In the weeks leading up to the election, I recall seeing countless social media posts suggesting the possibility of a complete collapse of the Republican Party in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s pending defeat.
The days after Trump’s stunning and surprising victory have produced several similar observations about how the Democratic Party met its Waterloo and may soon fade away into political obscurity.
Regardless of how the election may have turned out, neither of these scenarios was ever likely to come to pass. America’s political parties — if you haven’t noticed — are resilient creatures that have continuously bounced back from daunting defeats to reclaim power. It’s the political circle of life in our unique two-party system.
It is absolutely true that things did not go well for the Democratic Party this year. It lost a presidential race it was heavily favored to win, failed to maintain control of the U.S. Senate, was unable to retake the U.S. House and now appears to hold fewer state legislative majorities since the Great Depression. Adding to the misery, Republicans now appear poised to control 33 state governorships and both legislative chambers in 32 states.
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Despite all of this, I would argue that the Democrats — at least as a national party — are in better shape than it appears at the moment. There are a few items that help explain why Democrats shouldn’t reach for the panic button, at least not yet.
First, it appears Hillary Clinton will have defeated Trump by more than 2 million popular votes.
Despite being as antiquated as powdered wigs, the Electoral College determines the winner of presidential elections, not the cumulative popular vote. However, Clinton’s substantial lead in this area may leave her with the second-highest number of votes ever cast for a presidential candidate. This does not translate into victory, but it does demonstrate that Trump lacks a true electoral mandate and that a plurality of American voters believed in what the Democratic Party and its candidate had to offer.
Second, the national electorate of the future seems to be more favorable to the Democrats than to the GOP.
As George Will and other conservative commentators have noted, the demography of states such as Nevada, Georgia, Arizona and Texas favor the Democratic Party in the long term. In other words, should they continue struggling among aging white voters in formerly reliable Rust Belt states, Democrats may have several avenues for replacing those electoral votes in forthcoming elections.
Although Republicans may eventually moderate on issues that matter to younger and more diverse voters, it is also likely that such a move has been delayed indefinitely because of Trump’s victory.
Third, defeat represents an opportunity to rebuild the national Democratic Party around the stars of the future rather than the heroes of the past.
Not to discount the immeasurable party-building efforts of the Clinton family over the past several decades, but Hillary Clinton’s loss enables up-and-coming party leaders to emerge as the voices of opposition to Trump on his most reactionary policies such as immigrant bans or Social Security and Medicare privatization. They may also serve as voices of reconciliation and moderation should Trump choose to work with them to advance certain parts of his agenda like infrastructure funding.
Survey data from throughout the campaign showed that despite leading substantially among younger voters, Hillary Clinton did not stimulate the type of enthusiasm needed among that constituency. Perhaps several less established yet equally capable Democratic leaders such as Sens. Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro can debut as the messengers of the future for their party now rather than after four or eight years of a Trump presidency.
Lastly, being on the outskirts of power can be frustrating, but it also allows for the development of serious policy alternatives that can be tested before the national news media and the electorate. Democrats have the time and resources to dig deep on policy and frame the issues in ways that maximize their ability to launch an agenda that resonates with the public. This model worked when Al From and a young Bill Clinton were leading the Democratic Leadership Council in the 1980s and 1990s, ultimately helping the party regain power.
President William McKinley observed that, “In the time of darkest defeat, victory may be nearest.”
It is often difficult for a political party to look at a series of losses and still try to find the hidden kernels of encouraging news.
The outcome of this strange and unpredictable election tells me that so long as the party doesn’t descend into total internal chaos or lurch too far leftward in the coming months, there are reasons for Democrats to remain optimistic about their future.
Nathan R. Shrader, PhD, serves as assistant professor of political science and director of American studies at Millsaps College.