Blog Credo

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

H.L. Mencken

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Message and The Messenger

The big debate roiling Democratic circles is how Democrats should find their way out of the wilderness that November thrust them into.  Here is a mildly representative piece, naturally from Daily Kos.  The basic assumption of issue advocates is, naturally, that a failure to address their issue is what led to Trump's victory* and therefore Democrats must jump on board their message, which is usually something that Bernie Sanders said.  Because Clinton lost, the assumption is that the person who got 3 million more votes than the loser despite high personal unfavorables was bearing a flawed message.

To some degree there is some truth to this, as Clinton was especially vulnerable to the sort of economic and political populism Trump was spouting.  Trump was the barbaric yawp against the "Establishment" and Clinton was a perfect representation of that Establishment.

The argument breaks down when you consider the OTHER part of Clinton's flaws: She was way too wonky.  Clinton had plans upon plans upon plans.  And while many of them didn't go as far as Sanders' plans, they had the advantage of being realistic.  Sanders wanted to send everyone to college for free, which is actually kind of a crappy idea.  Clinton wanted to reduce current college debt and make college more affordable.  That is a good idea, and possibly achievable in a world without a GOP controlled Congress.

Clinton didn't lack for PLANS.  Her problem was that Trump managed to set the terms under which the campaign was fought.  With Trump's high negatives, you HAD to hit that.  How many things did Trump do that were disqualifying for any previous presidential candidate?  How do you NOT address that?

Since Clinton lost, the assumption has been that simply running against Trump in 2018 and 2020 won't be enough to win back the Congress and the White House.

I think that's largely wrong.  Ruy Teixeira has always been the most optimistic of liberal thinkers - he co-authored The Emerging Democratic Majority - which still seems to hold, even if we have to account for Trump's win.  Trump voters are much older than non-Trump voters and there will simply be fewer of them with each election.  Meanwhile the young embrace actual socialism in numbers we haven't seen before.

Anyway, Teixeira says that Trump is basically the best thing to happen to liberal ideas.  He has a TON of data to back it up, so go take a gander.  The key to understanding how something like Trump happens is two things, one of which Teixeira addresses: Americans are "symbolically conservative" and "operationally liberal."

Americans define themselves philosophically as conservative, but tend to embrace liberal policy positions.  This has been true for decades, and it drives me insane.  On just about every single issue in 2000, more people preferred Al Gore's position to George Bush's.  Same goes for 2004 and 2016 with Kerry and Clinton.  However, their symbolic conservatism makes them susceptible to conservative messaging.  Add in the poor geographic distribution of Democratic voters, and you have the electoral results that we have seen time and again.  Democrats get more votes and Republicans get more power.

That leads me to the point that Teixeira doesn't specifically address: the small-c conservatism of Americans doesn't mean Movement Conservatism.  Americans don't really want the apple cart overturned.  Obamacare was change and that freaked people out.  What's more, the party that holds the White House is held responsible for, well, everything.  If things are good, the party in power benefits; if things are bad, the party in power suffers.

This is a powerful argument in favor of continued protests.  I'm not a huge fan of political theater, but the left needs to have as many big protests as possible, to drive home the idea that things simply aren't OK.

What Teixeira really demonstrates though is that the message already exists.  Democrats don't need a "new message."  They need to talk about expanding Obamacare via a public option with a general move towards universal single payer.  They need to talk about taxing the rich to pay for infrastructure and education, especially college debt.  They need to talk about ethics in government.

That's it.  And that is largely what Clinton ran on, when she wasn't trying to respond to the latest outrage against civility and decency from Cheetoh, Benito.

Trump is a dumpster fire.  We are barely four months into his administration and people are seriously using the term impeachment.  The main message the Democrats should be harping on is Trump and Paul Ryan's policies: less health care, more tax cuts for the rich.  Less spending on, well, everything.  More corruption, well, everywhere.

The problem is NOT the message.  The problem is that Democrats need a great messenger.  They had one in Bill Clinton, not Hillary.  They had one in Barack Obama, not Al Gore or John Kerry.  They need someone who jumps through the screen and grabs the viewer's imagination.

And when they do get that person in the White House, they need a Democratic Congress to actually accomplish what they said they would do.  Obama ran into the McConnell stratagem of  universal obstruction and therefore had to water down every proposal to appease Joe Fucking Lieberman.  And then they lost the House and control over redistricting in 2010.

The Democrats have their message.  It is the same message they always have had and it's a winning message.  Trump alone makes that message more appealing.  Now they just need to find someone who can deliver it.

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