so. Even the midterm elections in 2018 showed that the Republican Party was consolidating around Trump. The 2020 campaign is demonstrating this even more clearly.
There are no conversations within the party about whether Trump will seek another term as the Republican candidate or if it’s worth his while to do so. The electorate that voted for Trump in 2016 is still loyal to him. What’s more, there is an understanding that Trump is the strongest politician on the Republican Party’s side, and defeating him in 2020 will not be easy. Really, one of the main questions for the Democrats at this time is who can beat Trump? If the current president was just a historic misunderstanding and the result of Russian meddling, then surely the question of whether a Democratic candidate will be able to beat him in 2020 would not be so pressing.
This is partially due to the fact that the U.S. economy is continuing to grow at a very high rate. However, the fact that Trump is really popular with a serious proportion of the Republican electorate and that they support his agenda (tightening of immigration law, the development of infrastructure, foreign economic nationalism and mercantilism) also plays a significant role. He has managed to unite the Republican Party around himself, while disorder and aimlessness persist within the Democratic Party.
In this sense, Trump has developed from a “misunderstanding” into an important member of the American political elite, the founder of its new direction. A member of the elite who will not disappear even if he is defeated in the upcoming election. If Trump loses, the Democratic president will not be handed an America minus Trump, but rather Trump’s America, and the new president will need to push off from Trump’s domestic and international political legacy.
The second noteworthy aspect of the campaign is the increasing polarization within the American political system. Trump is moving the Republican Party to the right, encouraging and promoting conservative values. At the same time, the Democratic Party is progressively leaning to the left. Evidence for this can be found in the primary election platforms of many candidates: free education and healthcare and the expansion of social entitlements and benefits. The party is frantically trying to lure the working class – which left to follow Trump after he promised Republicans that he would return jobs and industrial production to America – back into its bosom. The divide in American society along lines of values, economic situation and demographics is widening, and the prospect of overcoming it is not presenting itself.
The third notable aspect of the upcoming 2020 election is the fact that it is a critical contest for the Democratic Party, which remains in crisis since its defeat in 2016. The Democrats were unable to exact revenge in the 2018 midterms, when they received the smallest number of votes they could have hoped for. In order to overcome this crisis, the Democrats need a serious revival, new people and a new agenda. The coming year will show whether the Democratic Party is capable of renewal.
On the one hand, there are new people; for example, Tulsi Gabbard and Kamala Harris. The agenda, as the first round of television debates between primary candidates showed, is also gradually becoming increasingly more socialist and less and less neoliberal. On the other hand, however, the establishment is still consolidating around the old-timers, first and foremost, around former Vice President Joe Biden. Almost all of Hillary Clinton’s people have gathered around him. They are positioning Biden as the only Democratic candidate and the leading Trump opponent. Biden has not yet won the Democratic nomination, and there is no certainty that he will win, but his rhetoric is not so much a debate with the other Democratic candidates as it is a polemic with Trump. This is a worrying sign: The establishment is choosing to preserve the very course of action that led the party to catastrophe in 2016.
And yet, as the debates show, the Democratic Party, against the establishment’s wishes, is already reviving itself. The winner of the first television debate was definitely not Biden, but Harris, the senator from California who is of Jamaican and Indian descent. For now, she is considered to be leading the race. It appears that it is exactly new people like Harris who are capable of consolidating the Democratic electorate around themselves and not the mothballed old-timers like Biden.
In this respect, the crucial question is whether the establishment will resort to the same political manipulation now as it did in 2016; i.e., artificially sinking the wrong leaders of the race and pulling in their own candidates. Back then, the Democratic leadership played up Clinton and blocked the way for Bernie Sanders. If history is to repeat itself, then the crisis within the party will continue and the Democrats will most likely lose out to Trump. Such a result will be yet another catastrophe for the Democrats. If this doesn’t happen, then 2020 will be really intriguing. However, the polarization of American society and politics will persist regardless of the results.