The wave is here. At least, so claimed the national liberal coalition on Tuesday night, after progressive candidates racked up win after win in states like Virginia, New Jersey, and Washington.
The election day gains were a welcome change of pace from the string of moral victories that the Left sheepishly claimed over the summer, when a few special election candidates vastly outperformed their Democratic predecessors yet still fell short in the final tally. By contrast, Tuesday’s victories, which combined a suburban rebuke of Trumpism with a solid showing for some truly progressive causes, provided a jolt of hope.
But don’t let the good news fool you: the Democratic Party is still broken, and it faces a much tougher electoral map in 2018. While this week’s victory is encouraging, it shouldn’t be misinterpreted as a sign that the party is thriving, or even healthy.
One reason not to read too deeply into this week’s results is that, with unified (not to mention unpopular) Republican control of government, the Democrats were poised to turn the tide regardless of their internal strength. For better and for worse (and for better, and then worse again), national politics often act like a pendulum. In this case, the fundamentals happened to be in the Democrats’ favor.
A closer look reveals that the left benefited from a wave that lifted all non-GOP boats, from an independent socialist without major party support to a center-left gubernatorial candidate who twice voted for George W. Bush. There’s good reason to believe that the same wave might carry the Democrats to more victories in 2018, but there’s no guarantee that it will be enough to win a majority in Congress. A solid party message and clear values will do the Democrats far more good than any economic or political fundamentals ever could.
It’s worth considering that had the Democrats lost any of their major races on Tuesday night, the party would be in utter crisis right now. The party’s internal turmoil was already laid bare last week when former interim-DNC Chair Donna Brazile accused the Clinton campaign of steamrolling the primary process with backdoor deals and swamp-like power politics. Yet beyond year-old squabbles and intraparty bickering, the Democrats remain critically fragmented, divided on everything from abortion rights and healthcare to impeachment and tax reform. One can only imagine the “told-you-so” columns that would have dominated the papers this week had turnout in suburban Virginia been a bit lower.
Fortunately, the Democrats were able to ride the wave. Reinvention can wait another day.
There were a few wins that can’t be so easily explained away by wave theories, though, and they should offer some substance to progressive optimism. Danica Roem, a transgender woman, unseated a 26 year incumbent in the Virginia House of Delegates who proudly called himself the state’s “chief homophobe.” Ravinder Ballah, competing for office in Hoboken, New Jersey, became one of the first Sikh mayors of a major U.S. city after overcoming racially-charged messaging in the final days of his campaign. Larry Krasner, a Black Lives Matter-affiliated civil rights attorney who has sued the Philadelphia Police Department over 75 times, became the city’s top prosecutor by running on a campaign of radical criminal justice reform. And Maine voters passed an initiative to expand Medicaid by a margin of nearly 20 points.
Victories like these paint a picture of an electorate that is perhaps more tolerant and progressive than the national party cares to imagine. The results also make arguments in favor of hewing to the center and avoiding controversial social issues seem a little less credible.
Ultimately, the Democrats’ performance on Tuesday gave the party a lifeline, but not a clear fix. The strong showing by progressive candidates and causes offers one path forward. Whether the Democrats follow it is another question, one which will determine whether they’re serious about transforming the country, or if they’re just looking to catch the next wave.
Benjamin Sorensen, a senior studying political science, is a weekly columnist for Stanford Politics. The views expressed in ‘Beyond the Beltway’ are his and not those of Stanford Politics, a non-partisan publication.