The Story of Us by David Leonhardt - NYT Op-Ed Columnist
If any number of things had gone the other way — James Comey, Russian interference, a less distrusted nominee — the Democrats might now be starting their third straight term in office. And of course Hillary Clinton did win the popular vote, by no small margin.
So I understand why many sober Democrats have urged the party not to exaggerate the political lessons from the 2016 election. But it would also be a mistake to underreact.
Presidential politics are, by far, the party’s strong suit — and it still couldn’t beat Donald Trump. In addition to the White House, Republicans hold the House, the Senate and about two out of every three governorships and state legislatures.
Keep this Republican dominance in mind as you mull Ross Douthat’s most recent column, which ran in the Sunday paper. He describes the dominant story that liberals tell themselves and voters as one in which America is “a propositional nation bound together by ideas rather than any specific cultural traditions — a nation of immigrants drawn to Ellis Island, a nation of minorities claiming rights too long denied, a universal nation destined to welcome foreigners and defend liberty abroad.”
This story stands in opposition to the more traditional American narrative that was “particularist as well as universalist” and once adopted by both liberals and conservatives: “Our founders built a new order atop specifically European intellectual traditions. Our immigrants joined a settler culture, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, that demanded assimilation to its norms.”
I reject the idea that today’s American story should be a Protestant or Anglo-Saxon story (and Douthat does too). But his column makes a crucial point: The universalist narrative that stirs passion and patriotism in so many liberals has failed to win over most parts of the country that don’t touch an ocean. The heartland instead prefers an image of America more closely tied to the country’s cultural past.
The Democrats won’t win parts of this argument, because they can’t (and shouldn’t) abandon their positions in favor of civil rights, gun control and separation of church and state. But there are other issues, especially economic ones, that play to the Democrats’ strengths. The party would be wise to spend some time thinking about how to construct a story about the country’s future that’s less skittish about honoring its past.
If you think I’m being harsh, remember that many Democrats are no longer comfortable naming events after Thomas Jefferson.