Democrats are particularly good at navel gazing, but sometimes angst has a basis in facts and data. Recent electoral history, with the major exception of Barack Obama’s presidential victories in 2008 and 2012, has not been good for Democrats. Despite all the talk that the country’s shifting demographics were on their side, Democrats have been losing elections, sometimes by narrow margins, but still losing.
Liberal optimism was at a high right after Obama’s first win and the incredible outpouring of joy in Grant Park on Election Night 2008. Was a new coalition that would shape politics for decades being built? Were we entering the post-racial phase of our country’s history? Would Obama’s remarkable story inspire a new generation of public-spirited candidates?
Optimism, it turns out, is not enough. During the Obama presidency, Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress, lost hundreds of state legislative seats and lost gubernatorial races in states they once dominated. As if all of that wasn’t disheartening enough, Donald Trump won the 2016 Presidential Election and Republicans maintained their edge in both the House and the Senate.
During that campaign and since, the predominant Democratic “message” to voters has been focussed on how horrible and dangerous and vulgar and petty Donald Trump is. Despite the accuracy of all of those pronouncements, it has had little or no impact on Republican voters who continue to support their party and Trump even though they have doubts about him.
After the recent–and fourth consecutive–loss in a special Congressional election in Georgia, the gnashing of teeth among Democrats reached a fever pitch. So much money and hope were attached to the candidacy of Jon Ossoff, and yet he lost.
Was he less than a stellar candidate? Was the specter of Nancy Pelosi and her “San Francisco values”, as Republican ads constantly reminded voters, too much? Did Republican voters decline to connect Trump’s problems to Congressional candidate Karen Handle? Or was the district too much of a long-shot from the start to justify the inflated expectations?
The answer to those questions is yes.
When you put together the long string of losses, many people wonder if the Democratic Party needs to rethink its core message. Or, to put the matter more starkly, does the Party, which seems to be adrift without a clear mission, need to develop and publicize a core message?
Lots of thoughtful people have analyzed the problem. Their well-written commentaries all seem to fall short, however, of offering a direction for the future. It has to be more than attacking Donald Trump, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. It has to be more than listening to white working class voters who have been displaced by economic change. It has to be more than doubling down on identity politics.
The most frequent refrain is that Democrats need to focus on crafting an economic message and on the creation of jobs in the new economy. What that means in terms of specific policy proposals is not clear in any of the commentary. New clean energy jobs? Sure, even if right now we are conceding leadership in that field to the Chinese. New high-tech manufacturing jobs? Sure, as long as you have the education and skills and recognize that there won’t be nearly as many of those jobs as there were in traditional manufacturing.
Another approach might be to try to “out promise” Donald Trump. We’ll bring back even more coal jobs. We’ll reopen the auto plants that have been shut down. We’ll make America the leading producer of steel in the world. Forget that. He’s a much better liar than any candidate the Democrats might produce.
Moreover, Trump has grabbed many of the emotional hot-button issues that have a stronger appeal to some voters than economic self-interest. A Muslim ban? A wall between Mexico and the United States? Cutting off funds to Planned Parenthood? Free guns for everyone? Part of developing a new Democratic message has to include sticking to a set of core values and not merely pandering for the sake of votes.
Where does that leave the Democratic Party? A lot of smart people are hunting for the magic message. While I haven’t found it either, I have a few thoughts on the path to take.
First of all, the “Yellow Brick Road” goes through state and local elections. Building a cadre of candidates, regaining control of the legislative districting process and mobilizing local citizen energy and enthusiasm are all essential to the revitalization of the Democratic Party. The effort in a number of different states to recruit more women as candidates is a hopeful and encouraging step.
Second, changing leadership at the top of the party–elevating a new generation of activists–can’t be put off any longer. I agree that Nancy Pelosi has, as she recently declared, remarkable political skills. It’s still time for her to move on and so must the group of officials who have dominated the Democratic Party for decades.
As another example, which can be replicated in many parts of the country, the cynicism I constantly hear about Philadelphia’s Democratic establishment–that’s you, Bob Brady–is a clarion call for change. Repeatedly supporting candidates who commit felonies or engage in unprofessional acts, being unable to turn out enough voters in key elections, and generally being unresponsive to most constituents have undercut what little credibility they once had.
Finally, on this short list, don’t learn the wrong lessons from the recent string of electoral defeats. Should Democrats veer left and become the party of Bernie Sanders? While that’s certainly the dream of some activists, there’s little evidence that there are enough votes on that end of the political spectrum to produce a winning coalition.
Another temptation is to conclude that neither a woman nor a minority candidate can win the next national election. The backlash toward Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton by a segment of the electorate doesn’t mean that most voters are close-minded. The field of candidates shouldn’t be limited to white males although neither should they be excluded.
How do these steps help the Democratic Party identify a message that resonates with voters? At the risk of intra-party conflict and some bumps on the road, the answer may lie in a more inclusive process. This involves listening to voters, avoiding reflex responses to ideas that don’t sound familiar and, without jettisoning core values, being willing to reconsider old truths that may not hold up so well anymore.
That’s what Emmanuel Macron was able to do in France, establishing a political movement and then a new party that now dominates French politics. That’s what an upstart group was able to do in Barcelona, creating a grassroots model that is being examined by activists in many other countries. That’s what Indivisible is trying to do in the United States, providing tools and strategy to local political organizations.
A better, stronger Democratic message will result from the political engagement of concerned citizens, not from a focus-group tested draft produced by a bunch of long-term insiders. It may be messy, but it is a necessity if we are to address the anger, division and exclusion felt by so many today.