Democrats and Disaffected Voters

This recent New Yorker article is a rich vein of information for Democrats wondering how they can connect with the supposed hordes of disaffected and distrustful voters in the next election. It suggests the tremendous opportunities for Democrats in capturing the votes of working-class whites—even some nominal conservatives—who are fed up with leaders who seem more concerned with raising money than listening to the people.

The New Yorker story is actually about Republicans—the so-called reformocons, whose hopes of fashioning a more moderate, broad-minded, Hispanic-friendly party were blown to smithereens by Donald Trump and Ben Carson. But there is much to learn here for Democrats—in particular from the interviews with disgruntled voters looking desperately for a candidate who can channel their inchoate frustrations with government.

The story is yet more evidence that Democratic candidates should be aggressively attacking the issue of reforming government—curbing the influence of lobbyists in politics, reforming campaign finance, and attacking the Citizens United decision.

Democrats must be seen as the party of reform. They cannot allow Republicans to usurp this issue. And it can’t just be Bernie Sanders and a few random candidates calling for reform—it must be a party priority from the top down. It should be a prominent plank of the Democratic platform, it must contain serious proposals, and it must be echoed by every Democrat, including those not up for election this year.

Why? Because, as the story shows, many conservatives and independents, disgusted by big-money in politics, are not that far away from Democratic positions. And because it’s not just white, working-class voters who are disgusted; everyone is fed up.

For example, we were struck by this passage from the story, about a 26-year-old Navy veteran and police trainee named Mark Lynch, “the son of a firefighter and a factory worker” and a Trump supporter, whom the author met at a New Hampshire town hall meeting for Republican candidate John Kasich:

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The Case Against Conservatism

The reasons why conservatism is the wrong path for America go far beyond specific policy issues such as immigration, economics, and foreign policy. Those issues can be legitimately debated, and views can often cross party or ideological boundaries. The problems with conservatism lie at a deeper, philosophical level: Its fundamental fear of change, and its chronic pessimism about the ability of humans to improve our lives and America’s ability to solve its problems—despite abundant proof that we can.

Conservatives’ resistance to change isn’t just a character flaw; it’s a core tenet of their philosophy. Their historic lack of new ideas and their never-ending attempts to throttle progress make them fundamental unfit to lead a great nation.

To read an argument about why this is true, see the new page “The Case Against Conservatism,” listed under Essays at left.

Democrats: Stop Being So Polite!

What is the matter with Democrats? Are we just too polite? Democrats seem to have an issue with passivity, and it was on full display in the recent Democratic debate. Not that it wasn’t substantive and informative—it certainly was—but it was yet another example of how Republicans are kicking the Democrats’ ass on political messaging.

Notice the stark contrast in the tone of the two parties’ debates: The Republican free-for-all is a nonstop barrage of Democrat- and Hillary-bashing; yet the Democratic debaters only rarely threw a light jab at Republicans.

What a golden opportunity lost! This is two hours of free Democratic advertising, in front of millions of people. What better chance to start attacking the soft underbelly of conservatism and set the themes of the general election? Of course the primary purpose of the debates is to separate Democratic candidates from one another. But a secondary—and critically important—purpose has to be establishing the Democratic brand, and that also means going negative on Republicanism.

Democrats can’t forget who the real opponents are. And these debates are perfect opportunities to soften up the target with a coordinated bombing campaign. Yet we heard … almost nothing. Why this reluctance of Democrats to attack?

The Second Unbreakable Rule of Democratic Campaigning is “Don’t just run against Republicans, run against conservatism.” Democrats have to undermine the very foundation of Republican philosophy. They must begin to paint conservatives as pessimistic, stingy, mean-spirited dinosaurs whose narrow thinking and fear of new ideas make them unworthy of leading a great nation. You have the stage; now is the time!

How easy would it have been for all the candidates to take a few shots at conservatism in their answers to issues questions? They can do it nicely, if they like, but they need to start reminding the public about the Republicans’ government shutdown, the Bush administration’s disastrous foreign policy, the party’s fawning deference to the rich and slavish devotion to the NRA, the Citizens United decision, the Republicans’ deficit-exploding tax-cut proposals, their vicious votes to cut food stamps and take away people’s health care with nothing to replace it, the empty résumés and sheer lunacy of the Republican Party’s two leading candidates.

Such inviting targets! Such delicious fruit, ripe for the picking! Why aren’t Democrats taking advantage? One of the rare times we heard it in the Democratic debate was from Martin O’Malley, when he pointed out that net immigration from Mexico is zero, and said, “You’ll never hear this from that immigrant-bashing carnival barker Donald Trump.”

Excellent. More please.

Countering Attacks Against Obama

When Democrats lost the Kentucky governorship last week, many commentators credited a Republican strategy of linking Democrat Jack Conway to President Obama, including a particularly devastating TV ad.

Losing the election was hard to take, but what was particularly galling was how it was lost—by the typical jelly-legged passivity of Democrats in the face of Republican attacks. One of the most effective lines in the Tea Party candidate’s attack ad in Kentucky, according to Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post, was this:

“Our families can’t afford four more years of the liberal policies of President Obama and career politicians like Jack Conway,” the ad’s narrator says as ominous pictures of the two men are shown on the screen. “Can you really trust Obama and Conway to make things better?”

How on earth can a statement like that go unchallenged? Especially when Kentucky’s unemployment rate is now just 5%! That’s the fourth lowest rate in Kentucky in at least 40 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, bested only during the boom years of the late 1990s. Beyond that, thanks to Democrats, more than half a million Kentuckians now have health insurance, the vast majority of whom couldn’t otherwise afford it.

Why do Democrats just lay down in the face of these attacks? Why do they allow Republicans to create these memes that the country is going to hell and liberal policies are bad for America? Why don’t they stand up for
their president, their party, and Democratic policies and values?

Conway should have learned his lesson from last year’s U.S. Senate race, when Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes was trounced after running away from the president. Apparently, he wasn’t paying attention.

The contrast between the campaign ads of Conway and Republican Matt Bevin is shocking. And informative. The Republican’s ads were either unapologetic hyperpartisan attacks or warm-and-fuzzies about conservative values. Conway’s were either clichéd pablum or cowardly retreats in which he tried to out-Republican Republicans. Outrageously, he bragged that he “sued Obama to protect Kentucky coal and farms” or “stood up against Obama to protect Kentucky jobs.” In one, he even quoted the “former chairman of the Republican Party” praising him. Nowhere did he talk about Democratic values or successes. Conway essentially ran as a Republican collaborateur. It was a foolish, pathetic, and thoroughly transparent strategy. If Kentuckians want a leader to stand up to Obama, they’ll vote for a Republican. And they did. The tragedy is not only that Conway lost himself the election with that weaselly passivity, he also diluted the Democratic brand for everyone else.

What would have happened, for example, if Conway had stood up to Bevin’s anti-Obama attacks with an ad like this?:

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The Challenge of Kentucky

The recent election results around the country, and particularly in Kentucky, are certainly dispiriting for liberals. Losing the Kentucky governorship is another example of the creeping conservatism of America, just when we dared hope that Americans might be warming to more liberal ideas.

Clearly, the Democratic message is just not connecting with vast numbers of Americans. Of course, it’s hard to know from one election how much was an omen and how much was a poor choice of candidates. Apparently the Democratic candidate was not the strongest campaigner. But then again, the new Tea Party governor seems to be a bit of a dipwad himself. Which means Democrats just got outmuscled—again—on the issues and their messages.

This wasn’t a one-off loss, as this map of county voting in the 2012 election attests.1 Outside of major cities, Americans have turned their backs on Democrats.

U.S. map of voting by county voting in 2012 election

This is the grand challenge of the Democratic Party: to forge a popular message that will play in Kentucky and other moderate-to-conservative states. Democrats must find a way to communicate with mainstream Americans on a visceral level—by appealing to their values, love of country, and self-interest.

At the same time, Democrats must find a potent line of attack against conservatism. They can’t just debate issues, they must go after the very moral and philosophical foundation of conservatism.

In previous posts, The Liberal Message has offered some ideas on how to meet both of these challenges. Democratic politicians—all of them; every single one—must learn to relate every issue to a core American or humanitarian value—patriotism, optimism, American exceptionalism, fighting for the underdog, and faith and morality. They must persuade voters that voting Democratic is in their own best interest, because Democrats are the only party looking out for the American worker and the poor. In the same way, they must characterize conservatism as mean-spirited, stingy, an affront to basic American values like fairness and equality, and unworthy of a great nation.

Only a unified front of Democrats communicating the same strong message can begin to turn the tide of Republican hegemony in the South, Midwest, and rural West.

1 Many have pointed out that this famous map can be misleading, since it reflects geography more than number of voters. But it’s useful in pointing out that Democrats are losing large tracts of the U.S., and it helps explain why Republicans are dominating governorships and state legislatures.

Map source: Mark Newman, University of Michigan

Unbreakable Rule No. 4

Last in a series on The 4 Unbreakable Rules of Democratic Campaigning

Rule No. 4: Fight for your beliefs.

Democrats must stand their ground. They must speak with unwavering conviction. They should not waver, dissemble, or apologize. Being a proud Democrat also means Democratic candidates must not abandon the president or the party, as happened in the midterms. That doesn’t mean candidates can’t be strategic or can’t legitimately disagree with Democratic orthodoxy on particular issues, but it does mean candidates have to decide what they believe and then fight for it—consistently and passionately. If candidates don’t think the Democratic message will play in their purple or red districts, then they are telling the wrong message. Democrats are the party of:

  • Workers
  • American values like fairness, equality, and freedom of conscience
  • Moral and religious values like helping the poor
  • Progress
  • Keeping America strong (rather than shrinking America with drastic budget cuts)
  • Meeting our responsibilities at home and abroad
  • Responsible financial leadership
  • Improving the lives of average Americans
  • Giving a voice to American workers and families
  • Championing the poor and the voiceless

That’s a message that should play anywhere.

Unbreakable Rule No. 3

Fourth in a series on The 4 Unbreakable Rules of Democratic Campaigning

Rule No. 3: Be a proud Democrat.

It is the job of every Democratic candidate to reinforce the Democratic brand. Every candidate needs to encourage Americans to vote not just for him or her but for Democrats generally. Every race should be not just about one candidate against another but about the proud traditions and achievements of the Democratic Party versus conservatives and the Tea Party. The message is that Democrats are the party of the people. We have been on the side of unions and workers for a hundred years. We are defenders of the poor and middle class. We have been the engine that drives progress in our nation, from women’s rights and civil rights to Social Security, the minimum wage, and health care. Every significant improvement in America’s quality of life in the last century has come from Democrats. Tell the story! America does not move forward without the Democratic Party.

Here’s a two-minute example of how candidates can fight for the party during their race:

“I’ve voted for Democrats since I was old enough to vote, and here’s why: Democrats fight for the underdog. They fight for the average American, for workers, and the poor. Democrats believe in the deeply American values I was taught as a kid, like freedom and equality for everyone, and in religious and moral values like helping people less fortunate than ourselves. Just in my lifetime, Democrats have given Americans civil rights, equal rights and equal pay for women, higher minimum wages, worker health and safety laws, Medicaid for the desperately poor, and now health care, gay rights, credit card reforms, and consumer protection from financial abuses. We’ve supported unions and workers for a hundred years, since the days when fighting for a union could get your head busted in. We’ve given America Social Security, the 40-hour work week, child labor laws, unemployment insurance, and Medicare. Conservatives opposed all those things. On every level, Democrats have made the lives of you and your family better and easier. No one has fought harder or accomplished more for the average American family than Democrats. America doesn’t progress without Democrats. In so many ways, we have made America what it is today—freer, fairer, and more equal for everyone. That’s what America is about. That’s what makes us a great nation. And I could not be prouder to be a Democrat.”