Here’s the rub: I fear that Democrats are going to win a hollow victory this November.
Sure, they may (though may not) gain a few extra seats ― possibly even enough to retake Congress. But America needs more than that right now. She needs that unity which comes from renewed commitment to a better narrative. This, of course, requires at least some participation from both sides. Trouble is, the Democratic Party has shown themselves both unable and uninterested in reaching out to Trump supporters.
Though I’m going to use the term “we,” I’m not actually a Democrat. But I have close friends in each camp, and I see more common ground between them than many would suppose. People are dimensional. For all the hard words thrown and hard lines drawn of late, many are still open to their better angels calling them to higher perspective.
Making that easy for them will have a dramatic effect on both the polls and the national conversation, and I’d suggest there are seven things Democrats can do to this end:
#1: Embrace the only message that will resonate.
There’s exactly one slogan likely to convert any of those still standing behind Trump — one so obvious that few have taken it seriously.
“Make America Great Again”
If we want to reach Trump supporters, we need to beat Trump at his own game. Workshopped cliches like “Forward Together” and “A Better Deal” will help said cause by about 0%. To win minds, we need to deconstruct Trump’s tricks while presenting a more compelling vision. And nothing will do this more effectively than taking his promise and fleshing it out in detail so as to help people understand the real choice in front of them.
Consider this ad: A nurse giving a diagnosis to a white senior. It’s bad. He needs treatment. The man frets. “I can’t pay. I have no coverage.” As he sits in fear, show Obamacare stats on the screen (patients covered, lives saved). Promise “we can fix this in Congress, together”, then flash “Make America Great Again” and fade to black.
Now imagine fifty variants of this on rotation, each emphasizing a transpartisan goal while hinting at the required work of getting there, each shining a light on the deeper infrastructure of the beautiful American machine, each laying bare the practical mechanics of greatness, each showing Democrats actually doing something.
Most Americans have the same core values. The election ought to be about competence and connection, not tribalism. There’s no need to name or attack opponents. We just need to prove that we get it. Viewers will connect the dots and Trump’s hold will break.
(Note: While the DNC couldn’t legally adopt the slogan as their own, they could use it in ads under fair use principles.)
#2: Place a freeze on non-starter debates.
I used to be a preacher. The first lesson you learn is never to make it hard for someone to take a step towards Jesus. To demand immediate and total conversion is to waste your effort while doing violence to the deeper idea of slow love. Political conversion is no different. We want small wins that compound. Any hint of judgment or coercion undoes this. We need only explain our beliefs in the most honest, direct means possible and then embody them attractively, projecting good will as we go.
Now think about how often we do the opposite when it comes to issues like gun control. We demand an ideological fealty we can never hope to gain. The well is too poisoned and walls are too high. No partisan approach will accomplish anything at this point. So why are we still banging the drum of futility when we could be taking the lead on something that might actually help — like, say, onboarding 250,000 more mental health professionals?
When we extend the olive branch and focus on common wins that chip away at root problems, we gain listeners and build mutual respect. While some policies may need to change, we can always circle back later to discuss them after the hurt and distrust have been replaced by a foundation for fruitful and cooperative engagement.
#3: Focus on common ground over partisan framing.
We often frame problems in ways that make it impossible for those on the other side to take that first step towards us. For example, why focus on pro-choice allegiance when most Republicans already share the root value of wanting to reduce unwanted pregnancies? We don’t have to risk Roe v. Wade to acknowledge that some people have legitimate, non-hateful reasons for being abortion-averse. Why force them into a binary decision that can only divide?
To be clear, rights don’t have to change. Language has to change. We need to stop making support of the most ideological expression of our beliefs a condition of allyship. For someone to be wary of terms like pro-choice or feminism because of their experiences isn’t necessarily proof of secret misogyny. If we root our discussions in our mutual commitment to fairness and empathy, and if we approach questions about particulars from that shared plane, we just might find ourselves on the same side.
Just so, the world won’t get any hotter if we never say the words global warming again — while our political climate might actually cool if we focus our language on our communal responsibility to be good caretakers of the earth. The same ends can be reached by many means. When we start where we agree, we can get somewhere together in a way that fosters trust and open-mindedness. If our big-ticket policies are truly best, we ought to let the evidence make its own appeal to people who feel heard, respected, and involved.
#4: Stop alienating wealthy people.
As we enter the age of artificial intelligence, the rich are going to get richer. We moralize this to our peril. When we begin with the assumption that rich people have no desire to be just or fair, we lessen their interest in working with us (and we increase their likelihood of writing large checks to opponents and partisan media outlets).
This again comes down to language and creativity. All this talk of punitive taxation and “the 1%” is pushing away those who might want to help. As just one creative alternative, we could offset some rates with an inventory of mutual interest investment opportunities (where the rich gain some discretion about where their marginal dollars go). We’d still realize the desired benefits, but we’d give top payers some agency and the ability to feel good about their contributions. There are tens of thousands of such projects out there, each of which might allow “the invisible hand” (as Adam Smith actually conceived it) to let self-benefiting investments serve a wider end. Think of it like Donors Choose for civic development.
Rich people run companies that need healthy, educated workers. They have children they want to see safe and loved by healthy peers. They have all the incentives they need to be good citizens. The real disconnect is about who decides which projects take priority and how they’re structured — the best answers to which will always involve some interplay and compromise.
(To be clear, I’m not suggesting we let corporations dictate which basic services get offered or how core taxes are spent — only that we could allow them to funnel marginal amounts into special investment buckets as one example of reframing the problem in non-divisive way.)
#5: Offer unconditional amnesty to Trump supporters.
Great leaders always remind us that commitment to great principles wins in the end. They point out ways in which we can contribute, uniting us around a common vision. They reassure us that our work is not in vain. They take away our frustration and give us catharsis and direction in return. They keep us from indulging our worst selves.
The Democrats haven’t had this leadership since Obama left the White House, and this absence has left many of us unsure how to fight against the darkness. Without a better direction, many of us resorted to lashing out in ways we knew weren’t kind or productive.
I don’t know where said leaders are or when they might arrive, but I’d make one suggestion in their absence: that we unite in pushing for a general amnesty in the interim.
Don’t get me wrong: I also vent about Trump. But I know the utility of doing so is purely negative at this point. Not only will it not win anyone over, it’ll push most further away. The problem at this point is relational, not informational. And the only way to solve that particular problem is to take a step of reconciliation towards our neighbors, using grace to pierce those narratives which hateful men have sold them about us being on different sides.
The only practical step we have at this point is amnesty: an agreement to forgive and forget.
I’m sure many have strong feelings against this idea. So did the ancient Athenians when the Spartans ended their long occupation and their puppet tyrants fled. None of those who remained could see an easy path to loving their neighbors when half their neighbors had supported a murderous regime. And yet they did the only thing they could to move forward: they took an oath to forget the past and never bring it up again.
Our situation today is less drastic, but not so different. There’s no scenario in which 63 million Trump voters will fall on their knees to beg forgiveness. Why not abandon that hope and get ahead on the one thing that can be done? As all our best stories tell us, grace produces more repentance than strict justice ever has or can.
(That said, we must make exception for those who’ve directly authored or stirred the hate, from whichever side. By all means, let’s oppose and discipline them openly as an example to all.)
#6: Unify against the greater threat.
The most urgent problem we’ll face in our generation is a lack of infrastructure to deal with the casualties of the shifting economy. We got a taste of this with the collapse of American manufacturing jobs — more of which were automated than outsourced. If Trump won on the strength of that first wave, imagine what’s coming when their numbers swell by 20 or 30 million more displaced workers?
We already have too many citizens no longer able to derive meaning or financial stability from any employment they can find and/or hold. This has fueled crime, addiction, and a hollowing out of the American life. People focused on survival and a search for hope aren’t focused on training for the remaining jobs we still have.
This is a hard problem that’s going to involve titanic solutions. But despite many of our best minds suggesting that some combination of basic income and universal healthcare are part of the right solution, we’ve largely deferred working on either. I suspect this is because the pain has been mostly felt by rural communities (which most legislators don’t live in or understand). But this blight is soon coming to the cities, and we aren’t ready.
There are other grave threats — climate change and nuclear war among them — but none so likely to undo us before we have a chance to solve the rest.
Let’s recall that most of the Founding Fathers despised the idea of party systems, and for good cause. It’s hard to unite against common threats when we’re busy point-scoring and vilifying the other team. The DNC needs to make it clear in their policy, their rhetoric, and their actions that they’re going to fight like hell for all of us, arm in arm with any Republicans who share an interest of keeping winter at bay.
(In this vein, a good leader might tell counter-protestors to skip the next Charlottesville and go instead as volunteers and witnesses to affected communities. You can’t put out a fire by focusing on the flames.)
#7: Delegate more power (and trust) to the people.
The DNC showed itself to be a bought party in how it treated Bernie Sanders in 2016. Perhaps he would have lost anyway, but that hardly matters to his supporters. Those who held the strings were more interested in forcing their agenda than listening to the people. If the central duty of party leadership is to amplify those voices which best address the concerns and hopes of the majority, the Democratic Party isn’t doing so great right now.
Being blunt, the only bright spots I’ve seen have been from groups like Brand New Congress and Crooked Media. Both are brilliant efforts, but both are also non-representative of the DNC itself. Trump has a hundred megaphones through which to reach his base, while most Americans have no idea who Tom Perez is or what hopes he may have for this country.
Whichever Democrats perceive themselves as leaders need to sit in a room and not come out until they have a minimalist platform for 2018. And then they need to turn it over to their base as well as to voices that non-liberal voters trust (e.g., the moderate pastor, the centrist podcaster, etc.) for a good fleshing out, allowing all to see the DNC as representative of more than a narrow list of things that city-dwellers hate about Republicans.
To the degree that we do all these things, we free our better angels to do the hard work of pulling us back towards each other and the idea that is a United States of America.