At least since the 1960s, the Republican Party has been working to build a solid white base that it can use for winning elections against a much less cohesive opposition. Its strategists turned the Democratic “solid south” into their own through the “southern strategy” that emerged in the wake of the civil-rights successes of the 1960s, solidifying their new base through racial solidarity (if not downright racism), an appeal to fundamentalist Christians, and manipulation of voting patterns and possibilities (through gerrymandering and voter-ID laws). It is this last that allows the 37% of the potential electorate that the Republicans can count on to exert over 50% of the influence in today’s elections–until recently. This proved a winning strategy for Nixon, Reagan, the Bushes and Trump—and it has allowed Republicans, in recent years, to come to dominate state governments.
Unless control over who can vote is strengthened, however, this is a losing strategy in the long term. Demographic projections have long shown a trend of a dwindling white population (percentage-wise) in the United States. That 37% will drop to the point where only a quarter of the vote can be guaranteed as the white Republican base—and that will not suffice, not unless immigration and the creation of “new” Americans through it is halted and restrictions are put on the voting power of urban dwellers and of “minorities” already citizens. Most Americans know this, which is one of the main reasons for the rush of Republicans to embrace Donald Trump, who has galvanized a large section of white America to the point where it is resistant to incursions by any other. With that base in place and in power, protections of the power of right-wing white America can also be put in place and may last for generations.
The horror for many of us, these past few years, has been how well this has already succeeded. The wresting of power for the minority in states like Wisconsin has allow even more liberties to be taken with the cherished “one person, one vote” concept—and it is the Electoral College process, one remaining relic of a time when the popular vote was not trusted, that gave Trump his success in 2016. We who opposed the slide toward power resting within one identity were seeing ourselves outmaneuvered in every instance—with the likelihood of more to come.
Over the last six weeks, though, we’ve seen evidence that the right may have peaked too late and is even now starting to slide. That 37% may not even hold—and may not be sufficient for the plans of the Republican strategists. The elections in Virginia on November 7 and the special election in Alabama on December 12 are showing that the power of this bloc, even when augmented by gerrymandering and unfair voter-ID laws, is not quite enough to ensure victory on the continual basis needed for implementation of plans that would retain white power into the future.
The idea that a Democrat could succeed in a statewide election in Alabama, a state where Trump had received 62% of the vote just 13 months earlier, seems, even in the aftermath of the election, incredible. Never mind the weaknesses and strengths of the candidates, this is a state where, Steve Bannon surely believed, nobody with an “R” behind their name could be defeated.
Three groups changed that: African Americans, women (though the majority of white women did vote for the loser Roy Moore, it was vitally important that women were willing to stand against him and against his past “excesses”), and well-educated suburbanites. These are also the very groups who wrested Virginia seats from Republicans. Together, they represent a real majority of Americans today (especially when you add other minorities and immigrant communities) and they are rejecting the exclusionary identity politics of the Republicans with enough force to turn elections to the Democrats even where Republicans have their thumbs on the scales.
What the top Democrats need to realize, and quickly, is that this new phenomenon is not something that can be “triangulated” or manipulated. Right now, the best the party leaders could do would be to follow, to let the real grass roots rise up and lead. The party structure needs to turn to support, forgetting about control and strategy. The strength of this emerging coalition, like Moore’s horse Sassy, cannot be controlled by an inept rider and, lord knows, the Democratic leadership has proven itself inept. Schumer, Pelosi and the rest need to give this horse its head and let it run.
At the same time, the Democrats’ strategists also need to stop trying to find ways of making inroads into the Republican base. That’s not going to work, as the fact that even such a flawed candidate as Moore can almost win shows. As the fact that Trump did win shows, for that matter. The Democrats can win without them, as the recent elections show. In addition, one of the mistakes made in 2016 was assuming that African Americans would turn out for a Democrat simply because it is the party of Barack Obama. The party cannot assume the support of anyone; it has to earn it.
The Democrats need to stop trying to tame their mount; they need to earn its trust—and to learn to trust it.
Otherwise, the ride ahead will be as wild for the Democrats as it is proving for the Republicans.
And bad for all of us.