4 lies Democrats still need to stop telling (and one truth we should learn)
The original 5 Lies Florida Democratic Party Needs to Stop Telling Uswas published long before the meteoric rise of Bernie Sanders in the primaries, and ultimately, the tragic failure of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. I’ve rewritten the whole essay. Now it’s “4 Lies Democrats still need to stop telling…(and one truth we should learn).”
Starting with the one truth: adjusting the dials, tweaking messages, and doubling-down on fundraising targets won’t do a lick of good if Democrats don’t face facts. Bernie’s campaign wasn’t perfect, but much of what he did was successful despite the fact that it flew in the face of received wisdom about running campaigns. Unfortunately, the party is loathe to take his lessons to heart.
Short of following his lead, the least we can do is break the habit of lying to ourselves. Once we do that, our work is greatly simplified. Candidates, lawmakers and consultants can all use this “one easy trick” and watch the rest fall into place:
Know your principles and stick to them.
Authenticity is the only currency that matters in this line of business. As Hillary Clinton’s defeat showed, you can be flush with cash, but if the voters believe you’re hiding something, or that you hold one position for donors and a different position for voters, your money won’t buy you squat. This is the one simple truth that anyone can takeaway from the 2016 election.
To go deeper, stop telling these lies and we’ll start winning elections again.
The first big lie: lazy voters are to blame
It’s the job of political professionals to bring voters to the polls. When they don’t come, it’s your fault. Full stop.
There’s no such thing as a lazy voter who doesn’t “get off the couch” to vote for Democrats. When we put up Democrats who can’t be differentiated from Republicans — or who ooze insincerity —we’re failing our constituencies who rely on us to recruit leaders who can represent them. Party cheerleaders need to pull their load. Stop blaming voters for lost elections.
We can have the most dynamic field operation since Obama 2008, and we’re not going to get Democrats excited about candidates who can’t credibly promise to make life better for working families.
When voters see blame coming from the Democratic Party, we’ll be the reason they change their status to NPA. Let the other party issue those messages.
If you have nothing nice to say about voters, talk about the weather.
The second big lie: we’ll lose seats if we run “real” Democrats
First off, there’s seats in Florida that go unchallenged, so we’ve got work to do just in getting involved in campaigns.
Secondly, as Democrats, the only question we should ask ourselves is, “who do we want to represent us?” Are we going to send Democrats to Washington or Tallahassee who will fight on our behalf? Or are we going investing our time and money in people who are going to sell us out?
It’s never okay when our representatives horse-trade our issues away. We don’t have any wiggle room on any of our issues. Our environment is at a tipping point. Young people can’t afford to go to college, and can’t afford not to go to college, so they start life deeply in debt. Almost no one has defined retirement benefits in the form of a pension, and few can afford to save into a retirement account (because of the aforementioned student debt). Healthcare is still the number one reason families declare bankruptcy. Women’s rights have been turned back so far I’m surprised crinolines haven’t come back into style.
These are the issues WE’RE dealing with out here in non-donor land, so forgive us if we don’t seem to have any patience for trading our issues away. There’s no “second bite at the apple” once our aquifer is spoiled, or Social Security is privatized.
The third big lie: we have to appeal to swing voters (i.e. college-educated Republican women)
Senator Chuck Schumer boasted that Hillary Clinton could lose blue collar voters in Western Pennsylvania, and we’d more than make up for them with ‘Republican college-educated suburban women’ in Eastern Pennsylvania. This strategy, as it was applied across the “Blue Wall” of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin didn’t pan out.
First off, why do I so often hear Democrats discussing how many of which voters we can afford to lose? Why not spend that energy on getting every vote possible, instead of deciding a priori who doesn’t belong to our tribe?
Secondly, the fact that we indulge discussions about which voters fit our tribe should be all the proof you need that tribalism has replaced the squishy 90s world of swing voters. It’s time to get with the program because the rules are dramatically different for tribalism than for swing voters.
Consider right wing tribes. There’s religious folks who home-school and make their own laundry detergent. Their shared beliefs and lifestyle circumscribes their tribe. There’s the law-and-order tribes of active military, veterans, law enforcement and other “warrior” types who are animated by guns-and-ammo, foreign wars, and domestic policing debates such as #BLM and stop-and-frisk. In small government tribes you’ll find plenty of transactional business professionals from financial services, real estate and insurance.
Apply the myth of a “swing voter” to this. Betting that “college-educated Republican women” can be peeled off to vote for Clinton makes the huge assumption that Hillary’s tribe offered more attractive tribal affiliation. It can be done, as we saw in 2008 with Barrack Obama because he created a meta-tribe that included all Americans under the banner of “hope and change.”
Contrast that with Hillary’s tagline, “I’m with her.” The branding suggested that the voter was expected to leave their tribe and come to the candidate’s tribe: “I’m with HER.” Not, “we’re together.” Or, “Hillary’s got our back.” Her tagline communicated that the relationship was one-way and that a fence-sitter would need to hop on down, without so much as offering them a hand. It’s become symbolic of the campaign’s fatal arrogance.
Drilling deeper into the idea of tribal behavior, an interesting motivator that was mentioned in the earlier article, is negative partisanship. This is when you focus opposition on another tribe that you perceive is an existential threat. It’s especially relevant in a post-2016 election discussion, because during the General Election it seemed this was the only strategy Dems used against Trump. It didn’t work, and everyone wants to know why.
This chart from Pew Research might help explain what happened. Republicans are much better at using negative partisanship to move their constituents to the belief that Democratic Party policy and priorities pose and existential threat to their tribes.
The Pew report on Political Polarization in the American Public should be read by all party members trying to understand why our anti-Trump strategy failed. It shows a giant 9-point spread between how Democrats and Republicans motivate fear/loathing in the other party. Democrats are 9% less likely to see the Republicans as a threat to the nation’s well-being, and are therefore less likely to be moved to vote.
The two takeaways are that Dems are not as good as Republicans at using negative partisanship. Two, the numbers suggest that Dem voters respond to positive messaging in slightly higher numbers than Republicans. So, we’re already at a disadvantage with negative messages, and we need a reason to vote for someone, rather than against the other person. In elections with razor-thin margins, these differences can swing the outcome.
Furthermore, the 2016 election provides examples of how we played negative partisanship all wrong. Focusing on Russia was a lazy mistake that we continue to make. The Russia messaging didn’t move voters because Russia simply doesn’t affect voters. Social Security, healthcare, education, and wages affect the voters. We need principled and credible messages to pose an effective counter-attack using negative partisanship on issues that impact our voters. Likewise, the attack on Trump’s sleaziness with women also fell flat. It didn’t swing the vote because he’s a sleaze ball and there was no surprise in hearing that he actually behaves like a sleaze ball. No existential threat there, either.
As lousy as they were at using negative partisanship against Republicans, Clinton’s advisors who now staff the DNC excel at using it against our own party members.
An example of this existential threat aimed within the Democratic party is a silly/angry screed, “The Nihilist Purity of the Far Left Will Kill Us All.” This is just one essay that’s representative of an entire genre of polemic found on Daily Kos and Medium these days. This one in particular was inspired by outrage that Dems would hold Cory Booker accountable for his vote against importing affordable medicine from Canada. The piece is quite a spectacle to behold, using every tribal hammer in the intersectional tool shed to bash a strawman “Bernie Bro,” who in reality is simply any sensible person seeking accountability for a lousy vote from a lawmaker who receives a lot of PHARMA lobbyist largesse. It’s as if it’s May 2016, and the writer is still on David Brock’s troll payroll. And he’s not alone. There’s many who, like Japanese fighter pilots stranded on Pacific islands after World War 2, desperately need someone to tell them the war is over.
Maybe the “war” isn’t over.
Brock is actually in Palm Beach this weekend soliciting checks and teaching the donor class all about how they lost the election, and what they’ll do differently next time (please keep hiring us!). Not to be out-shined, the Third Way is injecting $20 million into their own “hey-we-might-be-relevant-again” production.
The fourth big lie: we have to be like Republicans to get the “white vote”
After the 2014 “drubbing” it was speculated that we lost the “white vote” and to get it back we had to move to the center on social issues. But wait, Bernie Sanders simply killed it among white Democrats especially in areas that Hillary lost in the General. This proves that it’s not the liberal social issues driving white voters away. It’s the lack of attention to core Democratic economic issues.
White Democrats responded to Sanders’ message that the middle class has collapsed and that we need to fight for the right to send our kids to college, preserve Social Security and rebuild our country’s infrastructure. The Sanders vision is what has been missing because it’s exactly what donor-Democrats can’t deliver.
Trump’s election was made possible by economic conditions that Democrats are guilty of co-creating with Republicans through decades of neoliberal policy.
As Ben Cassleman writes in Fivethirtyeight, we have to stop saying that economics had nothing to do with Trump’s win. Analysts have confused economic hardship with economic anxiety. People vote based on economic anxiety. Demographic reports only show economic hardship in gross terms (income level, zip code, school district). Savvy analysts take into account soft indicators of economic anxiety such as education level and geography.
When we assume characteristics such as living in the “heartland” and “non-college educated” indicate that the voters made their decisions based on racial animus, it only shows our own bias against those demographic groups. Worse, while labor is supposed to be an issue we own, race-baiting tactics (against white southerners/heartlanders) evince a cold-heartedness to the horrible job prospects that half of the country faces.
Trump country is the part of the United States experiencing the worst economic decline. We should be killing it with our economic message in these hardest hit areas. Instead we’re excusing ourselves from doing the work, because racism.
So, what now?
As rank-and-file Democrats we know who we are. My question to candidates and leadership is do you know who you are? Do you think there’s anyone in Florida’s Congressional Dem delegation who needs to align with Trump on ACA to get reelected?
If so, our party brand means nothing.