The Democrats’ coalition of the ascendant did not ascend. Hispanic voters did not overwhelm. Black voters did not deliver. Rural and working-class whites abandoned the party in droves.
The Democratic Party is dependent on the presidency. Without it, the multiracial, multiclass, water-hugging, tree-hugging party of the 21st century will enter 2017 obliterated, clinging to California as a government in exile as Washington falls to a political opponent that no longer looks like the Republican Party of even 2014 — and may prove to be something American democracy has never seen.
Without the executive branch, or one side of Congress, Democrats are stranded, with no probable path to power before the next presidential race. (Their 2018 Senate prospects are grim.) Who knows what Trumpism will produce by then?
American institutions, Wall Street and corporations are in a nervous fit now; the markets are revolting. But they can be soothed, part way at least, with the right words, and as president Donald Trump would know enough to murmur them. Business will defend itself, but won’t defend Democrats.
The voices in the party that have been shouting that white working men were a precious resource that Democrats could ill afford to lose will have their day. There will be recriminations. But the arguments will be curtailed by the abject fear with which Democrats face the prospect of a Trump presidency and a Republican Party that, no matter what its members said last week, will now be poised to do his bidding — whatever that turns out to be.
For better and worse, Democrats are stuck with the core they nurtured: nonwhites and liberal, college-educated whites. It’s not clear how they build on that base at the moment; instead, they will have to rally it.
Fear is already coursing through those constituencies. Racial minorities and liberal women are terrified of Trump and the ugly culture he has unleashed. Gays and lesbians fear his running mate. They all fear the Supreme Court that Republicans have held in reserve for Trump, like a corner table at a favorite restaurant.
Demographics turned out to be an insufficient offense. Democrats will have to do better than wait for the hands of the clock to reward them with millions of new voters. They will have to embrace direct democracy; representative democracy appears to be a closed door.
The tea party is one model. It channeled rage and fear into nonviolent political channels. It gave voice to people who felt their country had turned its back on them. It provided a grass-roots base for electoral action. And it created a venue for new leadership to assert itself.
The tea party went wildly off the rails, of course, and any Democratic imitation will run a similar risk.
Meanwhile, Trump is anything but clear. We will be hearing a lot from Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the days ahead. They will have to keep their ears open for issues they can co-opt rather than confront. The Democratic Party will have to get reacquainted with its class roots. Warren will likely emerge as its most effective voice.
The Age of the Clintons, and all they represent, is dead. This new era of American politics has defied them, and so much more. (I could not have been more wrong about the breadth of Trump’s appeal in a still-prosperous nation.) Rough men will be playing a very rough game in Washington. And the inconceivable Donald Trump appears set to rule.
American politics is about to get unsparingly ruthless. Instead of waiting for their demographic wave to deliver them, Democrats are going to have to start making their own luck.
Francis Wilkinson writes on politics and domestic policy for Bloomberg View.