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Opinion | The Deadly Lack of Imagination in the Democratic Party


That was the plan. And it succeeded. The “New Democrats” won the war inside the Democratic Party, defeating the traditionalists. They were given many chances to rule. They triangulated and sought grand bargains. Today we live in the future to which they built their celebrated bridge, with a deregulated Wall Street, a devitalized heartland and college diplomas held up as the answer to all problems. Turning their backs on the populism they loathed, our future-minded, new-style Democrats declined to take the opportunity offered by the 2008-09 financial crisis to remake the financial system. Instead, some of them came to identify with that system.

In some ways, liberalism from the top down has worked out as intended. The highly educated are now solidly Democratic, and the wealthy are moving rapidly our way. Today the party’s candidates often raise more money than Republicans. Despite President Biden’s intermittent blue-collar sympathies — and despite the party’s ramped-up language about conquering racism and defending democracy itself — the strategy of the 1990s still seems to be the strategy of today: courting the learning class, winning the affluent suburbanites, talking about how innovation will save us, reaching out to Republicans like Liz Cheney. And despite inspiring victories like John Fetterman’s in Pennsylvania, according to exit polls, the party continues to hemorrhage working-class votes.

The combination of high net worth and high moral virtue that the Democrats offer is a richly satisfying blend for some voters, a perfect summary of how they see themselves. For party leaders, it has meant something even better: lucrative second careers at Silicon Valley behemoths, compounds on Martha’s Vineyard and presidential libraries that surpass those of the Republicans in soaring monumentalism. If perpetual stalemate is the price the country must pay for such things, maybe it’s a bargain.

For all their love of creativity and innovation, however, there is a deadly lack of imagination in the way modern Democrats play the game. Leaders assumed for years that demographic change was automatically going to yield future majorities, and by implication that nothing visionary or transformative was required of them. Traditional Democratic constituent groups, they seemed to think, could be easily satisfied with noble rhetoric. Then, surprise, the Republicans found some clever way to win them over.

Sizable majorities of Americans desperately want traditional liberal measures like universal health care and economic fairness. But actually, existing liberalism, with its air of upper-crust contempt and its top-down moralism, rubs this deeply democratic nation exactly the wrong way.

These things are obvious when viewed from a certain distance, but liberals, intoxicated by their own righteousness, can never figure it out. They keep expecting the right to die off, as if poisoned by its diet of wickedness, and yet the Republicans persist, dreaming up new culture wars against the “liberal elite,” radicalizing themselves continually along the way, refusing to succumb.

And what do liberals do? We dig in. We cheer for our side, we cheer some more, we demand that everyone else also cheer. We react hysterically to bad news, we refuse any analysis that doesn’t begin by ascribing Satanism to the G.O.P., and we go on Twitter to scold those who don’t measure up to our standards in some way. This is not strategy. It is fandom.


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