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The Democrats’ Theory of Change: Wait for the Republicans to Screw Up

The party tends to succeed only after the GOP brings disaster. Meanwhile, conservatives are busy executing decades-long plans that are transforming the country.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

This week, when I saw The New York Times teasing a story on Twitter about a “coordinated, multiyear strategy” that Republicans were about to bring to fruition, my first thought was, “Sure, they’re about to overturn Roe v. Wade.” It took me a minute to remember that they actually had two such projects in the works and that the Times was referring to the culmination of a plan to “limit the federal government’s authority to reduce carbon dioxide from power plants.” That these plans are coming to fruition at the same time is all the more notable because their outcomes are not likely to be popular. The vast majority of Americans support abortion rights; few if any want to be shouldered with the burden of cleaning up the pollution to which a hamstrung Environmental Protection Agency cannot tend.

Thanks to the Supreme Court’s June docket, this is a boom time for coordinated multiyear strategies, so much so that you wonder: Do the Democrats have any of their own up their sleeve? Alas, for Democrats the flowers of such labors seem unlikely to bloom anytime soon. But what is sprouting from the roughly tilled soil of our politics is a clear distinction between the two parties’ theories of change. For the GOP, change comes after long periods of hard work, steady funding, and maintaining enthusiasm and momentum through periods of setback. For Democrats, change is reactive, coming only after the GOP’s ambitions have hurt just enough people to make Republican rule untenable. It’s clear that the first approach is proving more successful and more durable than the other.

Naturally, that the Republicans have managed to prevail on some long-term plans despite the relative unpopularity of their policies comes down to a few structural advantages. The ideological homogeneity of their electorate makes both messaging and expectations management much easier than what’s possible in the Democrats’ own frequently fractious tent. We’re also seeing the long-term investment made by the Christian right finally pay off. In decades past, institutional Republicans haven’t always seen eye to eye with the religious right, but together they have created a base that’s excited to vote in local and national elections. Over time, whatever cleavage may have existed has been sanded down, and now they’re building the future together.

The most important advantage the Republicans enjoy, of course, is that they’ve been far more adept at rigging the electoral system to their advantage through a by-any-means-necessary approach that helps them overcome the unpopularity of their policies. Democrats can, and often do, win more votes across the country in national elections, but the way their voters are concentrated in urban locales, combined with the GOP’s willingness to slice and dice districts through aggressive gerrymandering (with an assist from a friendly judiciary) means that Democrats have to run up the score and beat Republicans by wider margins to actually take control in Washington (and even in certain statehouses and state legislatures).

Despite all of that, Democrats do win elections, and occasionally wrest control of the government away from the GOP. But in recent cycles, to make that possible some truly terrible things had to happen to ordinary people first: The humiliating failure of the Iraq War and the depredations of the 2008 financial crisis facilitated Obama’s trifecta; Trump’s misshapen and scandalous first two years handed Democrats a wave midterm election in 2018; the Covid-19 pandemic created the conditions necessary for Biden to defeat the advantages Trump enjoyed as an incumbent president. The Democrats’ mantra may as well be: “We’ll always be there when the other guys screw up.”

There are worrying signs that Democrats have been conditioned to believe that the key to their success comes through periodic collapse—that there is a perverse comfort to be taken in the courting of imminent disaster. At the moment, Democrats’ hopes for the midterms lie in the potential galvanization of voters that might (or might not) follow the gutting of reproductive freedom. And across the country, Democrats are trying to help extremist candidates win GOP primaries in the hopes that those candidates will be less competitive in the general elections. Larry Summers believes that whipping inflation will require higher unemployment rates, and Democrats are listening. Even the strange reluctance among national Democrats to rise to the defense of the LGBTQ community, amid the daily genocidal rhetoric of Republicans, suggests that they’re counting on some amount of mayhem to inspire a normalcy-inducing backlash. It’s quite depressing to live in a political system where one party can only ascend to power on the backs of the victims the other party leaves behind.

Any solution must begin with a commitment to evening the asymmetries between the parties’ structure and strategies. Democrats need their own equivalent of the Federalist Society and their own plan to remake the judiciary and retrieve all the civil rights that are about to be stolen. They need to start staking out long-term transformative goals and define themselves in the same way the GOP has for generations, as a party with a wholesale commitment to a specific vision of the world. And they need to get their voters excited about casting their ballots at all levels of government—and then embrace a politics that works harder between election days.

But more immediately, Democrats should stop talking about the GOP they wish existed—a party that, in their imagining, up until recently was reasonable and only went astray when Trump came to power—and start talking in stark, unforgiving terms about the GOP that actually exists: a party that committed itself to the decades-long labor of fulfilling the very projects that now threaten to bring a new round of mayhem and harm. It’s nice that voters seem to turn to Democrats whenever there is a multitude of casualties, but Democrats need to break this cycle if they ever want to possess the durable power necessary to reverse the maladies that will soon be unleashed.

This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.