As I sat in the Jonathan Edwards dining hall Tuesday night, watching the results come in, I had the feeling I had seen it all before.
The British general election of May 2015 was closely-fought race, but the center-left Labour Party was widely expected to win a parliamentary majority, or at the very least deny an outright Conservative victory. But as the first exit polls came in, a sense of shock swept through Labour circles: The Conservatives, it appeared, would gain an absolute majority. By the end of the night David Cameron had retained his post as prime minister and Labour lay in shambles.
Ed Miliband, the Labour leader in the doomed campaign, was a party man, inspiring little fervor, incapable of sending a coherent message to voters, seemingly in thrall to his own untrammeled ambition. Sound familiar? He resigned shortly after, leaving Labour rudderless as Cameron cemented his rule.
Labour responded comically. They elected Jeremy Corbyn as their new leader — a longtime backbench parliamentarian from London, a devout socialist clad in canvas jackets, worshipper of Chavez’s brand of Bolivarianism and sympathizer with any terrorist group that purported to espouse an “anti-colonial” mission (Hamas and the IRA included). Upon election, he immediately set about the all-important task of withdrawing Labour from the political mainstream. Labour played little role in the failed campaign to keep Britain in the European Union, through both intent and incompetence on Corbyn’s part. After the referendum, nearly all of Corbyn’s top advisors resigned in protest of their leader, and a second leadership election was called. Corbyn won again.
The current state of affairs is dire. Corbyn is unelectable, unqualified to rule and uninterested in governing. Theresa May’s Conservatives face practically no opposition as they push the most important pieces of legislation since the 1940s through Parliament. Corbyn’s Labour Party is an unruly mess, apparently content to live on the backbenches, fraught with internal fractures, and so far behind in the polls that May has little reason to pay it any regard. The result is a sort of one-party rule, as the Conservatives become the only politically relevant organization, and intra-Conservative feuds come to dominate British politics.
I tell this story as a warning. This is the future the Democratic Party in the United States could well face. Today, it is not an exaggeration to say the Democratic Party has practically ceased to exist on the state level. Even in states that tilted heavily towards Clinton LAW ’73, the Republican wave has claimed the apparatuses of government — a Republican won the governorship of Vermont. The party is bereft of leaders and lacking any strategy for the darkness ahead. The decisions the party makes in the coming months will determine its future for decades.
The Democratic Party cannot consign itself to the footnotes of politics. It cannot succumb to the temptation that Corbyn’s Labour has — that of a self-indulgent irrelevance, satisfied with being in opposition forever, having so much fun protesting the oppressors that it can’t be bothered to consider what it means to rule.
Instead, the Democrats must do exactly the opposite. Their legislative factions will not hold power, not for some time. But that does not mean they can descend into internecine warfare to reify ideological purity, as the British left has over the last 18 months. Nor does it mean the Democrats can ever lose sight of the actual act of governance. These cannot go down in history as the Democrats’ wilderness years, as the 2010s will for Labour. Rather, the party must challenge Republican dominance and present a legitimate vision for an alternate party of government. It must look outward, not inward: to the places it has lost rather than the places it has already won.
I do not say this as a Democrat, let alone someone who welcomes the prospect of Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. I say this instead as someone who believes democracy requires a functioning opposition, lest the unencumbered excesses of one-party rule become a kind of soft totalitarianism. Democracy requires pressure in the legislature — a watchdog that does what it can to rein in the new administration. There is a temptation to declare the war lost, to declare the American people irredeemable and their democracy rotten, to retreat into the bunkers until the Age of Trump fades from view and the time becomes ripe for the Democrats to rule once more. But in this critical moment in the history of the United States, the fight must continue for the sake of the republic.
Noah Daponte-Smith is a junior in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .