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Richard North Patterson

Renewing the Democrats — and America

Former Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean spoke by video link to a forum on the party last year in Denver.David Zalubowski/Associated Press/File/Associated Press

WHY HAVE DEMOCRATS struggled to defeat President Trump’s most objectionable cabinet nominees? Because Hillary Clinton’s 3 million popular vote margin obscures this nettlesome fact: Outside California, Massachusetts, and New York, Donald Trump won by 4 million votes.

Across the map, political polarization and demographic sorting are shrinking the party. Since 2006, the Democrats have lost 10 percent of their seats in the Senate, 19 percent in the House, 20 percent in state legislatures, and 36 percent of governorships. In 2018 the Democrats must defend 9 seats in states Trump won. And in states controlled by Republicans, the GOP is legislating to weaken unions that support Democratic candidates.


In much of America, a parody of Democrats prevails: Champions of “big government.” Practitioners of “identity politics.” Enablers of welfare cheats. Enemies of traditional values. Hand-wringers with no respect for our past or faith in our future.

However fraudulent, Trump’s promise to “make America great again” addressed the displacement many Americans feel. True, this came with racial animus. But their longing and fears are real. Trump gave them a vision; the Democrats never found one.

These voters made him our president. Yet only Clinton addressed their anxieties with realistic proposals. This disconnect captures the Democrats’ quandary.

Two Americas perceive different realities — the Democrats’ coastal, urban, better-educated, and more diverse enclaves; the GOP’s whiter, less-privileged, and more traditionalist landmass. Critical is a distrust of elites and Washington, D.C. — as proponents of activist government, Democrats suffer from both.

The result is “programitis” — an afflication suffered by Democrats who describe their agenda in discrete pieces, eschewing a larger vision. But a party without a narrative has overlearned its lesson.

Transcending demographics, race, and culture is imperative. Here the overlap between Trump and Bernie Sanders instructs. However different, both men promised to help those displaced by economic change. Among these voters, government was not a poison pill. But in November, Barbara Boxer told me, “[They] didn’t hear us speaking to them.”


To be heard, Democrats must invoke government to serve American exceptionalism: helping unleash the potential of every person — wherever or whoever they are — to lift themselves and their country. Only then do their means cohere in a vision.

In this narrative, government exists not to reorganize a free society, but to strengthen it. The ends are moral and pragmatic. Which child could become the next Bill Gates or Jonas Salk, or that teacher, mentor, businessperson, or parent who helps our community thrive — not just the one we see, but the country we share? Every wasted life diminishes our economic and human capital, to everyone’s loss.

Democrats can repeal the forces of automation and globalization that beset struggling families no more than Trump can. But a responsive Democratic party can provide education and retraining for the new economy; strengthen public schools; diminish student debt; and make college free for those in need.

Universal health care prevents illness from ruining lives and draining our collective wealth. Rebuilding infrastructure — roads, airports, internet access, energy grids — creates jobs and strengthens our economy. Tax breaks? Former Democratic National Committe chairman Howard Dean suggests they go to businesses that invest in regions left behind.

This vision of national renewal cuts across age, ethnicity and class. Further, Dean believes, Trump is repelling young people who embrace inclusiveness, reproductive choice, and combating climate change. Last year’s election showed them that disengagement breeds disaster; now the party must become their vehicle.


Candor might help. The young know we are saddling them with debt; few think entitlements can survive. Yet Democrats have ignored massive deficits while using Social Security to frighten Mom and Pop.

Ducking hard facts may serve their short-term interests. But disingenuousness invites distrust among the young. Only responsible tax and budgetary policies, and measures to save entitlements from crisis or privatization, will address their — and our — reality.

Where should Democrats take this vision? Everywhere.

As DNC chair, in 2006, Dean recruited candidates and rebuilt the party nationwide. His “50 state strategy” invested in races for Congress, state legislatures, and local office, ignoring critics who accused him of squandering resources.

The result? Democrats captured the House, the Senate, and a majority of governorships and state legislatures. Crucial, Dean relates, was refusing to cede territory or ignore loyal constituencies — gaining seats in places like Kansas proved critical to success.

This means avoiding ideological litmus tests — Montana is not Massachusetts. But Dean’s model gave Barack Obama the Democratic Congress that helped create his legacy. Triumphant, the party narrowed its focus to reelecting Obama. Now his legacy is at risk.

The party of national renewal must be a national party.

Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.’’ Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.