Why Democrats Need a Big Tent Party

The Democratic Party has witnessed a surge in activism and energy since the election. Lots of previously disengaged Democrats or people who hadn't paid a lot of attention to politics have flocked into the party. This is fantastic news for Democrats. But for the party to be successful, it has to remember the importance of being a big tent party and of tailoring candidates to their states and districts. For better or worse, we live in a diverse country, and the values that dominate and animate people's lives in San Francisco or New York aren't the same values that reign in Montana or Oklahoma. 

The United States Constitution leaves a lot of power to state governments, and creates a Senate that is intentionally undemocratic, and extends equal representation to every state, regardless of population. As such, a party cannot be nationally successful and cannot broadly enact its agenda just by dominating in the most urbane, populous places. Instead, a smart party has to calibrate its candidates to fit to every district and state. A message that works really well in one locale, might net a candidate 38% in another.

Democrats should have learned this lesson over the last 6 years. Being the party of highly educated professionals, minority groups, and millennials has not proven to be a recipe for political success. It delivered popular vote victories in 2 presidential elections and an electoral college victory in 2012. But it has failed at the state legislative level, it hasn't worked in the House of Representatives, where even accounting for gerrymandering, Democrats' tendency to cluster in urban areas and inner ring suburbs puts them at a disadvantage, and it contributed to a net loss of 12 Senate seats. 

What's the solution? Nominating people who fit their communities. Smart candidate selection, which involves tolerating regional differences, offers the best prospect of becoming a majority party, and enacting the greatest portion of a party's agenda possible. Put more bluntly, the party must adapt its message and candidates to fit the geographic terrain if it wants to flourish.

What does that mean in practical terms? In a wealthy suburban district, it might mean accepting and recruiting a candidate with culturally liberal views, but a more conservative outlook on issues of taxes, spending, and redistribution. In a rural state, by contrast, where much of the population is religious and wary of government, it might mean a more populist economic message, but candidates who are pro-life and pro-gun. 

That isn't to say that the party should eschew principles or shouldn't fight for more gun control, reproductive rights, or a fairer economic system. A party can have principles and a platform without saying that anyone who doesn't agree with every single position isn't welcome. Democrats have to recognize that political parties adopt broad platforms covering the panoply of issues, and rather than having litmus tests, a wise party will accept all who agree on more of the party's positions than not. 

There are two major reasons why this vision represents smart politics. The first is that it provides an avenue to achieve a majority. Even a pro-life Democrat from say, Nebraska or Montana, is going to vote for Democratic legislative leaders. That means controlling what bills get votes. That allows for safeguarding reproductive freedoms and considering gun control proposals, even if those legislators vote against them. Additionally, it allows for burying legislation that contravenes Democratic principles. Democratic control of the White House and each branch of Congress (and at the state level, the governorship and the state legislature) matters even if the party's elected officials disagree over some issues. 

Even as the bitterly divided Republican Party struggles to enact President Trump's agenda, Republican control of the White House and Congress has already elevated conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and has forestalled the enactment of any progressive proposals that a President Hillary Clinton might have signed into law with a Democratic Congress. 

Secondly, a Democrat who agrees with the party on 50% of the issues, or 70% of the issues is far more desirable than a Republican who agrees with the party on 20% of the issues, or 0% of the issues. In many places in America, that's the choice. It's not a question of whether an elected official agrees with Democratic principles 80% of the time or 50% of the time. In places liberal enough where that is the question, it's reasonable to challenge Democrats who disagree on core issues in primary elections. But in red states and districts, someone who agrees half the time is a dramatic improvement over the alternative. 

Observers of politics have watched Republicans fumble away at least 3 Senate senate seats over the last decade by nominating staunch ideologues in places where a candidate better fitted to the ideology of the state likely would've won. Democrats shouldn't follow this pathway to becoming a pure, but narrow, party that can only compete in certain regions of the country. Such a course will limit the ability to pass legislation and to improve the lives of average Americans. 

Ironically, it appears as though various wings of the Democratic Party understand this concept—but only when it applies to issues they find less important. Bernie Sanders, the patron saint of the far left on economic issues, sparked controversy by campaigning/appearing with a pro-life Democratic mayoral candidate in Nebraska. Conversely, however, he initially refused to endorse Jon Ossoff (he reversed course today), the Democratic nominee for the House seat of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. Sanders questioned Ossoff's progressive credentials. 

Conversely, groups concerned with reproductive rights condemned Sanders for appearing with Heath Mello, the Omaha mayoral candidate. But they fulsomely support Ossoff. The reality is that Ossoff's combination of more centrist economic positions and more progressive cultural stances fits his suburban Georgia district far better than the populism espoused by Sanders. Similarly, a pro-life Democrat is more likely to reflect the views of a community in Nebraska, and therefore provide a much greater chance of winning an election, than a staunch cultural liberal would. 

Accepting that reality doesn't require jettisoning the party's principles. Nor does it require ducking core issues to avoid offending certain constituencies. It simply involves accepting a diverse array of elected officials who reflect the sensibilities of their communities. It means avoiding a potentially suicidal primary challenge to Senators Joe Manchin (WV) and Heidi Heitkamp, both far more conservative than most Democrats, but also hailing from ruby red states that a more progressive Democrat could not win. It means understanding that rural, suburban, and urban America all require a different political touch.

Such a tact offers the best chance of winning the most elections. Election victories, in turn, provide the best shot of enacting the Democratic agenda.