Commentary: "A Proper Funeral"

Feb 14, 2017

An important part of the research I do for these commentaries is to listen – to my students and coworkers at Columbia College, at my church, over my dinner table.  Last summer and fall I was hearing.  But I wasn’t listening.  Had I actually been listening I would not have had Hillary Clinton all elected and inaugurated.  It was an embarrassing and humbling experience.  Here is – hopefully – a reset.

Trump supporters I know are fairly quiet.  I’ve not heard any regret or second-guessing yet.  I think they are enjoying, perhaps a bit nervously, the circus, which now has six or seven rings, with more rings added daily.  They are also watching all the demonstrations and disrupted town hall meetings and still thinking: “We won.  You lost.  Get over it.”

Democrats and liberals – mostly synonymous these days – remain in a funk, and it’s a divided funk.  They are united only in their opposition to the Trump agenda and administration.  Their divisions are open wounds, but these wounds are not new.

For one, Democrats have not been a party in opposition like this since the 1920s.  They have been out of power in Washington before – most recently in the early 2000s during the Bush presidency – but for most of the last 85 years Democrats controlled a lot of state governments.  Over the last four elections they have lost a dozen governorships and one thousand state legislative seats.

But more fundamentally, Democrats and liberals were in command of the so-called zeitgeist, the spirit of the times.  American was a New Deal/Great Society country and the culture and politics reflected it.  Bill Clinton famously declared in the 1990s that “the era of big government is over” but that observation was absurd then and remained so until very recently. 

As it turns out, this form of liberalism has been in hospice for some time, and Donald Trump pulled the plug.  The end seemed sudden and unexpected, but it has been coming.  Establishment Democrats knew it wasn’t Hillary Clinton’s party.  They couldn’t do anything about it.  Losing the presidential election was the signature on the death certificate.

Congressional Democrats are trying to fill the loyal opposition role, but Republicans have the wind at their backs and are full of themselves.  About all Democrats can do right now is score debating points and try to save some of Obamacare and, failing that, make sure the Republican replacement is derisively called Trumpcare.

But Democrats have bigger problems.  They understand they must somehow regain the confidence of the white working class, but while doing so they cannot abandon their championing of minorities and other identity groups.  The political left will keep the pressure on in this regard.

In the long term, the demographics of America may restore the Democratic Party to majority status.  In the near term, however, establishment Democrats must hold a funeral for the corpse of the pre-Trump Democratic Party.  And be heartened by the fact that, soon enough, Republicans may need to hold a funeral for the corpse of the pre-Trump Republican Party.

Terry Smith is a political science professor at Columbia College and a regular commentator on KBIA's Talking Politics.