Part Two: Democrats
Transpartisan Note #83
by A. Lawrence Chickering and James S. Turner
We believe that both nationally branded political parties—Republicans and Democrats—are following losing political strategies. Here we address the Democrats.
In 1994 the Republicans took control of the House after 62 years of Democratic dominance (since 1932), launching intense conflict between the parties that continues. Like the Republicans (see Note #82) the Democratic Party brand remains tarnished and rejected by the great majority of the electorate.
Note #82 explored why the Republican strategy is a loser. We suggested how the party could strengthen its brand by finding and promoting community based initiatives both public and private. It is a four-quadrant transpartisan strategy with roles for everyone who wishes one.
It would not require that Republicans abandon any of their basic values—in fact, it would integrate its libertarian and traditionalist themes. It would rebrand the Party in a new form that would allow disinterested voters to take new notice of Republican values.
We also noted that the Democrats’ strategy of providing financial and social benefits directly for identified ‘victims’ in need has political advantages over Republicans’ strategy focused on improving the economy, which benefits people indirectly. (We focused on electoral rhetoric, rather than on what either party actually does.)
In 2016, Donald Trump combined the ‘help victims’ and ‘build business’ strategies. He appealed to traditional Democratic voters promising to help unemployed rust belt workers and oppose free trade he deemed ‘unfair’. He promised less business regulation and cutting taxes—traditional Republican policies aimed at improving the economy.
Trump won, like George W. Bush in 2000, with a minority of votes representing a thin slice of the electorate. Democrats carried the popular vote in all but one presidential election since 2000. In states like Texas and Pennsylvania Republicans in Congress out number Democrats despite fewer total votes.
Despite their political advantage, the Democrat’s strategy loses outside their base, allowing minority Republicans, to win for three reasons. First, ‘victim’ as an organizing myth is undependable. Unemployed, poor, working class, women, minorities, and others are all ‘victims’ in the Democratic story despite very different needs and wants.
Second, despite the Democratic strategy, ‘disadvantaged’ groups still struggle. After a half-century of poverty reducing policies, the poverty rate remains at 11/15%. The demoralized poor continue to surround us. Racial discrimination stubbornly remains. Women continue as second class in crucial ways.
Third, Democratic rhetoric about a system ‘rigged’ against the disadvantaged almost certainly drags on the positive spirit and optimism essential to overcome disadvantage. If you think the system is rigged, how do you avoid giving up? Why bother trying? Why not join the Trumpites (Sanders’ loss was rigged).
African-Americans face the same challenge. Chants of ‘white racism’ suggest no black progress until whites change. It is tragic irony that the party blacks support disempowers blacks. Democrats win ‘victims’ votes since Republicans offer no real alternatives. Obama governed with a partisan base about the size of Trump’s.
The Democrats’ political weakness mirrors the Republicans’. Two brands hurling ‘trickle down’ versus ‘class warfare’ at each other, while the government closes and disgusts most Americans. Either party brand could improve by promoting community as crucial for all groups, including the disadvantaged.
Civic engagement, promoting trust, is the ultimate instrument empowering people for progress. Republicans today struggle to integrate Trump supporters, and Democrats struggle to embrace Bernie Dems. Across the country people of varied politics work together to solve problems.
With civic engagement, class warfare and trickle down disappear, and the political strategies that depend on them disappear as well. The parties need to engage with these citizen initiatives.
People everywhere are innovating and collaborating in ways to create resources (including money) while the parties play old games. If Democrats used their greater voters access to build community around new initiatives, they could get more voters to look more closely at their brand.
As the parties rebrand themselves, their competition might shift to 21st century issues such as new sources of government revenue and technology supporting communities and promoting trust. The party that leads this movement might well win future elections.