Words For Democrats

Joe Biden got a personal mandate to do his best to unite the country, but the voters delivered a very different message to the Democratic Party. Voters don’t want radical change, and they especially don’t like radical rhetoric. They didn’t like Trump’s inflammatory statements, and they didn’t like what they heard from the far left of the Democratic Party, and what they did hear resulted in losses in the U. S. House and the squandering of an opportunity to flip the Senate.

Now, I just heard a newly elected Democrat Congressman dispute that, saying that the progressive movement elected Joe Biden and that candidates should be free to choose the message that galvanizes their own voters. I agree with the second point, as well as the fact that Biden wouldn’t have been elected without progressive votes, but what the Congressman ignores is that Biden also couldn’t have won with just progressive votes. He also said that he didn’t see how such slogans would matter in other districts. There… I disagree. Given today’s communications systems, Republicans and Democrats alike have taken words and slogans from anywhere in the U.S. and weaponized them. The Republicans were far more effective… and used lies effectively to make people see red, literally and figuratively.

What Democrats need to do is to craft their message in ways that don’t do that to their opponents while still maintaining their goals and positions. As I’ve written more than a few times before, Democrats are too often totally tone-deaf in choosing their slogans and rhetoric. They pick or adopt phrases and terms that, while they resonate within their own groups, absolutely alienate the majority of the body politic.

“Defund the Police” is an example. First, the very words frighten most whites and many others, while unnecessarily angering most police officers. Second, those words misstate the aim of the movement. What those behind the movement want is not to reduce policing, but to reduce bad policing and police brutality, to incorporate better community relations, to develop better strategies and tactics for avoiding confrontation, to develop expertise in dealing with individuals with mental problems [rather than immediately shooting them]… in short, to improve policing so that police force is a last resort rather than the immediate option. But no one simply wanted to rally behind “Improve Policing!”

A second area is health care. Millions of people need affordable healthcare, but right now, government healthcare replacing private insurance isn’t going to fly economically, politically, or practically, and endorsing it raises the spectre of “socialized medicine,” a spectre that a number of Democrat politicians have said cost the party seats in the House and Senate. It also fails to address the real problems, which include the sky-high cost of healthcare itself, the lack of adequate healthcare at all in too many rural and inner city areas, and the high cost of medical education, which forces doctors out of lower-paying medical practices such as in rural areas, or in family/general practice. Making healthcare insurance cheaper and expanding availability while not addressing costs is a recipe for disaster.

Taxes are another area where the Democrats blew it. Raising taxes in any form and on anyone just doesn’t resonate well with most of the electorate, besides which, the tax rates themselves aren’t the real problem and increasing them won’t raise that much money, not without other reforms. The problem is all the special treatments in the tax code. Non-renewable resources can get up to a fifteen percent “depletion” allowance – effectively reducing taxable income by fifteen percent. That’s a subsidy pure and simple, and the tax code is filled with such subsidies. That’s one of the principal reasons why companies and millionaires often don’t pay taxes. Merely increasing tax rates on high earners is likely to be a cosmetic measure that won’t do much at all to increase tax revenues from billionaires, or corporations, but which will scare everyone else.

The Green New Deal and a confused message on energy and environmental issues definitely hurt the Democrats in energy-producing regions… and it was unnecessary. All they had to do was to press for economically-efficient clean energy… and insist that fossil fuels meet clean air standards – which is all they’d ever be able to get out of Congress anyway… if that. But the “progressives” pushed hard for the “Green New Deal” and that alone hurt the Democrats badly in Texas and in other energy-producing areas.

As I’ve also written before, the Democrats need to gain power before they start pressing for radical change. Pressing for such change without power is a sure way to assure that you don’t get power in the Congress, where all changes in law have to occur – and so far they don’t have that power, and likely won’t get it, even if they manage to win both run-off elections in Georgia.

While replacing Trump will improve a great many things, what it won’t do is improve the laws. For that, you need control of both House and Senate, which is looking highly unlikely. And if the Democrats don’t stay focused and united, matters will get even worse… both for the party and the country.

9 thoughts on “Words For Democrats”

  1. Grey says:

    I have many thoughts on this, but am saving my hot takes until after the losing Democratic campaigns have been dissected. NB it may be too early for your broad conclusions on why the Democrats didn’t pick up more seats and senators.

    I’ll note that those that lost had ‘traditional’ campaigns run by the DCCC and party consultants, and if I were them, I would want it to be “the Progressives” fault too… Likewise, most of the casualties were in red seats captured in the blue wave of 2018, when the losing Republicans didn’t know they were in competitive races; things reverted to mean when they showed up in force this year.

    On your point about messaging – no Democratic party candidate, including Ocasio-Cortez or the other high profile progressives, ran on the “defund the police” slogan, yet the Republicans were able to have a field day with it. It’s ironic because, as you note, when you explain what the actual goals are, the vast majority of Americans agree – but when “Defund” is mentioned, support plummets.

  2. Derek says:

    Regrettably, the far left seems to be far more vocal than those who are only slightly left of center. There’s no real way to curtail that. I hope that the DNC is willing to put power above all else. Especially because if they do not, we’ll lose the Republic. There are reforms that need to take place, but we can be assured it will never happen in the GOP’s hands.

    The DNC needs double down on winning, even if that means alienating the faaar left, such that they can reform things like First-Past-the-Post.

    Seriously, if we don’t take enough power to reform our system, we’re going to be steamrolled by a more prudent and charismatic version of Donald Trump.

  3. Hanneke says:

    From what I’ve read, a lot of the progressive Democratic candidates, running on some form of progressive messaging themselves, did win their seats. The number of “Justice Democrats” pledged to not take big money from corporations doubled, even though in the total it’s still a small minority.

    A lot of ‘traditional’ centrist Democratic candidates, running on centrist ‘republican-light’ messaging (“I say no to Medicare for all, no to the Green New Deal”), lost their races.

    Both were smeared by the Republican campaigns as socialists, wanting to defund the police and raise taxes on everyone – which is true of neither group of candidates.

    But from what I’ve read, the ones who lost worst were the ones who tried to approach more nearly to the general Republican policy ideas, which tend to be called centrist in the US, to woo some centrist Republican voters across the line. That didn’t work, maybe because those voters are more susceptible to believing the scaremongering from the Republican side as they are still surrounded by that information bubble. They also didn’t create any great enthousiasm on the side of traditional Democratic voters, as their ‘back to business as usual’ messaging means policies which have lost many poor and middle-income their foothold on economic security, through lost jobs (overseas and to automation), lost access to healthcare, increased bankruptcies due to exorbitant medical bills, and stagnating wages for decades as the rich get ever richer.
    That has turned out not to be a great motivator to get out Democratic voters, while Republican-leaning voters have generally shown their preference to vote for full-blown Republicans anyway, rather than for centrist ‘Republican-light’ candidates (that get smeared as socialists regardless).

    So I’m not so sure that the message the Democratic party should take from this is to double down on their old policy of opposing their own progressive wing, and promoting themselves as willing to compromise with the Republicans, in the process compromising their supposed ideals of representing the workers and small businesses. That leaves a lot of their core voters feeling unheard – as the Republicans have clearly (at the national level) positioned themselves as the party for rich people and big corporations. A lot of those unheard voters then seem to be prepared to follow anyone who positions themselves as an outsider to this political system, who will stand up for “the common man”, whether it’s likely he will really implement policies that help them or not. That’s an open door for populists to walk through.

    If the progressive candidates within the Democratic party, who do say they want to stand up for the “common man”, to make the lives of ordinary people better, get told to shut up or else the Republicans might use them to smear their more centrist colleagues (which they will do, and have been doing, anyway) – that means the populists who arise to fill that void will be Republicans, and the path from far-right populists to anti-democratic authoritarians is not that long.
    The DNC has pusued that strategy for the past several elections, e.g. denying services to progressives to run primaries against centrist incumbents, but actively and monetarily promoting centrist challengers against progressive incumbents. It hasn’t helped them win.

    The only way I see to counter this is getting the Democratic party as a whole to stand behind policies that would really better the lives of ordinary people, and to actively and vociferously explain and promote those. To listen to those unheard voters, and clearly explain how their policies will improve their lives.

    Alas, in the US a lot of commonsense solutions have been demonised by tendentious messaging over decades of manipulation, and people have been trained to distrust experts and facts. That makes it very hard to look at the situation objectively and to rationally weigh the alternatives.

    I really have no idea how to get people to agree even on the facts of the situation, or listen and discuss objectively which alternatives they would prefer.

    I see no clear way out of this mess, but not allowing the disenfranchised and poorer people a voice on the Democratic side does not seem to me like a good path forward.

    1. I don’t think the most extreme Democrats can win in the majority of districts. What I do find counter-productive is for one-wing of the party to adopt slogans or practices that can be used against another wing. In today’s wide open messaging culture what’s said in New York City or Waco, Texas, doesn’t stay there

      1. Hanneke says:

        But they all get smeared anyway by the opposition, even though none of the progressive House and Senate candidates themselves ran on the “Defund the police” slogan.
        I don’t expect you really mean what that implies, that you think political parties should try to limit the freedom of speech for activists and demonstrators on their side of the political spectrum, for fear of some slogans and chants and scary names that might be associated with their candidates (and definitely will be, if they can be spun detrimentally)?
        They already actively decry when activists get violent, or use violent rhetoric, but that doesn’t stop Fox News from linking any such violence (even when demonstrabely committed by Boogaloo boys provocateurs) to all Democrats anywhere.

        So should the Democratic party try really hard to distance itself also from all those peaceful demonstrators who point out the current systemic injustices and clamor for politicians who will tackle those? The Republicans won’t help those people, as they were the ones who put most of those inequalities in place; the rest were authored by the centrist corporate wing of the Democratic party.

        So should all those people who have been failed by the present system be told: no politician will stand up for you, in either party.
        I don’t think that would lead to very good results in the end, either: cornered people who know they are suffering injustice but are sure there will be no legal, political possibility of change are much more likely to take desperate chances, and give up on the democratic ideals of equality and peaceful coexistence that are as much a part of the US foundations as its racial inequality was at the start, and much more important to preserve!

        1. I’m certainly not talking about abridging freedom of speech. I’m talking about more thought in how necessary reforms are advocated and publicized. While the left insists on a $15/hour minimum wage, I seem to be one of the few pointing out that the minimum wage has been gutted by 40% (or almost half, in political ad terms). Without the second number the first seems unrealistic to most people, who don’t understand what underlying inflation has done. No one but me seems to be talking about how a low minimum wage effectively is a business subsidy. Business gets cheap labor and that cheap labor needs government handouts to survive. That wage disparity contributes to “zombie” businesses that couldn’t survive without cheap labor and tax breaks. If workers are supposed to live without government aid, then the same should apply to businesses.

          Or, put another way, don’t complain about health and income support for poor workers when you’re not complaining about subsidies for business.

          1. Hanneke says:

            Ah, that’s a source of the difference in perception between you and me.
            You live in a Republican state, surrounded by right-wing news, and come from a Republican background yourself. I respect your views, and the way you try to gather your information to come to a balanced and nuanced conclusion, but it is likely that this background would lead to a dearth of progressive/leftist information channels.

            I get about two-thirds of my information from left-leaning channels and the rest from channels that are centrist.
            For news from and about the USA these are mostly the Atlantic, the Guardian, the Independent, the Dutch news (NOS), and the progressive YouTube channel the Damage Report (that started out more concerned about the climate and environment, but has become mostly about US politics) and sometimes TYT (which I have mostly stopped watching as it’s too much US politics all the time). You yourself are the reasonable republican counterweight in my information sources.
            The progresdive channels do show exerpts from explicitly rightwing media like Fox News and such, and then talk about the context and sometimes outright falsehoods promoted in those exerpts.

            Through those channels I’ve heard a lot about the damage done to people’s effective income over the last 40 years, as wages have stagnated while productivity and inflation have grown; and all the profits from the increased productivity have gone to the top 10% . They also talk about how much less people can buy for the same amount of money as 20 years ago, as not just inflation has risen but also housing prices and the cost of education – you’ve writtrn about the last yourself.
            Housing prices in the areas with most economic productivity (like California and New York) have risen disproportionally, mostly because rich (foreign) investors out-compete the locals due to the wrong kinds of (lack of) regulation on the housing market – making it impossible for the employees who flock to this work-rich environment to find places to live within a reasonable commute.
            They’ve also talked about the service jobs for which the minimum wage is below $3 an hour in several states, so waiters etc.need to survive on tips, always uncertain if they’ll be able to earn enough to pay the rent.
            So they tend to have discussions about the necessity for a livable wage, which can be different from place to place – in a cheap rural area housing might cost a lot less than in a crowded and growing city, so what is a
            livable wage in Utah or Ohio could be different from what is necessary to live on in New York or San Francisco. Still, even the last two need lots of people in those minimum-wage jobs, and those people need to be able to earn what they need to live on without working 18-hour days.

            $15 an hour is a pretty fair approximation of a wage that a full-time worker could live on, paying rent on a small flat and being able to afford utilities, basic ACA insurance, groceries, car payments or public transport tickets, and raise a kid or two with the attendant costs, in most of the US, from what I’ve heard on those progressive channels.

            They also talk plenty about the different forms of subsidies for businesses that are in place in the US.

            So you are not the only one talking about these things but the information does not seem to dissipate beyond the progressive information sphere.

            Even the centrist mainstream media is mostly owned by billionaires and not interested in such progressive ideas being spread; people might get the idea that the present system is not fair, and that some rich people and corporations should pay a more fair share of the country’s taxes, instead of getting subsidies and bailouts from everyone’s taxes.
            That’s socialism!
            Never mind the ‘socialism for big businesses’, as when Walmart is allowed to pay their employees so little that even with a fulltime job they need publicly-funded foodstamps to live on.

            This is what I see as one of the biggest problems in the US at the moment, the way both halves live inside completely different information universes, and have been trained to distrust what other sources tell them. How does one get factually correct information and informed discussions going with people who only believe Fox News, OAN, the Sinclair group owning a lot of local news, talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, and some right-wing groups on YouTube and Facebook?
            Those so-called news organisations are mostly explicit propaganda machines, not interested in telling people facts that don’t jive with the propaganda they are spreading to bolster the present power structure.

            So as an interested outsider, I sometimes attempt to start these discussions, where I think someone of goodwill might catch a glimpse of a viewpoint beyond their own bubble – I’m sorry if I’ve been too lengthy on here, and will stop here for now.

          2. You wrote: “So you are not the only one talking about these things but the information does not seem to dissipate beyond the progressive information sphere.”

            Exactly… and one of the reasons it doesn’t is that the way “progressives” present that information is essentially intellectually indigestible to to the other side. I subscribe to and read The Atlantic and The New York Times, , and quite a few other “liberal” publications, not to mention all the conservative ones, and, maybe I’m missing things, but while I’ve read a lot of rhetoric about livable wages, for example, I seldom see hard numbers. I see lots of words describing the problems, but only occasionally do such stories offer economic/statistical support. As you point out, part of the problem is that people’s worlds are so different that the problems of people working in cities are incomprehensible to people who haven’t lived in the high-priced urban centers on the east and west coasts. In New York City, higher-level sales personnel, such as clerks in high-end shoe stores, need to make $50,000 a year just to afford two or three bedroom apartments with an hour commute each way. I’ve seen several different calculations that show that the “poverty level” for a family of four in San Francisco is over $100,000 annually. Most people who live in rural areas or towns like Cedar City can’t understand how anyone making that kind of income could possibly be living “on the edge” or even under worse circumstances. This problem isn’t new. When I was first working and living in Washington back in 1973, The Washingtonian published an article entitled “How to Go Broke on $100,000 a Year”[By the way, that $100,000 would be $500,000 today]. Back then I had four children and was making less than a fifth of what people could go broke on. It was brutal, and my family back in Colorado had trouble understanding how I could be in worse shape economically when I was making twice as much as I had been in Colorado at my previous job.

            Also… while I appreciate the dubious complement of being a “reasonable Republican counterweight”, most Republicans today appear to dismiss me as far too liberal.

  4. Ryan Jackson says:

    As others pointed out, in general terms progressives won and centrists lost.

    That’s not a sign that the left is alienating people, that’s a sign that Republicans are Republicans and there is unfortunately a sharp line between Trump spouting scummery and evil vs others just accepting and supporting it.

    People voted against Trump, for that reason Biden won. He won because people now understood what they didn’t in 2016.

    While other Republicans are equally repugnant, they don’t come off as such to the casual observer. Pence would be just as dangerous as Trump yet some people hoped he’d end up President.

    So I don’t think you’re going to see the left get quieter but you are going to see them gain power. We’ll see the Interstate Electoral Vote Compact complete or we’ll see Texas flip blue and that will be a temporary end to the Republican party until the left screws up or the right rebrands and repurposes itself.

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