The Democratic Party is exceptional and the best party at the moment. It is also still a political party.
Democrats and Republicans agreed to a second stimulus package on Sunday evening, one that will provide nearly a trillion dollars to aid a country beset by the worst pandemic in a century. The compromise was only reached after months of hardball tactics and numerous attempts at poison pills. While the details are still being hammered out as of this writing, the bill’s most salient features are aid to the unemployed, money for businesses in numerous sectors, and $600 checks for both adults and their dependent children.
In some ways, achieving any sort of agreement in today’s rancorous political climate is exceptional. But many commentators focused on the difference between the $1.8 trillion proposal Republicans offered in October and their most recent plan. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader, rejected the October proposal and accepted the most recent one. The most obvious reason for this change is that a massive spending program passed in October might have aided Donald Trump in his reelection bid. Since Trump lost by only 20,000 votes in the tipping point state of Wisconsin, it is clear that a relief bill could have easily led to his victory.
Pelosi’s actions cannot be viewed in a vacuum. Instead, they must be seen as a sign that the recent Democratic approach to politics is on its last legs. In order to succeed, Democrats must have a new view of power and how it is wielded by the politicians in their party.
In the past ten years, as conservatives were mostly purged from its ranks, the myth has emerged that the Democratic Party is not actually a political party. It does not operate by the traditional channels and structures of previous parties, which had to negotiate, hedge, and reflect the will of interest groups in order to survive. Instead, the party is an unalloyed force for good. It is, in fact, objectively good, a party guided by science that is uniquely focused on aiding the less fortunate. As the liberal group Common Dreams argued in favor of Bernie Sanders’ agenda,
[If Sanders wins] we will be able to win elections, enact reforms, and make sweeping innovations in the technology of our democracy so that the algorithm we apply and the data we collect have the most advanced scientific integrity and produce ever higher qualities of government leadership… scientific method, sooner or later, is destined to prevail. This holds true in politics as much as in chemistry or physics.
In this view, Democrats took action because people needed help, not because they had donated money. This new Democratic Party did not need the compromises and horsetrading that characterized its predecessors and its opponent, the sadistic Republican Party. Democrats did not push to bring back earmarks because there was no need. The power of their policies, combined with the unstoppable turnout of the young and idealistic, would guide them to power.
This belief was shaken by the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Trump’s opponents, the members of the so-called resistance, saw him as an existential threat to minorities, democracy, and the rule of law. In many ways, he was. But the Democratic response to Trump did not treat him this way. Instead, Democrats sought to work with Trump and his Republican allies time after time. They sought to pass infrastructure bills. Democrats praised Trump for the smallest accomplishments. They even voted for some of his cabinet secretaries and lobbied for support of their own constituencies. They were not reacting how many liberals thought the opponents of fascism should act.
Nancy Pelosi’s action in October should shatter the Democratic Party myth once and for all. Pelosi is a politician who put the best interests of her party at the forefront. In many ways, she made the best decision. The number of Americans harmed by four more years of Trump’s policies would have vastly outweighed the number of people negatively affected by a stimulus delay. But the move was still made from political interest and was, in many ways, craven and opportunistic. “Science” would have dictated that Pelosi spend the money as much as possible to alleviate immediate suffering, as many liberal pundits advised. This was, of course, not her approach. It was the action not of a benevolent, apolitical being but of a party leader.
Democrats need to bring their idea of politics back down to earth. They need to see the Democratic Party as a political one guided by fallible human beings elected by a majority of voters or party members. Democrats should make the success of their party paramount and make the clear argument that Democratic victories can change the country for the better. They should prioritize passing legislation and making Congress work again over all other concerns. Most importantly, they should stop pretending that their party is based purely on science. They should prioritize kicking their opponents out of office rather than making them the subject of ridicule. For better or worse, the United States is a democracy. Liberals need to start treating it as one.