Theoretically, the left/liberal opposition party should have a lot to offer voters at the moment. After all, the country is presently being run by a cartoon of an evil billionaire, whose stated objective is to make his rich friends richer while eliminating regulations on predatory financial services companies, employers who injure and exploit their employees, and nursing homes that kill their patients. Most people do not support Donald Trump’s agenda: the majority believe that the government ought to guarantee people healthcare coverage and that corporations should not receive a huge tax cut, but Trump’s two major policy pushes have been for the elimination of the government’s role in health care and the reduction of corporate taxes.
Yet somehow, amidst what should be an important political opportunity for the left, the Democratic Party has just received its lowest public approval rating in 25 years of polling. Ratings have been dropping throughout the year and are especially poor among young people. That poses a puzzle, because millennials are actually more liberal than ever, with a greater number now preferring socialism to capitalism. If they despise the Republican agenda, why aren’t they all proud Democrats?
We can get some clues to the answer from Bill Scher’s Politico essay “The Case For a Generic Democrat,” which nicely encapsulates the Democratic obliviousness that is so harming the party’s electoral fortunes. Scher makes the case that the Democrats should be as flavorless and insipid as possible, with no real values beyond platitudes and no real policies beyond opposing Republicans. As far as I can tell, he is quite serious about this. And the fact that there are Democrats who think this way tells us a lot about what is going wrong.
Scher says that Democrats “have been embroiled in a debate over how to fix what went wrong in 2016. Should they tack left or center? Woo white working-class voters with an ambitious economic agenda or double down on the base by blitzing Donald Trump on bigotry? Prioritize health care? Inequality? Oligarchy? Democracy?” But the victory of Doug Jones in Alabama, Scher says, “may have just rendered these debates irrelevant.” After all, Doug Jones did not really do any of this: he didn’t swing to the left or the right. “In fact, he didn’t have any signature policy proposals at all.” Instead, he took “the most pallid Democratic talking points… and campaigned with a pleasant, inoffensive demeanor. He was boring. He was safe. He was Mr. Generic Democrat. And it worked. That should make Democrats think twice about what they should be looking for in a 2020 presidential nominee.” Scher says that Democrats should beware of boldness, because it risks “polarization.” The Democratic candidate should be like Jones and draw as little attention to themselves as possible. Scher points out that polling match-ups between a Generic Democrat and Donald Trump show the Generic Democrat winning. He says that the strategy of being nothing more than a party cipher worked well for Warren Harding in 1920, though Scher admits that Harding is now almost universally regarded as one of the worst presidents in American history. And Scher gives suggestions for candidates who would be the top of the list under his strategy. Number one? Tim Kaine.
As I say, I’m pretty sure he is actually serious. He is serious even though uninspiring Democrats like John Kerry and Al Gore have consistently failed and charismatic Democrats like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have won. He is serious, even though Doug Jones barely squeaked into office with a deranged, far-right sexual predator as an opponent. He is serious, even though $25 million in campaign spending couldn’t make this strategy work for Jon Ossoff, and even though this kind of thinking is openly contemptuous of voters, refusing to consider ways to fix the problems they face, and intentionally offering them absolutely nothing beyond “Have You Seen The Other Guy?” (Which, incidentally, Democrats “jokingly” proposed as a potential campaign bumper sticker.)
If your opponent is discredited by a scandal, running on the platform “I am not discredited by a scandal” may well secure you just enough votes to win. If Trump’s scandals were enough to sink him, the Democrats wouldn’t have to do much to get into office. But we have already seen that Trump’s scandals aren’t enough to sink him. A slew of women accused him of sexual assault in the lead-up to 2016, and Trump got millions more votes than squeaky-clean Mitt Romney. This “I am not my crazy opponent” pitch was exactly what Hillary Clinton ran on in 2016, and it got Donald Trump elected president. Bernie Sanders would have beaten Donald Trump, yet Scher wants to avoid “boldness” and haul Tim Kaine out to lose yet again. (Note that the logic seems to lead inevitably to choosing a white guy, like Gore or Kerry. A person of color might, after all, be “polarizing.”)
Scher’s is not the only kind of misguided Democratic thinking coming out at the moment. Consider Frank Bruni’s recent New York Times column “Democrats Are The New Republicans.” It’s a headline I agree with, but for different reasons than Bruni, who believes that Democrats should position themselves as the true party of fiscal responsibility, family values, national security, and patriotism. Republicans, he says, have proved themselves entirely uncommitted to their stated principles, and “what a gorgeous opportunity they have given Democrats to steal that bogus rhetoric right out from under them.” Democrats are “the party of fiscal responsibility because they don’t pretend that they can afford grand government commitments… without collecting the revenue for them.” They are the party of patriotism because they are “recognizing that a hostile foreign power tried to change the course of an American presidential election.” And they are the party of “law and order” because “While many Republicans and their media mouthpiece, Fox News, labor to delegitimize the F.B.I. and thus inoculate Trump, Democrats put faith in prosecutors, agents and the system.”
As I say, I don’t exactly disagree that the Democratic Party now wilfully embraces a series of right-wing values like panicking about deficits, engaging in McCarthy-esque paranoia about foreign infiltrators, and embracing prosecutors and law enforcement. Bruni and I just have differing opinions on whether this is a good thing. As a leftist, I don’t see anything wrong with “delegitimizing the FBI,” an organization that has spent its entire history illegally spying on dissidents, and that in recent years has spent a disproportionate amount of its resources manufacturing fake terrorism plots in order to send hapless mentally ill Muslim men to prison. To be a “liberal” used to mean adopting the ACLU’s stance toward prosecutors and the FBI: they’re never to be trusted. Now that the FBI is seen as a potential ally against Donald Trump, their “legitimacy” must not be questioned.
I’ve suggested before that it’s a bad idea for Democrats to adopt traditionally Republican rhetoric for reasons of political opportunism. First, and most importantly, it undermines the whole point of left politics: we’re supposed to actually stand for left values, not whatever values are most useful to taunt Republicans with. We should therefore be sincere and consistent in refusing to enter the “Who Loves America More?” patriotism contest, and not adjusting our level of confidence in prosecutors’ integrity based on whether they happen to be prosecuting people we dislike. What disgusts me about Bruni and Scher is that their kind of Democratic politics has no serious underlying principles. In responding to the question “What Should Democrats Stand For?” Scher’s only consideration is what will get Democrats to office. He doesn’t care what they actually do when they’re in office (which is why he likes Warren G. Harding), whether they propose any actual policies or demonstrate any knowledge of how to accomplish anything that will improve human lives. Politics is nothing more than a contest for a few more seats in the legislature, and if the best way to get those is to abandon every hint of a strong moral conviction, well, so much the worse for your moral convictions.
But this kind of thinking is not just unprincipled, it’s also bad strategy even on its own terms. Democrats have run no shortage of boring candidates who sound like Republicans. The “willfully uninspiring” approach to electoral politics seems to have been official party policy for the last eight years, and it has cost Democrats both a lot of state governments and a lot of Congressional seats. The party has failed to recognize the most basic truths about contemporary America: a lot of people are going through unnecessary economic hardships, and the party of the Working People has ceased to represent their interests. Just look at this recent Washington Post article about workers who were laid off from a McDonnell Douglas plant in Tulsa when it closed in 1994. Today, they are well into old age, but many of them are still working, whether as Wal Mart greeters or Dollar Tree cashiers. (Dollar stores are prospering at the moment because for some unfathomable reason millennials seem to do a lot of their shopping at them.) The Post discusses how the decline of pension plans has meant that many workers now face the prospect of remaining employed well into their final years of life, never retiring, never paying off their mortgages.
What does the Democratic Party have to offer these people? What is it proposing to do to fix this? Even the reworked “populist” messaging the party tried out after 2016 did little more than emphasize “jobs.” But people have jobs, that’s the problem. Unemployment is actually low at the moment, the problem is that many people’s jobs suck, and that they are exhausted and hopeless and debt-ridden. The country needs its pension plans back, but that will require an incredible amount of ambition, since corporations are hardly going to do it willingly. The refusal to be “bold” is also a refusal to actually try to make life better for people.
There is a meme circulating among liberals at the moment that sums up the problem well. It encourages everyone on the left who dislikes the Democratic Party to suck it up and vote for them anyway:
Dear liberals and independents: In 2020 there will be a candidate competing against Donald Trump. It is very likely this candidate (1) isn’t your first choice (2) isn’t 100% ideologically pure (3) has made mistakes in their life (4) might not really excite you all that much (5) has ideas you are uncomfortable with. Please start getting over that shit now…
I like this because it admits that it’s very unlikely the Democrats will nominate someone who is inspiring and who people are actually comfortable voting for. We’ve given up on the possibility before the race has even begun, we’re getting a head start on compromising everything we’re fighting for. (The party’s informal slogan could be “You’ll Eat It And You’ll Like It.”)
All I’m saying is that I don’t think this is a good way to get millennials back to the party. “Shut up and vote for us” may work for party loyalists. But young people don’t like the party, and the party treats them with total contempt. It promises nothing and delivers nothing. And yet there are those, like Scher and Bruni, who literally believe that this is sound political strategy. Some of us were screaming again and again during 2016 that unless the Democrats starting getting serious about offering a meaningful agenda, they would fail. But the definition of insanity is making the same basic observation over and over and expecting Democrats to listen…
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