Call it the Five Stages of Democratic Blame-Throwing, with apologies to Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. In this case, the stages are James Comey, the Electoral College, raaaaaaaacism, “fake news” (about which more later), and finally Democrats themselves. After two weeks of actively avoiding the lessons of the 2016 election, some Democrats have finally begun to consider whether their own behavior brought about their own epic failure. Bernie Sanders offered the clearest recognition yet of the problem, albeit buried in far-left bêtes noires:
Bernie Sanders said Monday that the path to success for Democrats has to be through more than just identity politics, adding that it’s simply not enough for the party to base its appeals on diversity.
“It’s not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’” No, that’s not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry,” the Vermont independent senator and former Democratic presidential candidate said in a not-so-subtle rebuke to Hillary Clinton.
Rep. Tim Ryan, who is challenging Nancy Pelosi for control of the House Democratic caucus, hit more precisely on target yesterday. In an interview with CNN picked up by the Washington Examiner, Ryan criticized his party’s leadership for its insularity and its reliance on identity politics to the exclusion of a lot of Americans — who felt left out enough to vote for Donald Trump:
“Those people in that county, the average median household income is $57,000 a year, which means a husband and wife with a couple of kids each make less than $30,000 a year, and they think that Democrats don’t care about them, and they went in droves to Donald Trump,” Ryan told CNN Monday. “We need to speak to their economic interests, that we get it, that we understand, that we talk about those things and we try to fight hard for those things.”
“We need to talk to working class people. We don’t talk to everybody anymore. We slice and dice and we talk to subgroups and interest groups,” Ryan lamented. “We don’t have a unifying message that we can talk about in every room.”
Not every Democrat has gotten the message, of course. Former Obama adviser Lis Smith, who worked on Martin O’Malley’s doomed presidential primary bid, says Democrats “can walk and chew gum at the same time”:
“Democrats are trying to say that we spend too much time talking to Hispanics and African-Americans than we do white working class voters. That isn’t true,” said Lis Smith, a former top aide to former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s presidential campaign and rapid response director for Obama in 2012.
“A lot of Democrats are taking the wrong lessons from this election,” Smith said. “Democrats have shown for years that they can walk and chew gum at the same time, and we do not face an either/or change between speaking to the diverse nature of our party and to the white working class.”
Is it true that Democrats have succeeded at both for “years”? Let’s put that into the proper context with this graph from Philip Bump after this election:
— Chris Cillizza (@TheFix) November 13, 2016
Those results don’t show Democrats successfully walking and chewing gum at the same time. It shows them choking on their gum and stumbling down their own slippery slopes at every level of governance. Bump called this the “Thelma and Louiseing” of the Democratic Party, and he’s correct. That period roughly corresponds to the peak of their identity-politics commitment, too. They managed to win one more presidential election in that period, but they’ve clearly lost the country. This is just another stage on the actual Kübler-Ross progression — denial.
The House map by district makes that excruciatingly clear:
Will Democrats actually learn this lesson, though? They’ve finally stopped talking about James Comey, but they’re bitterly clinging to the Electoral College and raaaaaaacism for explanations of their defeat. Both Sanders and Ryan have vested interests in making these cases, while the Democratic establishment — Pelosi, Donna Brazile, and Chuck Schumer — have their own vested interests in doubling down on the failed strategies of the past decade. It might take another midterm debacle before Democrats get the message — and that could end up bouncing the dwindling bench of future leaders the party still has left.