Unless I am in a particularly peaceful mood, I tend to scoff at the idea of building bridges between Democrats and Republicans in the United States. This is not an attitude I picked up post-election day 2016; I have felt this way since the Bush era — as I watched liberals capitulate to mindless “War on Terror” politics post 9/11. My inspiration for this seemingly bellicose attitude, ironically, comes from a Nobel Peace Prize laureate whose name is synonymous with nonviolence and social justice.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that a “genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.” I believe he meant that a leader should not simply follow the trends of public opinion and shape his or her views accordingly — a leader should instead seek to change public opinion. Thus, Democratic candidates such as Andrew Gillum, Stacey Abrams, and Beto O’Rourke are true leaders whether they win or lose elections. To call them idealistic or divisive would be offering thinly veiled support for the status quo, yet too often such critiques pass as impartial analysis.
If these same candidates had led more moderate campaigns, they would have been mere followers of public opinion — or at least of what public opinion was assumed to be in 2018 based on (imperfect) polling data. Therefore, they would not represent social change but a changing of the guard.
While acting as a “molder of consensus” does not imply competing to win at all costs, it implies a lot less compromise than what the Democrats, particularly post-Lyndon B. Johnson, are known for. Obama, whose memory often serves to unite the left, was branded the “compromiser-in-chief” for his willingness to cave to uncompromising Republicans on issues near and dear to progressives.
Hillary Clinton, for her part, leans more conservative than Obama and is such a hawk on foreign policy that she drew comparisons to Dick Cheney— from Republicans. Despite the deep rightward descent of the Republican party, which began far before anyone took Trump seriously as a political actor, the best foil the Democrats have put forward is Bernie Sanders, who has still not embraced the party label.
The Democratic Party establishment, for its part, has not only failed to anoint Sanders but also remains uncomfortable with labels, such as “socialism” and “welfare,” which are treated as advantageous straw men for conservative pundits and policymakers while their true meanings are not only representative of popular ideals but also existing, mainstream policies and programs.
In short, the Democrats have too often allowed conservatives to shape the terms of the political debate and neglect furthering their own agenda when it runs contrary to what conservatives and perceived moderates deem acceptable. They have searched for consensus when they needed to mold it.