In response to my last post, my colleague Max Owre wonders why Democrats cannot convert the majority of voters who agree with liberal policy proposals (medicare for all, increased minimum wage, higher taxes on the rich are some prime examples) into votes for Democratic candidates. And another colleague, Sabine Gruffat, tells us that her father voted for Trump on the basis of Trump’s being good for the economy and out of the conviction that the Democrats’ “socialism” would lead to economic disaster. (Their responses are on my Facebook page.)
It doesn’t matter for many voters that any objective measure shows that Democratic presidents since 1930 (Eisenhower is a notable exception) have been better for the economy than Republican presidents. (Greater over all growth rates under Democrats, and a more equitable share of that growth across the board. Links below.) Similarly, surveys that show a majority supporting government financed medical care also show that voters don’t believe that Republicans have tried (and desire) to shrink Medicare and abolish the popular pre-existing conditions rule that is part of ObamaCare.
But much more important than this ignorance is to realize (despite what political junkies would like to believe) that policy has almost nothing to do with how people vote. The Republicans have won the rhetorical war over the past sixty years; they have managed, against all evidence, to brand the Democrats as socialist, unpatriotic, bad for the economy, and hostile to the economically bereft unless they are non-white. The increasing “partisanship” of the U.S. political scene is a product of the deliberate strategy of demonization that was initiated by Newt Gringich in his attempt to delegitimize the Clinton presidency. That effort was then taken up by the right wing media, has continued unabated to this day, and has been a fabulous success.
Recently, the novelist Joseph O’Neill has recommended a similar strategy for the Democrats. They should, he argues, brand the Republicans as the party of incompetence and malevolence—a party that is unfit to govern. Whether he is right or wrong on the specifics, the larger point is that it isn’t policies that win votes, but the “big picture” characterizations.
Driving this point home, of course, is the fact that the Republicans had absolutely no policy proposals for this election. They dispensed altogether with writing a platform—and the voters barely noticed and certainly didn’t seem to care. Policies are for nerds.
The reason this election has been so disappointing to Democrats is that, contrary to what we hoped and believed, Donald Trump has not hurt the Republican brand. While his odious behavior turned off enough voters to give Biden the win, the craven enabling of that behavior by rank and file Republicans had no downside. The Blue Wave (we had one in the 2008 repudiation of George W. Bush) did not occur. Down ballot Republicans pulled more votes than Trump, with a gain in House seats (unusual for the party that loses the presidency) and holding their own in the Senate. The country has not come to see the Republicans as a party unfit to govern.
Here’s where I don’t quite know what to think. The down-ballot Republicans did better than Trump. Yet I also believe that the strength of the Trump cult largely accounts for the huge turn-out on the Republican side. After this election, will those Trump voters go back to not voting? The dilemma for the Republican party going forward is how to keep the Trump enthusiasts engaged even as the party either backs away from Trump-like antics or discovers that even would-be Trumps can’t reproduce his hold on the public imagination. The Republicans are tied to the mast of Trump because of all the new voters he has brought to them, but will find it difficult to hold on to those voters to the extent that they act even semi-responsibly as public officials. (“Holding on” here does not mean losing them to the Democrats; it means keeping them fired up enough to come out and vote.)
Doubtless, several Republican presidential candidates in 2024 will attempt to occupy the Trump lane. But I suspect Trump will prove inimitable. His ingenuous self-absorption, his lack of any filter between id and mouth, his ADHD coupled with third-grade verbal aggression, and his sheer delight in sowing chaos as a means of keeping all eyes turned his way will prove hard to reproduce via calculation. The easiest part of his repertoire to imitate with be the endless self-pitying sense of grievance, of being put upon by all. Expect lots of whining from the Republicans to continue.
Still, the 2016 primaries already showed that Ted Cruz cannot attract the adulation Trump received and it is even more absurd to think Mike Pence could. Without a cult figurehead on the right, there is a fair chance that voter turnout will return to earlier levels—and that such a drop-off (despite all those Democratic fantasies that large turn-out favors them) will benefit the left more than the right. More accurately: in our polarized time, when the party’s “brands” and the loyalties of most voters are fixed in concrete, the biggest fight is the turn-out fight, and I think Republicans are going (post 2020) to have as tough, if not tougher, time getting their partisans to the polls as the Democrats.
Meanwhile, the claims in the left-wing precincts I frequent that it was the moderate Democrats who lost and the progressives who won (especially in House races) have begun. The Democrats just need to move to the left to be more successful. That analysis is willfully blind to the make-up of the House districts. Of course, progressives win in overwhelmingly “safe” districts. And moderates lose sometimes in “swing” districts. Republican gerrymandering leads to more extreme House candidates on both sides of the aisle because there are so many “safe” districts now. To ignore the nature of the districts to make the leftist argument is specious.
I get it. It is frustrating as hell that the Republicans have achieved electoral success by moving further and further to the right. Extreme conservatism does not (apparently) carry any electoral cost. (Although Trump did lose.) So why can’t the Democrats make a similar move to the left and reap the benefits? Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way, as Kevin Drum is fond of reminding us by reproducing the long-running Gallup survey that shows over 35% of Americans self-identify as “conservative” while only 24% are willing to call themselves “liberal.”
If the Democratic party wants to move left, it has to create a left-leaning electorate first. That’s the rhetorical task it has flunked since 1966 The reasons for that failure are complex—and intimately tied up with the ongoing narrative of American racism—but a failure it has been.
Of course, it is not just the Democratic party that must do this work. It will also depend on vibrant, long-lasting, and active social movements. The gay liberation movement (sorry for the ham-handed label; I grasp its various inaccuracies) has been a notable success over the past thirty years. If many of my non-politically informed or engaged students are now knee-jerk Democrats, it is mostly because the right’s hostility to non-heterosexuals is baffling to them—and a huge turn-off.
The spectacular failure of American politics since 1966 has been to develop strong social movements around economic issues. Martin Luther King tried—and might have succeeded had he lived. The unions have not gone down without a fight, but they have mostly gone down. And nothing substantial has arisen in their wake. The living wage movements have had some successes—and even Florida has just voted (by over 60%!) for the $15 minimum wage. So it is not an utterly bleak landscape. But there is much work to be done. Reverend William Barber’s admirable attempt to revive King’s Poor People’s Campaign has not gotten much traction yet, but it is early days.
For me, that’s where the action is. Creating that electorate open to the left’s bread-and-butter issues even as it acknowledges the inequities (not just economic) foisted on POC in our country. And that work is going to have to take place as we leftists also watch how Republicans try to catch the Trump lightning in a bottle in their ongoing effort to direct America’s course in a vastly different direction.
On relative economic performance under Democratic and Republican presidents.
On voters’ refusal to credit actual policy preferences of the Republican party:
Joseph O’Neill’s advice to the Democratic Party:
Survey of Americans who label themselves conservative, moderate, or liberal: