Can “the Resistance” cure what ails Democrats? The party has gone deeper into the political wilderness than at any time over the past century, but they have engaged — so far, anyway — on an obstructionist and protest spree in order to remain relevant. That has hardened the polarization in Washington DC and around the nation, and that may not produce the results Democrats expect. In fact, as the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake points out, polarization plays into the hands of the GOP:
The reason I say that is because polarization in this country favors Republicans more than Democrats, at least when it comes to Congress. Republicans have something of an inherent advantage in both the House and Senate, and polarization helps reinforce those advantages these days.
Why? There are simply more red states and more red districts. Republicans took over the House and Senate in recent years largely because they knocked off some of the final hangers-on among Democrats in conservative-leaning places. It first happened in the South; then it spread to Appalachia and the Midwest. …
The 2016 election is a good example of this. Trump, as everyone knows, lost the popular vote by two full points, 48-46. But despite that loss, he actually won 230 out of 435 congressional districts, compared to 205 for Hillary Clinton, according to numbers compiled by Daily Kos Elections. And in the Senate, he won 30 out of 50 states.
So basically, 53 percent of House districts are Republican and 60 out of 100 senators hail from red states, according to the 2016 election results (in which the GOP, again, lost the popular vote).
Blake notes that Democrats point to Republican successes in obstructionism over the last eight years and claim it will work for them. Blake’s data makes it clear that, even if the situations were similar, it wouldn’t work out the same way. Democratic political strength is concentrated in cities and coastal states; Republicans have a far broader distribution of political strength. Obstruction and polarization might help Democrats turn out better in their power centers, but it also helps Republicans turn out better, too — and they have a big advantage in that footprint.
That’s not an unreasonable way in which to view the 2016 election outcome, in fact. Both sides wound up with polarizing nominees; Donald Trump railed about Hillary Clinton’s corruption, and Hillary railed about The Donald’s “deplorables.” Hillary won the popular vote by running up the totals in deep-blue California and New York, while Trump cruised to victory by winning 29 states outright and part of Maine for a 306-232 Electoral College victory. At the same time — and this is critical in understanding the nature of the Republican structural advantage — the GOP won 22 of the 34 Senate seats up for grabs despite a significant numerical disadvantage in this cycle. They also won 241 out of 435 House seats despite Hillary’s popular-vote lead and the normally disadvantageous turnout models in presidential elections.
But did Republicans actually win through obstructionism? As I wrote for The Week earlier, that’s the wrong lesson to learn from the past eight years. In fact, both parties might be making a mistake in their conclusions from that period, and the failure of traditional nominees in the primaries should be a big red flag to Republicans and Democrats:
Instead, Republican primary voters chose Donald Trump, a disruption candidate who largely campaigned against the GOP establishment. This is key: Trump won in large part by criticizing the Beltway gridlock that GOP obstructionism created. Meanwhile, Democrats narrowly nominated their most partisan and establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton, who managed to lose to GOP’s new anti-establishment candidate.
The Democrats’ fall from grace did not begin with Republican obstruction. It came from falling victim to the hubris of single-party control, and then failing to recognize that they had lost connection with voters at every level of politics. They stuck to their progressive agenda long after it became apparent that voters outside of their urban and coastal cores didn’t share those priorities. Continued obstruction on that agenda is not only not the right prescription, it is practically the worst possible strategy to pursue.
Republicans suffer from similar misconceptions. The GOP is in its strongest position at all levels since Herbert Hoover or perhaps even Reconstruction. That reality can seduce Republicans into convincing themselves that they have reached new heights of popularity through ideological obstructionism. And that is simply untrue. Republicans have benefited from being the only other rational choice in a two-party electoral system, gaining a chance to demonstrate fitness in power — likely with a very short time frame in which to prove it.
Voters want an end to ideological battles. They want to see results. Trump won by casting himself as a tough executive who can cut through the noise to get things done. GOP leaders seem to have learned that lesson, which is why they are loathe to present too much open conflict over Trump’s agenda, preferring to work in a more low-key fashion to find common ground with the White House. If Democrats block the GOP, voters won’t blame Republicans for the failure — especially not after watching months of public demonstrations of spiteful obstruction.
That doesn’t mean that Democrats should just toss their cards and fold for the next few years, but as Rahm Emanuel tried to tell them, they need to pick their spots. Throwing a temper tantrum at every turn will only add to the polarization, and it will soon result in demoralization of their base when it becomes apparent that obstructionism isn’t going to stop Trump. It will just provide him a handy scapegoat, and amplify the polarization that keeps them disconnected from voters they used to persuade.