We've now had several rounds of back-and-forth about whether the Democrats are doomed. Matt Yglesias says yes. Phil Klinkner says no. Lee Drutman says yes, at least maybe. Seth Masket says the party obituaries are probably premature.
I say yes. To both possibilities. When we talk about party politics, we really mean two separate things. Broadly speaking, the party politics of Klinkner's thermostatic argument is a party politics based on ideas. Party labels are how we associate some down-ticket races with the president and others with the opposition, how we link successors with term-limited incumbents, and how voters choose to recalibrate if they think one party has gone too far. Part of what underlies Masket's argument about state legislatures in 1982 is that it's clear Republicans controlled the presidency and the Senate then, and also that they would shape the terms of debate for many years to come.
But party also means organization, and this is where the state-level structural stuff comes in. Drutman makes a compelling case that Republican-controlled state houses will make policies that exacerbate inequality, therefore weakening the political power of Democratic constituencies.
These two sets of arguments aren't really debating the status of the Democratic Party. The real issue at the heart of the argument is how parties win elections, and, by extension, what the core function of parties really is. Do voters cast their ballots because they're sick of whatever the president's party is doing wrong? Or is vote choice — which in this case I mean to include long-term party identification and the decision to turn out to vote — mostly driven by deliberate party mobilization?
Political science doesn't have a definitive answer to this question; our knowledge suggests that both party functions are important. Parties do things like register voters, create files of likely supporters, and knock on doors. They also provide an answer to the question of why someone should vote — what the choices are, what policy issues are on the table. It also stands to reason that the mobilization function may matter more for state-level contests, which are lower salience and tend to have lower rates of turnout.
The state level structural factors aren't likely to change any time soon. Republicans have stronger organizational ties in all sorts of ways. Traditionally Democratic means of association, like unions, have been weakened.
But Obama's presidency has left the Democratic Party as an idea in a much different place. Regardless of what you think about the content of these ideas, Obama has done a phenomenal job balancing the moderate DLC-Clinton wing of the party with the factions further to the left. Admittedly, the bar is low. Think of James K. Polk's "equal and exact justice" for all party factions in the 1840s, which basically left everyone mad at him and set the stage for the party to be dominated by pro-slavery Southerners. Or if you're not quite as historically minded, there's Lyndon Johnson's efforts to appease Southern Democrats while pursuing civil rights legislation.
Without Southern conservatives in the party, Obama's task was admittedly easier. And he has risen to the occasion. His appointments appealed to the DLC types. But he came around on marriage equality, recognizes non-religious Americans in his speeches, and otherwise throws the liberals a little red meat (locally raised, of course). In a weird sense, Bernie Sanders's candidacy is actually evidence of the left wing of the party gaining a voice that isn't recycled New Deal, dependent on reacting to a president from the other party (Howard Dean), or a political nonstarter (Bill Bradley). This isn't to say that Sanders has a chance at the nomination (he doesn't) or that there won't be friction between the left fringes and the mainstream wing (there will be). But Clinton is responding to some of his stances, which further suggests that the left wing of the Democratic Party has become more vibrant. Now, if the 2016 convention looks like 1968, I'll obviously be proven wrong. But at the moment, my take on the Sanders candidacy is that it illustrates how much leftish ideas, like income inequality, have thrived during Obama's presidency.
This change doesn't only affect the Democrats, either. If a true shift in ideas and priorities is taking place, this will be evident in Republican rhetoric, too. The questions — and some of the answers — at the Republican debate a few weeks ago suggested that the presidential candidates are starting to accept the changing terms of the policy conversation.
One possible and, I think, likely outcome of this is that the future involves Democratic ideas that shape national politics, alongside state policy that is largely driven by Republicans. This is compatible with the point I raised last week about the ideological foundations of policy.
If Democrats regain control of Congress under these circumstances, we may see more policy situations like the Affordable Care Act, with major battles about implementation in the states and coordinated commerce clause challenges. If government remains divided as it is now, we may see more of what has characterized Obama's past couple of years in office — lots of governing by executive order, with state policies going in the opposite ideological direction.
A third possibility, though, is the most interesting. Perhaps state-level Republicans will respond as opposition parties often have — by taking the broad ideas of the day and addressing them in their own way. An existing example of this is conservative Utah's programs to end poverty and homelessness. Income inequality, racial injustice, criminal justice reform, and LGBTQ rights will all probably require state action as well as federal. Genuine conservative responses to those questions would be powerful evidence of the system's ability to self-correct.