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Memo to liberals: be the majority you wish to see

Most campaign activities won't matter much, but they'll be part of the post-election narrative in 2018.

US Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN, a candidate to lead the Democratic National Committee, holds a town meeting in a Detroit church. Sarah Rice / Getty

Here's an imaginary newspaper article from mid-November 2018:

The Democratic wave that swept the nation in last week's election was the product of a more organized and more progressive effort that broke the rules about how minority parties get back into power.

Defying early expectations, Democrats managed to seize a five-seat majority in the House of Representatives and a two-seat majority in the US Senate. They also took over roughly a dozen state legislative chambers.

They did so, in many cases, by aggressively recruiting young candidates in many districts where Democrats don't always do well.

They also rejected the advice of many pundits and party insiders to avoid identity politics, which was seen as hurting Democrats in the 2016 cycle. Instead, the Democratic Party recruited record numbers of women, African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims to run for Congress and state legislatures. Party leaders spent the past year calling out examples of misogyny and bigotry among Republican members of Congress and within the Trump administration.

Under a campaign plan led by DNC Chair Keith Ellison, the party instituted an aggressive canvassing program, with party volunteers repeatedly contacting likely Democratic voters starting in late 2017. Canvassers particularly targeted poorer, minority neighborhoods and sought to not only remind people to vote but also ask people about basic needs and connect them with municipal services.

The election results put Democrats in a position to check or even reverse many of President Trump's initiatives for the next two years. They also give Democrats the upper hand going into a presidential election cycle during a slowing economy and with the president's approval ratings hovering in the low 30s.

Obviously, the above is a work of fiction. The scenario it sketches out, however, while perhaps toward the upper end of what Democrats could hope to achieve in 2018, is hardly implausible. Even if Democrats don’t take back Congress, they’ll likely pick up a good number of seats.

What's also plausible is that such a strong Democratic wave would be credited to things like recruitment, canvassing, advertising, and innovative strategies by new party leaders. Chances are, though, that those things would have had very little to do with a Democratic takeover. The scenario is plausible; the cause is not.

Such an outcome, if it occurs, would mainly be the product of the fact that the out-party tends to do well in midterm elections, and of the features of the political environment briefly mentioned in the last paragraph of the above article: a slowing economy and an unpopular incumbent. These things are largely out of the Democrats' hands. But the interpretation of an election can be important for plotting party strategy going forward.

Right now the Democratic Party is in the midst of a struggle with how to interpret its losses last year and how to chart a course for the future. It's a bit simplistic to describe the division as the Clinton-Obama establishment versus the Warren-Sanders insurgency, but there's something to that. The party is trying to figure out whether it advocated for minorities and women too much or not enough, whether it targeted too few swing states or too many, and whether its message is too liberal (alienating independent voters) or too moderate (disappointing its most spirited activists).

Whichever way the party moves on these matters, that will be, accurately or not, given credit or blame for the party's fate in the next election cycle. Those wishing to change the direction of the party should be using this opportunity to make bold campaign proposals for the coming midterm elections — not because those will have much impact on the election outcomes, but because, should those elections go well for them, the party will likely embrace that path for future elections.

For those who want the party to champion underrepresented minority groups, to reach out to underserved communities, and to move leftward on its policy goals, this is a great time to be active in internal party decisions. It could affect whom the party nominates for president in 2020 and the way the party behaves for years to come.

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