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Opinion | Richard North Patterson

Resisting isn’t enough. Democrats must offer a vision of a better future

Lesley Becker/Globe Staff illustration

The GOP spits up blood daily. Its president is mendacious and unstable. Its lawmakers are fractious and extreme. Its face in the Senate is Mitch McConnell. Its brand is the Rosemary’s baby of failed health care legislation.

Historically unpopular, Donald Trump faces exposure as an ignorant faux-populist pawn of Russia fronting for his party’s donor-driven plutocratic agenda. Yet Democrats remain the 90-pound weakling of politics — unable to inspire confidence, or even hope.

Why? Because they have had too little to say to too many Americans.

Fatefully, Democrats sought salvation in demographics: By turning out more of the same, but ever-more abundant, people — college graduates, urbanites, minorities — they would overwhelm the GOP’s dwindling cohort of conservatives and less-educated white folks, cementing an electoral hammerlock. No matter that this voting bloc was overconcentrated in populous cities and states. The Electoral College would inevitably waft a Democrat to the White House.

Instead they are reedy voices in a sea of red — inaudible to large swaths of a populace that, increasingly, views the party’s leadership as arrogant elitists indifferent to all but the coddled beneficiaries of an identity politics that perpetuates their stale incumbency.


This alienation from Democrats reflects a widespread distrust and insecurity regarding our political and economic system as a whole — the belief that our institutions scorn ordinary people, that our public servants serve themselves, and that our government is feckless and corrupt. For many, Trump became a human Hail Mary, a last-ditch antidote to despair.

As the Democrats’ demographic became increasingly urbanized, secular, and affluent, working-class support seeped away. In turn, many Democrats focused on cultural liberalism instead of Americans who felt economically adrift.

The 2016 election illustrates the fallout: the rise of a Bernie Sanders-style populism on the Democratic left; on the right, a distrust of globalization; a strain of anger at racial and religious minorities; a bitter divide over immigration policy; and a yearning for national identity — sometimes wistful, sometimes nativist and nasty.


Thus the Democrats must do more than regain political ground. They must offer a vision of hope that transcends these fissures, seeking a more cohesive yet inclusive country.

Trump’s failings serve as springboard — but only that. It ill serves Democrats to run on outrage alone, or to imply that his voters were fools. Nor should the party treat the core concerns of blue- collar whites as separate from those of young people, minorities, and women.

Democrats must say that a country achieves greatness by engaging the potential of all for the common good. This means better schools, affordable college, student debt relief, and retraining for those displaced by automation and globalization. It means rebuilding our infrastructure and providing universal health care that prevents medical neglect and curbs the ravages of catastrophic illness.

It means combating inequality through fair taxation, reasonable regulation, and reforming a campaign finance system little better than legalized bribery. And it means arguing that only by broadening economic opportunity can we confront our common challenges in such areas as climate change.

Congressional Democrats recently rolled out a program calling for affordable college, infrastructure spending, job training, lower drug prices, and other initiatives focused on economics. It’s a start. But Democrats still lack a compelling and unifying theme. And they must honestly tackle issues such as immigration and globalization.


It is not illiberal to combine a humane solution to illegal immigration with a reasoned policy that respects our borders and our laws, balancing the strength we derive through welcoming new Americans with a realistic assessment of how many we can absorb. And it is not progressive to pretend that globalization can be repealed by reviving dying industries and erecting barriers to trade. The sin here is not candor; it is indifference to those in whom these issues provoke such anger and anxiety.

Nor can Democrats ignore whole chunks of the country and its people. This neglect underwrites its impotence in Congress, especially the House, stacked as it is with districts gerrymandered by Republicans who control state legislatures and governorships. The party needs candidates who embrace its broad economic message, not generic Democrats engineered to pass every litmus test but winning an election. There is nothing wrong with framing a progressive message in religious terms, or appealing to moderate voters to build a broader coalition.

In a time when fractiousness imperils America’s future, Democrats must become our national glue.

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