Yes, it’s true, Republicans up and down the ticket won last night, across the country, by small but consistently significant margins. Nearly everywhere Republican turnout was about 1% better than either side expected, and Democratic turnout about 1% worse. That margin was enough to push numerous individual races as well as the presidency the Republicans’ way.
If you don’t like the way the election turned out, and feel that you must have a couple of days to mope, mutter, sulk, or rage, then please do; you’re entitled.
But then we must all move on. While I wish the results had been different, I find that I’m not as glum about the results as I thought I would be.
After all, consider the achievements of the Democratic party in the past few years. Just two years ago the Democratic party was in disarray, unable to agree on basic policy stances, allowing many of its good policy proposals to be co-opted by the Republicans, facing a strong and deep set of conservative institutions that over a quarter of a century had learned to shape public debate and discussion without any check or counterpart from the left, and reliant on a quiescent media that (until a few months ago) deliberately censored their criticisms of the Republican president.
Furthermore, in this election the Democrats had to face an incumbent president who most Americans find very likeable and who is leading the nation during a time of war. The president had a vast array of financial and political resources at his disposal, not just because of the wealth of his base but because his party controls both houses of Congress and the majority of the nation’s governorships and state legislatures – meaning the Republicans have had the unchecked ability to set the nation’s political agenda according to their liking. Democrats had to try to win the seats of 4 retiring Democratic Senators from staunchly Republican states, while Republicans had only 1 such Republican retiree. Congressional districts have been gerrymandered more effectively than at any time in history (mostly by those same Republican legislatures), making incumbents virtually unbeatable. The power of incumbency is probably stronger now than at any time in recent history. All of this means that the minority party had a significant handicap from the start.
Yet this year demonstrated tremendous new-found unity in the Democratic party. More than at any time since the 1960s the Democratic party ran a campaign with a coherent voice and a large, organized base of truly committed supporters. For the first time, an infrastructure of public thought, research, discourse, and debate on the left has begun to take shape. And we accomplished this in just two years.
I like the trend. And with more years as the party of opposition this trend will just get stronger. Something that I feared might happen if Kerry had won was the possibility that progressives around the country would have simply sat back with a satisfied smile, wiped their hands, and thought “Ah good, that’s that.” But building a strong party that can effectively give people a voice and shape public policy requires much more than simply winning the presidency. It requires constant work to gradually do things like changing local and state governments, building research and media institutions, and harnessing online discourse and activism. It requires an institutional and intellectual infrastructure. It requires a large and committed core of individuals that will keep working to shape public policy in every month of every year, not just during the few months leading up to a presidential election. Remember, the Republicans did not come to dominate the nation’s political agenda starting in the 1990s by winning the presidency – they did it by patiently, consistently working to build up a solid party structure from the ground up.
I know that a lot of you will see this post as an unsatisfying saccharine palliative, and maybe you’re right. But I sincerely do believe that — despite the costs that this country will pay for four more years of a Bush presidency — in many ways losing this election could be far better for the health of the progressive movement than electing Kerry would have been. Remember, we only began this project two years ago – we’ve really only just begun. Give us a few more years and we really will be able to change the world.