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Democrats can use Election Day 2017 to forge a path towards Election Day 2018

Last Tuesday was a referendum on anger and anxiety mixed with frustration. Now what?
Image: Virginia Gubernatorial Candidate Ralph Northam Holds Election Night Gathering In Fairfax, Virginia
Winner's salute. Win McNamee / Getty Images

On Election Day 2017, voters came out in force to support a diverse and progressive slate of candidates in Virginia and beyond. But last Tuesday should not be viewed as some overarching Democratic Party step toward unity. What happened is more nuanced. It was a referendum on anger and anxiety mixed with frustration. It was voters telling their politicians there is a desire for them to spend more time creating a more perfect union. That is where the Democrats need to go.

I strongly believe that the people are always ahead of the politicians. That maxim was on full display in Virginia, as voters clearly said, “Hold on — that’s enough.” Virginians overwhelmingly rejected the nation’s divisive political status quo.

Those previously denied the right to vote — either by race or gender — went to the polls to show that they matter. They, rightfully, expect results meaningful to them. We must do more than fight for things that many considered already to have been won.

From our nation’s founding, Americans have been on an incessant quest in search of ourselves. When Barack Obama shattered the conventional political wisdom by winning national elections in 2008 and 2012, some saw it as an aberration, rather than a fulfillment of, the American Dream. His election prompted the Senate Republican leader to proclaim it his mission and obligation to oppose the president’s success. Obama was called a liar in the House chamber as he was delivering a national address.

Those previously denied the right to vote — either by race or gender — went to the polls to show that they matter.

Those actions were unprecedented — yet went unreprimanded. They unleashed a set of unforeseen consequences — one of which was to cause many Republicans to regard Obama as the enemy, giving rise to racial outcry, justified or not. Before President Donald Trump won the White House, he embarked further down that path — using coded rhetoric designed to rend the nation.

Those circumstances have created an atmosphere that many feel has been absent from the White House since President Woodrow Wilson essentially re-segregated the federal government.

Continued fault-finding by Democratic or Republican leaders won’t fix anything. Bellicose talk from the White House will not change anything concerning world affairs — or any affairs.

I know Virginia well. I have spent the entirety of my life as a citizen thereof. I know where we have been and how far we have come.

The huge turnout in Virginia’s off-year election was a signal call beyond our borders. Justin Fairfax’s victory as lieutenant governor brought me almost as much joy as Deval Patrick’s 2007 election win in Massachusetts as the second African-American elected governor in the United States. One could be an aberration, more than that is reality — and a trend.

The beginning of a movement?Aaron P. Bernstein / Reuters

So what’s now ahead for the Democrats?

Fault-finding and finger pointing solves nothing. Democrats won with a New America coalition of women, minorities, LGBT and educated voters. They must be a party of substantial inclusion — causing Republicans to emulate them rather than consign them as dethroners.

It is absolutely necessary for Americans to begin the re-evaluation of who we want to be as a nation. This effort has been resisted so long that it is little wonder that our young people often are surprised to know our true history.

Where is the Democratic plan to do anything at the national, state or local levels? Maybe those plans exist, but are they being shared with the public? Shouldn’t they be? The people, we saw Tuesday, are demanding it. Whether it’s gun control, health care, education or economic development, will the people’s representatives share those plans with those who elected them?

One thing we need to cast aside as quickly as possible is the belief that a person on a white horse will suddenly emerge to provide the necessary leadership. Rather, it has to be a cooperative leadership with recognizable goals. This lack has created the vacuum in which we find ourselves.

In Virginia, for example, will the Democrats reinstitute the “One Gun a Month” bill, which was originally supported by Republicans and Democrats alike? That law worked effectively to control the spread of guns into dangerous hands, not limit the purchase.

Will there be meaningful address of health care issues? This was the No. 1 issue in Virginia’s exit polls. Too many people — including too many children — remain uninsured or unable to afford necessary care. Medical expenses outpace earnings for too many in our communities.

Will there be much-needed change in our educational system to address the issues of racial and economic disparity?

One thing Democrats need to cast aside is the belief that a person on a white horse will emerge to provide the necessary leadership.

Perhaps most important, will there be plans to spur the economic development required to support these and other important initiatives?

As I recommended to my friend Mark Warner when he was Virginia’s governor, the commonwealth’s reputation for sound financial management and strong government derives from its leadership’s willingness to face challenges and make thoughtful and tough decisions. It is essential to lay out a vision of where we want to go and then set guiding principles that will get us there. Moreover, there must be continuous monitoring, measuring and analysis of any initiatives set forth by the government.

Democrats cannot focus on this apparent anti-Trump turnout, and believe they have achieved their aims and rebuilt their working-class base. Nor should the party believe the large African-American turnout was an approval of the Democrats’ efforts to appeal to white working-class voters at the expense of minority communities.

Observers often ask, “Who will be the next leader?” Leadership is a tautology. It defines itself. People will decide who best represents the collective voice of American — devoid of bombast and entitlement, instead representing the nation’s best aspirations and ideals.

The Democrats must change the increasingly unfavorable views of government held by too many Americans. They must show that what happened on Tuesday was a kindle to light the flame of brighter horizons.

L. Douglas Wilder was governor of Virginia from 1990 to 1994. He was the nation’s first elected African-American governor.