Is This When Democrats Finally Learn How to Message?

Add to that the concurring opinion of Clarence Thomas, who wrote that the court “should reconsider” other decisions—including the decriminalization of same-sex relationships; the right to gay marriage; and 1965’s Griswold v. Connecticut, which held that married couples have a right to contraception.

The two major parties “do not operate as simple mirror images,” the political scientists Matt Grossman and David Hopkins observe in their 2016 book, Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats. They write that even as Democrats have moved to the left on certain social issues, the party’s governing style can be described as “technocratic incrementalism over one guided by a comprehensive value system.” Democratic voters largely expect their elected officials to compromise—both among themselves, and, where possible, with the opposing party.

Republicans, by contrast, view politics as “ideological conflict” and demand that their elected officials adhere to “doctrinal purity.” They “interpret electoral defeat as a consequence of insufficient, rather than excessive, ideological purity.”

The tone of this very smart book is mild, as you’d expect from two academics. I would take it further than they do: One of our political parties operates within the realm of reason and sanity. The other has crossed over into a world of dark and dangerous madness.

In 2016, a North Carolina man fired an AR-15 rifle inside a Washington pizza parlor, based on his belief that a Satanic child sex abuse ring involving Hillary Clinton and other Democrats was operating out of its basement. This was a fantasy spun out of the weirder corners of right-wing philosophy, and the attack, which became known as Pizzagate, was the first time that many Americans heard the crackpot beliefs of the online community that would soon be calling itself QAnon.

Six years later, polling by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 25 percent of Republicans believe in QAnon’s three core concepts, which PRRI defined as: The government, media and financial sector are run by Satan-worshipping pedophiles; there is a “storm” coming soon that will sweep elites from power; the nation is so far off track that American patriots may have to resort to violence to save it.

There’s an abundance of additional evidence that the American fringe is now the GOP mainstream. About 70 percent of Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. Republican elected officials, including members of Congress, now push the belief that Democrats are involved in “grooming” children for pedophiles.

Democrats tend to be “diverse and eclectic,” said Geoffrey Layman, chairman of the political science department at the University of Notre Dame. “They don’t buy the party talking points hook, line, and sinker.”

Republicans lean toward “authoritarianism,” he continued. “They believe what they are told by their leaders, whether it’s Fox News or their political leaders. It’s no longer a Reagan-era vision of conservative government, God, and country. Trumpism has elements of that. But the base does not question when he quotes ‘Two Corinthians.’ They accepted the Trumpist takeover of the party in order to win.”

Professional Democrats are equally horrified by the content of the conservative messaging—and by the fact that it works. Far-right, Trumpist rhetoric energizes the Republican base, and in 2020 drove a massive turnout, countering Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts and nearly giving Trump a second term.

Democrats have won in the nationwide vote count seven of the last eight presidential elections. But Republican messaging is having an impact where it counts: in battleground—or newly battleground—states.

Pennsylvania is the best example. It looked safely Democratic, at least in presidential cycles, having voted for the party’s nominee six consecutive times between 1992 and 2012, in all cases by comfortable margins. But Trump narrowly carried the state in 2016 over Hillary Clinton—and Joe Biden won it back four years later in a contest that was nearly as close.

With a population that is older and whiter than the national average, Pennsylvania is full of voters who are especially vulnerable to Republican appeals. The same is true of Wisconsin and Michigan, two other states that have trended more Republican in the last decade. “They’re not selling anything or trying to do anything,” Layman said. “What unites them is MAGA-ism—the shared sense that America used to be a country that worked for us, and we need to get back to that greatness.”

The backward-looking appeals are nakedly racist—whether the subject is border security, government spending, or even China and Covid. “They basically only have one story to tell,” said Shenker-Osorio. “It’s about status threat and racial grievance.”

Some Democrats believe, or at least want to hope, that this is sort of a Republican last gasp. “Their fundamental argument is, basically, we want to stand in the way of a country that is surging past us,” Maslin said. “They’re a wounded animal fighting a last battle.” Maybe so. But their story is unifying for a big chunk of Americans, even if it is not a majority. It demonizes enemies, gives voice to the aggrieved, and sends an army of angry working-class voters to the polls.

It’s a common refrain now to say that U.S. politics are tribal, but what gets left out is that Democrats are not a good tribe and, in fact, are a long way from the Oxford English Dictionary definition of “a close-knit community under a defined leader, chief, or ruling council.” Democrats let their members wander off in all manner of unproductive directions. They don’t go to war with winning as the sole value. They don’t banish their dissidents.

Steven Greene is a professor of political science at North Carolina State University with an expertise in public opinion and elections. When I told him the questions I was exploring, he responded by highlighting the divisions in the Dem tribe: “Are Democrats horrible at messaging? No. Liberal advocacy groups, who are not trying to win elections, are horrible at it. They’re the ones talking about ‘chest feeding,’ the ones arguing for Lia Thomas and other trans athletes to compete against women.” Establishment Democrats, he continued, “did not argue for defunding the police or use that phrase. But the left and its organized groups do. These are deeply unpopular opinions.” The party, he said, is currently engaged in “generational warfare. They’re eating themselves from the inside.”

In June, New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow observed that Democrats are pushing some issues too far and too fast and paying a price. “‘TooFar’ is not a viral hashtag—yet,” Blow wrote, “but it is the prevailing ethos of the moment and the sentiment animating our politics and our culture, the sense that is propelling a massive backlash across the political spectrum.” (He pointed out that Republicans have their own too-far problems.) He predicted that Chesa Boudin, the San Francisco district attorney and a crusader for criminal justice reform, might lose his office in a recall election out of voters’ sense of too-farism—which he did.

Two weeks after Blow’s column, his colleague at the Times, Jamelle Bouie, took the opposite position, attacking the party’s “sanguine complacency.” Where Blow saw too little caution, Bouie wrote that Democratic elders, many of them in their seventies and eighties, were exercising too much of it. “What’s missing from party leaders, an absence that is endlessly frustrating to younger liberals, is any sense of urgency and crisis—any sense that our system is on the brink,” he wrote.

Bouie is right, too. But the two positions are hard to square. Many more moderate Democrats look at the current state of affairs—mass shootings, polar ice caps melting, threats to democracy itself—with the same alarm that the party’s progressive wing does. But their impatience is tempered by the reality of the party’s precarious hold on power, currently a slim majority in the House and a one-vote edge in the Senate. (That margin comes with the necessity of a tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris and depends on Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona aligning with the Democratic tribe.)

A sense of patience and optimism—the feeling that if you just wait it out and keep working, life will get better—was a hallmark of the post–World War II generation of New Deal liberals. They emerged from a Depression and a triumphant battle with Nazism into a degree of comfort and wealth, and many passed their tomorrow-will-be-a-brighter-day outlook on to their boomer children.

But to this generation of younger Democrats, those feelings seem radically out of date. Progressive Democrats are pushing for measures to address a climate crisis they see as urgent. “But then you have the moderates in the party who say we don’t want to talk about the Green New Deal,” Maslin said. “Their feeling is: We’re on the front lines and it’s going to get us beat. As Democrats, we’re in a box. We defend the system, defend government, and say we can make it work. The Republicans don’t have that burden. Did anyone really believe Trump was going to build the wall?”

A more cautious approach risks alienating younger voters, always the least reliable slice of the electorate. They turned out for Obama, and young Democrats, and especially young women, have been eager volunteers in recent elections. But a Washington Post story in July indicated that enthusiasm for Democrats among the youngest voters was lagging. “If there isn’t something substantive done on the issues they care about, there is a real danger that young voters will not vote or volunteer on campaigns to the same degree as they did in 2020,” David McLennan, a political science professor and polling director at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina, told the Post. “They are very unhappy with the ability of Democrats to get stuff done.” (In late August, Biden did announce some student debt relief.)

Maslin told me his nightmare scenario. “What I worry about,” he said, “is if the younger third, primarily millennials, throws up their hands and says this isn’t fucking worth it. If that happens, God help us.”

Democrats have been left with a narrow path to victory, both in assembling majorities in Congress and winning the presidency. The formula requires huge margins in the cities and close-in suburbs and a continued hold on female voters, Black voters, and college-educated whites. There was some slippage of Black support in 2020 and, more alarmingly, a bigger drop-off in the party’s winning margins with Hispanics. Most of the rest of the electorate—noncollege-educated whites, churchgoing white Christians, just about everyone in that big swath of red across the nation’s midsection—is currently unreachable. They’re the other tribe.

This leads to the perennial Democratic lament that working-class and poor voters in the Rust Belt—in the hollows of West Virginia, in hamlets in Arkansas—are voting against their economic self-interests. This is such a strongly held belief that it could almost be part of their party platforms.

Stop it already. It’s like the classic definition of insanity—doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Democrats will not win over hearts in the dug-in Republican base by, say, improving dental care options in the ACA. The likelihood is that Republicans in Washington would vote against it and then claim credit in their districts when it passes.

There’s a raft of political science research that voters, and maybe especially Republican voters, are led by emotion as much as rationality. They go with the team they feel is pulling for them. Is it really voting against their self-interest when they cast ballots to put people in office who speak their language and make them feel better?

The pursuit of happiness is right there in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence! It makes people happy to cast a vote that elevates their tribe. It’s not rational, of course, but the Democrats’ consistent miscalculation is to believe that people address the world as they do—which is to say, rationally. “When it’s said that people are voting against their self-interest, it’s a mistake to define self-interest in purely economic terms,” said Laurel Elder, a political science professor at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York, and the co-author, with Steven Greene, of The Politics of Parenthood. “They vote on emotion, on what gives meaning to their lives.”

Elder told me about panel data—repeated surveys of the same people over the course of time—that asked how they thought the economy was faring. “When Obama was president, the Republicans said the economy was not doing well,” Elder stated. “The very same people said it was doing great as soon as Trump came into office.”

What can Democrats do to unite their tribe and bring new members into the fold?

California Governor Gavin Newsom took the unusual step of running a TV advertisement this summer in Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis and his Republican allies pushed through what became known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law—the measure that restricts what teachers can instruct about sexual orientation and gender identity. Florida is also a national leader in the dubious category of ripping controversial books from the shelves of school libraries. “Freedom is under attack in your state,” Newsom says in the ad. “I urge all of you living in Florida to join the fight, or join us in California, where we believe in freedom.”

Representative Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat and candidate for an open Senate seat, occupies a place on the ideological spectrum far to the right of the San Francisco–born Newsom. In a July appearance on Meet the Press, he addressed the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade. “This is the largest governmental overreach in the private lives of citizens in my lifetime,” Ryan said. “This is big government coming into your doctor’s office, to your bedroom. It’s crazy. This is not freedom. America is a country built on freedom. Everybody’s free except for a woman when she’s pregnant? Holy cow, that’s a huge stretch.”

Note the repeated use, from both men, of a single word: freedom.

In August, voters in deep-red Kansas resoundingly defeated a referendum that would have changed the state’s constitution to say that there was no right to abortion in the state, by a margin of 59 to 41 percent. The name of the organization that formed to defend the reproductive rights of women in the state: Kansans for Constitutional Freedom.

Freedom is one of the big words that Republicans have owned. “Democrats don’t want to talk about religion, faith, and freedom,” Luntz told me. “That comes off the Republican tongue like butter. Democrats choke on it.”

I don’t think Luntz is necessarily correct about the value of the first two words. In an increasingly secular nation, invoking religion can cut both ways. As for faith—in what? The word has come to mean just one thing, religious faith, but many secular Americans would say they do have faith—in family, in science, in America’s future.

Freedom, though, is the winning word for Democrats. It is the beacon that brought immigrants pouring into this country. In its fullest form, it is what the descendants of enslaved Africans have fought for over the whole of the nation’s 246-year history. It’s the through line for the nation’s proudest accomplishments and purest ambitions.

The Supreme Court decision overturning Roe unmasked Republican hypocrisy over the word. Democrats have begun to reclaim it and should keep at it. And seize on every chance to attach it to their issues.

Freedom for women to have control over their own choices and bodies. Freedom to vote. Freedom to love who you want. Freedom to read what you want. Freedom to earn a living wage. Freedom to send your children off to school without fear they’ll be riddled with bullets from an AR-15. Freedom for your kids and grandkids to dwell on a livable planet.

The last Republican president, Donald Trump, buddied up with former KGB agent Vladimir Putin. An organization led by establishment Republicans, the Conservative Political Action Conference, held a conference earlier this year in Hungary, which is led by Viktor Orban, an anti-gay, anti-immigrant strongman systematically dismantling his nation’s democracy. CPAC then welcomed Orban to its conference in Texas, days after he decried “race-mixing” and argued that Hungary should be for pure Europeans—remarks so vile that a longtime ally resigned her position as an Orban adviser and decried the comments as “a pure Nazi speech worthy of Goebbels.”

This is the current direction of American conservatives. Toward authoritarianism, scapegoating of outsiders, and Soviet-style disinformation. The hard-right lurch of the conservative movement is a tragedy for the nation, an urgent threat to our democracy.

It’s also an opportunity that Democrats cannot squander. They need to wrap themselves in the flag and use the words that hammer home that they represent the true, patriotic American values.

Above all, they need to improve on the ham-handed messaging that continually threatens to turn victory into defeat. In August, after months of bickering and sputtering, Democrats passed a historic package of legislation that will address climate change, lower the costs that Americans pay for health care, raise taxes on the biggest corporations, and reduce the federal deficit. It was a monumental victory—so sweeping that some compared it to the achievements of the first two years of Johnson’s Great Society and FDR’s New Deal.

Democrats, predictably, gave the Biden package a ponderous name: the Inflation Reduction Act. All that does is remind people that inflation is bad and invite ridicule if it is not brought under control quickly.

Go figure. It’s like they wanted to give those Citizen Consultants something fresh to complain about.

I would have called it, I don’t know, the Prosperity and Freedom Act. What exactly would that mean? Who cares?

Just keep talking about the ways the legislation helps ordinary Americans. Makes corporations pay their fair share of taxes. Keeps the planet livable for future generations.

Sell the brownie, not the recipe—and see how that works.

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