Post-Mortem: Simple policies make voters feel understood
It’s been quite a pleasure writing this column for The Tartan. Over the past several months, I’ve spoken to Democratic party leaders, activists, candidates, students, and voters about their reactions to the 2016 election. Specifically, I’ve tried to ask, how did President Donald Trump happen, and how must the Democratic party change to make sure President Donald Trump never happens again? There are no easy answers, but at such a time as this, it’s imperative that the Democratic Party soberly assesses its shortcomings and reforms itself so that it can win back the American electorate.
This week, a Washington Post poll made the news for showing that 67 percent of respondents said that the Democratic Party is out of touch. This said more than the Republican Party and Donald Trump are out of touch. This isn’t a policy problem for Democrats. Our policies represent the best interests of Americans, from raising the minimum wage to providing healthcare as a basic right, to preserving our planet for future generations. We’re in touch with those workers left behind by globalization and automation. We’re in touch with the millions of Americans who need a safety net to live freely. We’re in touch with students who want a quality higher education without bankrupting their great-grandchildren. We’re in touch with people of color who want to walk the streets safely and compete in the job market fairly. We’re in touch with women who want to control their own destinies and get paid fairly while they’re doing it.
But despite our in-touch policies, two-thirds of Americans don’t believe that Democrats really get them. Why have Democrats lost so much over the past eight years? Why did Donald Trump become president? It’s because Democrats have lost credibility as a party that understands the struggles of normal Americans. Our problem is with messaging, branding, and attitude.
Our message is uninspiring, muddled, and often unclear or downright nonexistent. Say what you will about Donald Trump, but his campaign messaging was lucid, powerful, and memorable. Everyone knew what he wanted to do: build a wall, bring back jobs, drain the swamp. Can you capture a single Hillary Clinton policy proposal in just three words? Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” communicated a compelling narrative about the decline of America over the past decades and America’s bright future under his administration, in just four words. Short enough to put on a baseball hat, which is exactly what he did. What was Clinton's message? Go ahead, I’ll wait while you try to think up a coherent answer. I bet it won’t be four words long.
Is Trump a big fat liar? Of course he is. Were his proposals simplistic and foolish? You bet. Does he change his positions more than his underwear? Yup. But everyone understood him, which meant that the people inclined to believe him could be inspired by him.
Democrats need a double-dose of clarity immediately. Democrats have foolishly, and arrogantly, decided that when they make their policies sound complicated, they’ll sound smart. During the campaign, Democrats loved to talk about the reams of policy statements on Hillary Clinton’s website. They bragged about twelve-page white papers right there on HillaryClinton.com, as if the benchmark for substance is the number of hours it takes me to read about Clinton's tax plan.
This is about branding. Republicans have mastered branding. What are Republicans for? Cutting your taxes. Securing the borders. Fighting terrorists. Freedom. And Democrats? We want the wealthy to pay their fair share, so we can give the middle-class tax deductions and expand the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income Americans. So what if that’s a way better plan? After reading all of that, which party’s stances are you going to remember, let alone understand?
Even when Democrats try to do branding, they just fall short. Which is clearer: “pro-life” or “pro-choice?” How about “right to work” or “free collective bargaining?” Or “death tax” vs. “estate tax?”
Why have Republicans won so much in recent years? Why do Americans think the GOP is more in-touch than the Democrats? Because when people understand your policies, they automatically feel like you understand them.
Perhaps the most infuriating feature of the Democratic Party that I have noticed during my research has been layer upon layer of negligent and arrogant attitudes. We’ll start with the downright derision that Democrats have trained upon vast expanses of the American electorate. Clinton putting half of Trump’s voters into a “basket of deplorables.” Or Clinton promising to “put a lot of coal miners out of work.” Democrats lampooning any Trump supporter as racist, sexist, xenophobic. Democrats sneering at those simple rural folk who “vote against their own self-interest” because they are uneducated and/or blinded by their own ignorance and prejudice. Gee, why would rural voters in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania possibly want to vote against Democrats who speak of them that way? Why would the working class think that Democrats don’t care about them?
Democrats were also too self-assured on any number of fronts, overlooking their glaring weaknesses and failing to address red flags because of their arrogance. They insisted that demographics would coast them to victory, that there are simply too many nonwhite voters to elect Donald Trump. They thought President Hillary Clinton was simply inevitable, so much so that Clinton’s campaign staffers reportedly considered using “because it’s her turn” as a campaign slogan. As a result, they ignored Clinton’s flaws and warning signs in the campaign. They put all their faith into a hyper-targeted data strategy, abandoning retail politics and aggressive campaigning. They thought they could simply attack Donald Trump, without putting forward a vision of what they stood for themselves.
But worst of all, too many Democrats refuse to acknowledge that they even have a problem. They blame this whole fiasco of an election on James Comey and Russian interference. They offer Clinton’s popular vote victory as evidence that they’re on strong footing — as if the popular vote counts for anything. They posit that voters refused to support Clinton because of sexism, rather than anything wrong with her candidacy or campaign. They claim that elections are “cyclical,” that the incumbent party almost always loses open presidential elections.
Surely, these were all real factors. But Democrats can’t control these things. All they can do is take responsibility for what they can control, and demand of themselves that they do better next time.
Democrats need a clear, cohesive, and simple message. They need to brand themselves in ways that people can understand so that people begin to feel like Democrats understand them. And they need a serious attitude adjustment. They need to stop deriding working-class and rural white voters, and they need to find a way to resist Trump without demonizing, attacking, and accusing all Trump supporters. They can’t underestimate Trump in the 2020 election or allow themselves to be overrun by the complacent, stale feeling of inevitability. And they need to humble themselves, so they can point out their shortcomings and learn from them.
The stakes are too high for us to allow the Democratic Party to continue failing. When the world needed Democrats to keep Donald Trump out of the White House, we failed, and the whole world became less safe as a result. Now, Americans face an uncertain future, in which looms cuts to their healthcare and education, attacks on their civil liberties, the constant threat of war, and the unaddressed challenge of climate change. That’s on Democrats for letting it happen.
But I’ll leave you with this. Decisions are made by those who show up. If you’re unhappy with the Democratic Party like I am, the solution is to engage, not to give up. If you want to see the Democratic Party reform itself to once again be the party of the people, it’s up to you to get involved and drive that reform forward. It’s up to us to put pressure on Democrats to change. And it’s up to us to get behind Democrats in 2017, 2018, and beyond so we can do everything in our power to stymie Donald Trump’s dangerous, irresponsible, and destructive agenda. Thank you for reading, and I’ll see you in the trenches.