With Trump's arrival, will the Democratic Party change shape?

Some Democrats are already talking about how they need to shift power to the party's populist wing. But the grass-roots may not see the kind of transformation they'd like.

Tony Gutierrez/AP
Attendees watch returns on nearby video screens during the Dallas County Democrats watch party on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, in Dallas.

All the talk was of the Republican Party’s folly, its lousy bet on a candidate who pinned his electoral hopes on a diminishing bloc of white voters – and after the party’s 2012 shellacking with Hispanic and minority voters, too. Then the election’s results came in.

Now, it’s the Democrats who are urging their party’s centrist core to follow the lead of its populist wing.

"I think that the Democrats need to be Elizabeth Warren’s party, in shorthand. Bernie Sanders’ party," former Massachusetts Democratic Party chairman John Walsh told Boston public radio in an interview on Friday morning.

For some, that’s already a foregone conclusion. 

"The coming Sanders-Warren party will advocate proposals that help communities with early education programs and the like," wrote New York Times columnist David Brooks on Friday, "but that party will close off trade, withdraw from the world, close off integration with hyper-race-conscious categories and close off debate with political correctness."

But after years of slow forging of party alliances and positions on things like trade and cultural issues, and faced with a president-elect who is deeply unpopular and even reviled among large swaths of the public, it’s unclear how drastically the party will carry out a meaningful shift in how it looks, talks, thinks and campaigns.

"In the political world, there is this obsession with party positioning," says David Hopkins, a Boston College professor of political science who studies political parties and elections. "When a party loses an election, there’s all this talk about what it did wrong to lose and what it should do right to win the next. The reality is, usually a lot of that stuff doesn’t make much of a difference." 

"The question of which party wins the next election has more to do with the performance of the incumbent, the economy, and issues that come up over the course of four years than all of these sort of navel-gazing exercises," he tells The Christian Science Monitor.

Trump’s success, says Dr. Hopkins, is the prime example. In 2013, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R) of South Carolina appealed to fellow Republicans to back immigration reform by warning, memorably, that if the party didn’t make inroads with Latinos, they faced a "demographic death spiral."

"If we don't pass immigration reform, if we don't get it off the table in a reasonable, practical way, it doesn't matter who you run in 2016," he said then.

There are certainly signs that the Democrats will empower the voices that have made the most impassioned pitches for revitalizing the economy for the working class. Senator Sanders (I) of Vermont is reportedly considering a run for a Senate leadership position, although it’s not clear which it would be. And signs are that the next chairman of the Democratic National Committee – a normally obscure role that was WikiLeaked into the public eye – might be Rep. Keith Ellison (D) of Minnesota, an African-American Midwesterner and the first Muslim to be elected to Congress, who also has credibility with the party's progressive wing, according to The Washington Post

"The current membership of the Democratic Party in Congress has a vocal progressive segment, but it doesn’t seem like the majority," says Deborah Schildkraut, a political scientist at Tufts University.

"The tea party movement brought in a whole lot of new faces into Congress [for the Republicans]," she tells the Monitor. "If Democrats are going to move in a more progressive direction, they’re going to need new people" to win primaries.

But as the public has gotten increasingly alienated from the political process, some say the better question is the more transcendent one, of how either political party can harness grass-roots energy to power change between elections, not just every two or four years. 

"When and where are the next Democratic and Republican Party meetings in your neighborhood? You don’t know, because neither the Democrats nor Republicans are political parties in the historical sense. Mostly they just demand we send them money and then yell at us about voting every few years," Jon Schwartz wrote Wednesday at the Intercept.

Decades ago, local party meetings were a regular happening, and the community "yammered about politics for a while," he writes. "Elections were the culmination of what parties did, not the starting point.... A healthy political party would foster community and provide people with concrete things to do between elections."

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