'We've been on a steady decline since 2008': What the future holds for the Democrats in the U.S.

As a result of the recent U.S. election, the Democrats have lost control of the executive and legislative branches of government. Like any losing party, they are seeking a way back to victory.

Democrats lost control of the executive and legislative branches of government in recent election

Many Democrat supporters have been demoralized by the party's losses in the recent U.S. election. (Elaine Thomspson/Associated Press)

It wasn't so long ago that obituaries were being written about the Republican Party — that Donald Trump's widely assumed defeat would be the ruination of the GOP.

But a presidential victory has a way of healing all wounds, it seems. And now, according to conservative columnist George Will — who left the party in disgust over Trump's nomination — the Republican Party is "as strong as it's been since the 1920s."

"The losing party here is in tatters," Will said after the election on ABC-TV's politics program This Week with George Stephanopoulos.

That losing party would be the Democrats, who, despite picking up a few seats in the House and Senate, have lost control of the executive and legislative branches of government.

And like any losing party, they're now seeking to carve out a path to recapture victory.

The Democrats' political misfortunes extend beyond defeat of their presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton.

"In most of the country, having a D beside your name is like carrying a 10-pound weight around your ankles," said Jim Kessler, senior vice president for policy at the D.C.-based think tank The Third Way. "We have the fewest number of elected officeholders since just after the Civil War."

Some of that is historical — the party that wins the presidency typically loses power in other branches. Still, the Democrats have suffered some massive defeats.

Not only have Democrats lost control of the federal government, their power continues to erode state by state. When Barack Obama entered the White House in 2009, Democrats controlled 62 state legislative chambers out of 99. Now, the Republicans will control 68.

In 2009, the Democrats held the majority of governorships, with 31. Now, it's 17.

The Democrats' misfortunes extend beyond last week's defeat of Hillary Clinton, political observers say. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

"Having Obama as president was kind of masking the losses," said Kessler, a former senior staffer to New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer. "But we've been on a steady decline since 2008."

Of course, any political loss inspires scapegoating. And some Democrats have channeled their anger over the election results against voters themselves, saying Trump is only in the White House because he appealed to a growing racist and misogynistic element in the electorate.

But it's unlikely that women-hating cross-burners are solely to blame, for example, for the 209 counties out of 676 across the country that twice voted for Obama, only to turn to the real-estate magnate this time around.

This recent election campaign was lost in the industrial Midwest, specifically the states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where for decades Republican presidential candidates have been unable to penetrate this seeming fortress of Democratic blue.

Trump offered a simple message of economic populism that appealed to disenfranchised Republicans and blue-collar Democrats, many of whom make up what is now commonly referred to as the male, white, non-college-educated voter  demographic.

'Took industrial Midwest for granted'

And the Democrats simply ignored them.

"I think one of the problems of the Clinton campaign is they took the industrial Midwest for granted," said Democratic strategist Bill Bannon. "And they paid the price."

U.S. President Barack Obama suggested the key to Democratic victory is that 'we have to compete everywhere, we have to show up everywhere' in the country. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

There are reports that former president Bill Clinton had pushed (or warned) the campaign not to turn its back on these voters, the same ones who propelled him into the White House in the '90s. But his advice was ultimately rejected. Hillary Clinton, for example, never campaigned in Wisconsin, and her campaign did not spend any money there on advertising in the last month before the election. 

Obama himself seemed to rebuke that strategy during a news conference shortly after the election. Asked about the results, he suggested the key to victory is that Democrats "have to compete everywhere, we have to show up everywhere."

As well, both Kessler and Bannon agree that Democrats need to appeal to those voters who may feel the party has become too focused on cultural liberalism.

"Our challenge as Democrats is to continue to make the progress that we've made [on those issues] and bring more people along and make them feel they're included in this discussion and less ridiculed for being hesitant," said Kessler.

Bannon was more blunt: "You can't call people racists and misogynists and then expect them to turn around and go vote for you."

While the Democrats' campaign strategy continues to be dissected, so too begins the reflection on the party's ideological soul and a possible future tug of war between the centrist Clintonites and the left-leaning Bernie Sanders supporters.

In a column for the New York Times, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders wrote that the party 'must break loose from its corporate establishment ties and, once again, become a grassroots party of working people, the elderly and the poor.' (Nati Harnk/Associated Press)

"You're going to see the balance of power move away from the Clinton wing toward the Sanders wing," Bannon said. "A vote for Hillary Clinton became a vote for the establishment in this country."

In a column for the New York Times, Sanders wrote that the party "must break loose from its corporate establishment ties and, once again, become a grassroots party of working people, the elderly and the poor."

'Economy has abandoned them'

In a speech to the AFL-CIO Executive Council, Democratic Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren suggested it was Trump, and not her party, who spoke to the "very real sense of millions of Americans that their government and their economy has abandoned them."

But some fear adopting more progressive policies and continuing to move the Democratic party leftward is the problem, not the solution.

Following the adoption of Obamacare, for example, Democrats suffered heavy losses in the 2010 midterms.

"I'm skeptical that a populism focused on expanding government will work for voters in this country," said Kessler. "I think they don't trust the government that much."

The challenge, he said, is to develop a whole series of ideas to get jobs "to start here, to stay here and expand here."

Campaigns are won in the political centre, Kessler said, and for too long, when it comes to the economy, Democrats have concentrated on how to make jobs more fair instead of more plentiful.

"[Voters] aren't buying into that kind of leftist populist answer in that your future is much, much larger government," he said. "Not that they trust companies so much, but given the choice between the two, they trust the private sector more."

David Hopkins, assistant professor of political science at Boston College, said he doubts the Sanders view will prevail, as it's still a minority faction within the party.

But in the end, Hopkins said that campaign auditing and ideological fine-tuning may not make much difference. 

Instead, the political fortunes of the Democrats will likely rely on the possible misfortunes of Trump.

"If Trump is a disaster, then the Democrats will benefit no matter what they do just by being in the opposition," he said. 

"If Trump is a success, then they will probably continue to be in the minority regardless. So a lot of this is out of their hands."


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.


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