With the midterm elections weeks away, the Democratic Party’s minority status in the House is virtually assured and its majority status in the Senate is in jeopardy. Democrats are anxious: “Democrats start to point fingers” is the kind of headline that accompanies a skid into the ditch.
But don’t feel sorry for them. Look around. This is a moment of triumph for the party.
The Obama era, which is almost certainly how these days will be known a few decades hence, has seen the most consequential advances in history on two of the Democratic Party’s paramount objectives. The first is the erosion of white male privilege and the consolidation of a multiracial political coalition dedicated to leveling power relations among races and sexes. The second is the quantum leap forward in the quest for health care access as a right of citizenship.
It has been 50 years since President Lyndon Johnson risked his party’s future on civil rights, and Democrats appear to have made it through the most treacherous stage. The nation’s key social evolutions — civil rights, the women’s movement, gay rights, a demographic revolution driven by historic waves of immigration — all bear a Democratic brand. The party has been an agent of the change sought by women and minorities and a mediating force in the conflicts that evolving power relations inevitably engender.
This is a serious achievement in the face of gruesome history, lingering cross-resentments and a sizable, if steadily dwindling, population of whites who (consciously or not) perceive racial privilege as the natural order of heaven and earth.
It’s more than plausible that the Democratic nomination for president in 2016 will pass from a black man to a white woman. That’s not an accident of history; it’s the legacy of Fannie Lou Hamer, Bella Abzug, John Lewis, Barbara Mikulski. It’s a linear inheritance from all those inner-city political machines where power migrated in begrudged fits and tense starts from white men to black men and beyond. (And then, in places such as Chicago and New York and Detroit, back to white men — this time, however, as reward, not birthright.) The party responded imperfectly but ultimately successfully to the demands of its constituents and its time.
The expansion of health insurance to millions — and eventually tens of millions — is another towering achievement, this one with party origins rooted in the New Deal. The Affordable Care Act is a complex piece of business, and it will require adjustments over the short and long term. But it continues to defy glib predictions of catastrophe while sheltering more Americans under the umbrella of health insurance. How many Democrats over the past half-century would have traded a future Senate majority (especially one stymied by a Republican House) for a landmark expansion of access to health insurance? Quite a few, I suspect.
Progress on the party’s 20th century agenda highlights Democrats’ struggles to respond to 21st century challenges — especially the erosion of wages and the collateral damage to working class Americans from globalization and technology. But the battle to secure Obamacare, the big missing piece of the welfare state, might carry the party for a couple more years. (Hyperbolic attacks from Republicans helpfully obscure the diminishing stock in the Democrats’ policy larder.) Meanwhile, the Obama presidency has confirmed, in a way that only a nonwhite president could, that at least among Democrats, the exclusive white lock on power is broken.
Democrats may well lose the Senate this year, making Obama’s final two years an even more bitter partisan slog than the past four. The experience will probably be dispiriting for everyone in Washington, Democrats and Republicans alike. I’m not sure history will care.