Every election cycle we say that so and so is fighting for the soul of the Democratic Party, or the soul of the Republican Party. And, of course, most of the time it’s not true. Most of the time the fight is over whether the party in question should go to the left or the right on some policy issue, which is important but not really a matter of a party’s soul.
But this year it actually is true. The crucial issue of this election cycle is whether the Democratic Party will retain its soul – remain an institution committed to the basic democratic norms – respect for truth, personal integrity, the capacity for deliberation and compromise, loyalty to nation above party or tribe.
These fundamental issues are on the table because Donald Trump put them there.
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Trump is a revolutionary figure not because he changed the GOP’s position on trade or international engagement. He’s morally revolutionary.
In the decades before Trump, the Republican Party stood for an idea: character before policy. To Mitt Romney, John McCain, the Bushes and Ronald Reagan, personal character and moral integrity were paramount. They stood for the idea that you can’t be a good leader or a good nation unless you are a good person and a good people.
Trump asked the GOP to reverse those priorities. He asked the Republican Party to accept the proposition that it doesn’t matter if your leader is a liar, a philanderer and a narcissist. It doesn’t matter if he is cruel to the weak and bigoted toward the outsider. What matters, when you’re in a death match in which the survival of your nation and culture is at stake, is having a bastard in charge who understands and is tough enough to win.
The central Republican bet is that Trump’s moral nature won’t matter. You can be a bad person and have a successful presidency. You can have a good nation without good moral norms. Trump asked for the party’s soul, and he got it. That was the story of 2016 and 2017.
The question of 2018 is whether the Democrats will follow suit. The temptation will be strong. In any conflict the tendency is to become the mirror image of your opponent. And the Democrats are just as capable of tribalism as the Republicans, just as capable of dividing the world in self-righteous Manichaean binaries: us enlightened few against those racist many; us modern citizens against those backward gun-toting troglodytes. Listen to how Hillary Clinton spoke in Mumbai last weekend.
There’ll be a tendency this year to nationalize each of the congressional races, to focus on Trump and not the country’s actual problems, to push the tribal hot buttons that excite the passionate Resistance in the great culture war.
And yet Conor Lamb’s victory in Pennsylvania this week gives at least a glimmer of hope that the Democrats may go the other way.
Lamb is a military veteran. I’ve met several vets running in both parties this year, and they all put nation ahead of party. In an era where the very preservation of our democratic structures is under threat from tribalism, that is the most important issue.
Furthermore, Lamb was careful to put the problems of his district first: the opioid crisis, retirement security, labor issues. “I’m really only thinking about the people who live here. I don’t really care what the future of the party looks like,” he said.
He emerges from a serious moral tradition. He is a Catholic who attended a parochial school run by the Christian Brothers. “They really make an effort to go out and be with people on the margins,” he told The New Yorker’s Eliza Griswold.
He campaigned in a way designed to bridge divisions, not exacerbate them. “There was a lot of foolishness in this election and a lot of really cartoonish campaigning,” he told reporters. “And I think by the time of the president’s visit last weekend, people were kind of tired of that entire approach.”
He embraced issues that grabbed from each political persuasion, for universal health care, against the tax cuts, but also for fracking, against the assault weapons ban, skeptical of the $15 minimum wage. He opposed both Nancy Pelosi and Paul Ryan in congressional leadership races.
Now it’s obvious that you would run to the center as a Democrat in a heavily Republican district. But it’s not obvious that you would keep your integrity in such a tight campaign. It’s not obvious that you would put real but unsexy issues like opioids first, above the cable TV symbolic ones. It’s not obvious that you would be restrained by democratic norms, when the president comes into your district and shreds them.
Moral character is always the same essential things. Putting a higher love, like nation, over a lower love, like party. Going against yourself – feeling that urge to lash out with the low angry insult, and instead rising upward with the loving and understanding response.
Conor Lamb is wrong on a bunch of stuff, but he is a breath of fresh air for this country. This year, restoring character and shared moral norms matters most. Policy is secondary.