It was easy to be a Democrat during the last two weeks. The national party’s convention featured a delegate assembly reflecting the diversity of America, a deep bench of compelling national leaders, and overt paeans to "American exceptionalism." Conservative commentators noted the fact that the party of the left seemed to gleefully appropriate many of the patriotic themes that used to be the provenance of the right. The Republican National Convention, on the other hand, featured a presidential candidate committed to the politics of fear and division, and an overwhelmingly White delegate assembly that looked nothing like the makeup of the country.
This contrast is not a demographic accident, nor was it inevitable. Avik Roy, a Republican strategist and senior advisor to both Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio, said in a conversation with Vox last week:
Conservative intellectuals, and conservative politicians have been in kind of a bubble. We’ve had this view that the voters were with us on conservatism – philosophical, economic conservatism. In reality, the gravitational center of the Republican Party is white nationalism.
Roy, and other conservative leaders who are disgusted with Donald Trump’s unvarnished prejudice, point to 1964 as the root of the Republican party’s problems, and the issue has metastasized for a half century.
This situation is a moral and political disaster for one of the country’s two major parties, and while Democrats who watched the conventions might want to celebrate the meltdown, that preemptory partying is a self-congratulatory mistake. First, from a political standpoint, defeating Donald Trump at the ballot is not inevitable, and if he wins, it will validate the exact things that schadenfreude-afflicted Democrats assume will lead to his undoing. The same powers of White nationalism that fueled his political ascent have been working to disenfranchise non-White voters for the last decade. While a federal court struck down North Carolina’s restrictive 2012 voting law, and the governor is Virginia is returning voting rights to thousands of disenfranchised people, twenty-two states have added voting restrictions since 2010, including seven of the eleven most critical presidential “swing states.” Given that there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in America, these new laws have no effect other than to suppress voter turnout; in last week’s ruling against the North Carolina law, the court noted that the statute targeted Black voters with “surgical precision.”
The second reason to pour cold water on the celebration is related to policy progress. While national elections are zero-sum endeavors, where the GOP's self-immolating loss would be the Democratic party's gain, governing states and cities is not. Changing systems that affect vulnerable communities on a day-to-day basis – like education and criminal justice, the foci of this blog – require local and state action. It is not a coincidence that some of the most overt outbreaks of policy strife, and political unrest, in recent years have occurred in places where Republican leaders in state government locked horns with Democratic politicians in cities whose civic systems serve communities of color. See: New Orleans, Newark, and Detroit vis-à-vis schools; Ferguson, Baltimore, and Baton Rouge on criminal justice. While there are legitimate ideological tensions driving these debates, it is impossible to have a reasonable political discussion about reforming civic institutions while one party’s base resists acknowledging the full humanity of the people it purports to “govern.” The legitimacy of this conversation is further dampened when gerrymandering and voter suppression support the ascendancy of those same state officials. While it is nice to see members of the national Republican elite distance themselves the ugliness of both Trump and his White nationalist tendencies, repudiation is easier than reinvention. As long as state parties can rely on electoral pluralities, gerrymandering, and voter suppression to maintain power, there will be few political incentives for state and local politicians to jettison the divisiveness that some national leaders authentically loathe.
I’m a Democrat. While I don’t think my fellow party members should care about the health of the Republican party for the party’s sake, we should, however, care about having a non-racist major political party with which to negotiate, for the sake of governance and policy change. In the next generation we will need to dramatically improve low-performing schools, remake an unjust criminal justice system, and dismantle the systemic racism that infects almost all of our public and private institutions. One of our country’s two major parties has a political base committed to the idea that those problems are at best unimportant or fictional, and at worst, desirable. The ideological differences between the two major parties are significant, but it’s hard to start a negotiation over ideas, let alone “get to yes”, when the other party votes “no” on your right to exist.