The Democrats don’t just have a messaging problem; they’ve got a bad message.

170419_POL_Jon-Ossoff-Wave.jpg.CROP.promo-xlarge2Democrat Jon Ossoff addresses his supporters in Atlanta.

The latest polls are not good news for the Trump administration. The government now has an average disapproval rate of 56% as of July 18, while Congress continues to be unapologetically loathed with an average disapproval rate of 74%. Although it’s far too early to predict the outcome of the 2018 midterms, sporadic polling suggests that the Democrats currently have a slight lead over the Republicans (+7 on July 12).

Polling has also revealed some more specific grievances against Trump in particular. As of July 16, a majority of Americans don’t trust him to negotiate with other world leaders (66%), nearly half believe he has made the U.S. look less credible on the world stage (48%), over half don’t believe he’s made any significant progress towards his goals (55%), and a majority prefer Obamacare or another system to the American Health Care Act (67%).

Standard caveats about polls apply, but it’s easy to see why Trump is so unpopular. His new era of economic revanchism has manifested itself in the form of robbing twenty million people of their health insurance and building a pointless wall staffed by belligerent racists. The Art of The Deal-inspired foreign policy whose virtues he extolled has proven to be nothing more than a series of diplomatic embarrassments and murderous airstrikes on civilians.

The UK finds itself in the grips of a similarly ruinous government. The NHS is suffering from rampant privatization, post-Brexit relations with Europe are in freefall, and Theresa May’s minority government is in perpetual damage control mode after a series of sexist gaffes and racism scandals. All of this has sapped what remains of the government’s credibility, and to many, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party now looks like a government in waiting.

Corbyn has shown great prowess in capitalizing on the government’s failures. By continuously running in campaign mode and behaving as though he were already in power, his party’s credibility has continuously grown, as has its membership and its performance in the polls: It now polls around 40%, up from 23% just three months ago. All this will become relevant later.

Many had expected the Democrats to learn their lesson after November’s defeat, and conduct a comparably fierce opposition to Corbyn’s. There were hopes that Bernie Sanders (the most popular politician in the country) would be given a pivotal role to shape the party’s message and broaden its appeal. There were also hopes that the Democrats in Congress would do everything in their power to stop Trump getting his way. But rather than capitalize on the failures of the incumbent, the party’s establishment elite have done little more than roll over and show their belly.

In May, Bernie Sanders was shunned from a political ideas conference held by the Center for American Progress, led by longtime Clinton acolyte Neera Tanden. Though other progressives like Elizabeth Warren were invited to speak, ordinary members of the public were not welcome: The entire event was invite-only, and people were charged an extortionate $1,000 if they wanted to attend a “progressive party” after the conference. It is clear that the event was not about fostering an open debate, but more of a special interest circle-jerk.

Those party members who demand more from their representatives are met with vitriol. At the State Democratic Party Convention in May, protesters were told to “shut the fuck up” by Chair John Burton, while elsewhere they’ve been ridiculed as “radicals”, and even compared to the Tea Party.

While Tanden was hosting a $1,000 per head soiree for special interest groups, it came to light that out of the forty-six Democrats in the Senate, twenty had voted to approve Trump’s cabinet nominees at least half the time:

In essence, the party establishment has spent more energy trying to ostracize its growing progressive wing than to stop the murderous, nepotistic crime family occupying the White House.

With such chaos at the federal level, a congressional run-off election in Georgia was supposed to be a welcome distraction. In June, polling suggested that a majority of voters in the state supported the Affordable Care Act, and Democratic nominee Jon Ossoff was smart enough to agree with them. By contrast, his opponent Karen Handel repeatedly vowed to repeal it, which in ordinary circumstances would have undermined her chances of winning.

Nevertheless, Handel beat Ossoff by over 9,000 votes, depriving the Democrats of what should have been their first post-Trump victory.

There are a number of lessons to be learned from Ossoff’s campaign. So uninspiring was his message that his strongholds were reporting turnout rates as low as 34%, whereas Handel’s were often as high as 70%.

Ossoff’s failure partially lies in his campaign’s technocratic focus. He spoke repeatedly about such pressing issues as high-tech development, business parks, and wasteful spending. Policies to benefit postgraduates and middle-income voters were so often the focus that he had little room for anything else. He did, however, manage to find the time to wade into his party’s civil war and criticize single-payer healthcare.

The TV spots run by his campaign were better suited to advertising some kind of pharmaceutical corporation. Time and time again, Ossoff was telling a narrative about Georgia that was simply fictional for so many of its working-class and African-American residents. Based on the campaign material alone, one might have questioned whether he’d even set foot in Georgia, let alone grew up in it.

Just read how he summarized the focus of his campaign:

“I focused on the development of metro Atlanta into a world-class commercial capital, on affordable higher education and technical training, on research and development to drive innovation in Georgia’s tech sector, on renewal of our transportation infrastructure and a commitment to fiscal responsibility”

What about social housing? What about urban degradation? What about incarceration rates? What about public libraries? What about drug rehabilitation centres?

Yes, Ossoff managed to cut the Republican lead in his district, and yes, he did so despite crippling voter suppression and gerrymandering efforts in the state. But the campaign simply failed to connect with enough people to overcome the hurdles. In the age of Trump and with Obamacare on the chopping block, it should have been an easy win.

Even the Democrats’ most zealous apologists would accept that in light of these events, the party has a likeability problem. What is the solution? As always, there is no shortage of bad ideas:

At the end of June, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria opined in the Washington Post that the Democrats are actually doing just fine on the economy; it’s their social policies that turn voters off. He suggests that many people who voted for Obama in 2012 but decided to vote for Trump in 2016 did so because the Democrats felt too out of touch when it came to, among other things, immigration and same-sex marriage, topics that have created a “cultural gulf” between the party’s “urban, college-educated professionals” and middle America.

To remedy the situation, Zakaria concludes that the Democrats need to be “less absolutist” about some of their principles and to convince rural, right-wing voters that they understand and respect their way of life. Confusingly, Zakaria insists that the Democrats should nevertheless not give up on their core principles in doing so.

MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, also writing in the Washington Post, chalks up the Democrats’ dwindling success to its “intraparty fight between left-wing heretic hunters and more moderate forces”. For him, only a decisive rejection of a progressive, “ideologically homogenized movement” will allow the Democrats to put forward candidates that are more in tune with local voters’ concerns (and thus have a better chance of winning). Like Zakaria, he offers a duplicitous solution: For red states, put forward moderates, for blue states, put forward liberals, and so on. He concludes that the alternative, “[focusing more] on ideological purity than on regaining political power”, is a recipe for electoral exile.

The Nation’s Steve Phillips has a slightly different explanation. He explains that the supposed migration from the 2012 Obama camp into the 2016 Trump camp is something of a myth. The problem, as it was in Georgia, has much more to do with turnout: Florida, for example, was carried by Trump in the 2016 race because over 450,000 people who had not voted in 2012 decided to cast their vote for Trump. Wisconsin saw a catastrophically low turnout among Milwaukee’s liberal-minded African-American residents, while in Michigan, Green Party nominee Jill Stein drew in an extra 30,000 votes from people who had voted Obama in 2012.

The voters who deserted Obama after 2012 were not going to Trump four years later. They were defecting to third parties or not voting at all. The swing wasn’t from Democrat to Republican, it was from ‘voting’ to ‘not voting’.

When Democrats interpret their loss as a rejection of liberal-minded principles, this mindset leads to what Phillips calls:

Timid tactics and tepid politics that are no match for the audacity of the right’s racist, xenophobic assault on multiracial America”

He goes on:

Fear of alienating the unicorn of the white swing voter mutes Democratic responses when the only proper response to what is happening in America is unapologetically fighting back by every means available […] Democrats win only when their voters are inspired to turn out in large numbers”

Yet, it appears as though the Democrats are opting for Zakaria and Scarborough’s strategies instead. On July 17, at yet another circle-jerk meeting where members of the public were barred at the gates, Democratic governors gathered to mock left-wing efforts to reform the party’s appeal:

  • Montana Governor Steve Bullock openly castigated Bernie Sanders and his campaign for universal healthcare.
  • Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe reaffirmed his support for hideous free trade pacts like TPP.
  • Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo mocked her party’s “snobby” obsession with tuition-free college.

Even the party’s so-called “resistance summer” has been little more than what Michael Sainato calls a ploy “to trick voters into supporting an inauthentic, insincere populist movement through marketing Trump’s unpopularity”. Their strategy is effectively summed up in this political comic; wait until people finally get sick of Trump and reluctantly start voting Democrat again. It is apparently of little concern that over ninety-seven million eligible voters didn’t participate in the last presidential election. It is apparently better to fight over the remaining people still deranged enough to participate in the circus.

At the beginning of this discussion, we saw how Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had managed to push his party back to the forefront of British politics after a seemingly decisive rejection of socialism. He did so by taking the same medicine that Phillips now prescribes for the Democrats: Motivating new people.

Under Corbyn’s predecessor, Ed Miliband, participation in British politics was already pretty dire, and it appeared as though the next generation was simply going to evacuate itself from the electoral system altogether. Who would blame them? Miliband’s cumbersome campaign in the 2015 general election was much like Ossoff’s would later become: It let its detractors set the tone, desperately tried to convince voters on the other side to defect, and ignored the enormous swing potential of the working class and of young people, much to its detriment.

Miliband was campaigning at a time when people were literally killing themselves because of the government’s public sector cuts, but he feared that his party’s economic credibility was still under house arrest after the financial crash in 2007, and he thus abstained from putting forward bold proposals to undo the calamity. He allowed the right-wing press and the Conservatives to blame a global financial meltdown on Labour’s tendency to “overspend”, and instead of calling that out for the bullshit it was, he caved in and promised to behave more responsibly this time. He would resign in disgrace after the election cost him 26 seats.

Burns and Martin categorize the Democrats’ election strategy in a similar way:

“[they are] competing for conservative corners of the country and recruiting challengers who broke with liberal orthodoxy”

Rather than proselytize, they pander. They shy away from bold proposals to promote real change (as opposed to the fakery of 2008) in part because their special interest sponsors tell them to, but ultimately because they’re scared of looking too left-wing for the electorate’s appetites. Hence, Scarborough’s suggestion that they should simultaneously stand both for and against something, and therefore stand for nothing, seems like the key to success. But if last year and the first half of this year have been any indicator, this is the age of populism, and it won’t be defeated by establishment realpolitik.

Upon becoming Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn told the public exactly what he thought, and tried to convince them to do the same. He held rallies, knocked on doors, and spent much of his time addressing people who felt let down by the political system. Yes, the right-wing press still mock him, and no, he’ll probably never rid himself of the centrist insurgents in his party, but he’s managed to bring the government to its knees on policy decisions and to gut their parliamentary majority in two very short years.

His strategy is, at the very least, worth a try in the United States.

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