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The Year Democrats Won by “Going High”

In 2017, the party heeded Michelle Obama's motto, "When they go low, we go high"—and it paid off with critical victories early in the Trump era.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In July of 2016, when a Donald Trump presidency still seemed unthinkable, Michelle Obama coined the phrase that defined her party’s campaign strategy against the Republicans last fall. Speaking at the Democratic National Convention, she described “what Barack and I think about every day as we try to guide and protect our girls through the challenges of this unusual life in the spotlight—how we urge them to ignore those who question their father’s citizenship or faith, how we insist that the hateful language they hear from public figures on TV does not represent the true spirit of this country, how we explain that when someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level. No, our motto is: When they go low, we go high.”

That motto became, as The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance wrote, “an unofficial anthem for the Clinton campaign.” Hillary Clinton deployed it on the stump and repeated it in debates with Trump. Trump, she said in the first debate, “has a long record of engaging in racist behavior. And the birther lie was a very hurtful one. You know, Barack Obama is a man of great dignity. And I could tell how much it bothered him and annoyed him that this was being touted and used against him. But I like to remember what Michelle Obama said in her amazing speech at our Democratic National Convention: When they go low, we go high. And Barack Obama went high, despite Donald Trump’s best efforts to bring him down.” She invoked the line in the second debate to parry Trump’s attacks about her husband’s treatment of women.

But after Clinton’s loss, as Democrats turned their focus to fighting Trump in office, many began to push back on Michelle Obama’s motto. California congressman Ted Lieu told a Los Angeles Times columnist in March that he’d thought a lot about her “beautiful line.... But I also thought, ‘We lost the election.’ My view now is that when they go low, we fight back.” “Yeah, fuck that,” liberal comedian and Obama donor Bill Maher said in an April interview with HBO and ATTN. “When they go low, you go lower. They need some bastards there, you know? Some mean, Lyndon Johnson-y ‘I’m gonna out-fuck you on fucking us.’” This frustration only built as Democrats lost a series of special elections early this year. Neera Tanden, the Clinton confidant and president of the Center for American Progress, tweeted the following after Democrat Jon Ossoff lost the special election for a Georgia congressional seat:

Granted, some of these critiques seemed to be visceral emotional reactions rather than strategic advice. And no serious voices in the party are proposing Democrats match Trump’s low-road tactics. But the second half of 2017 showed how Democrats can take the high road and still beat Republicans. The party’s three biggest winners of 2017Virginia Governor-elect Ralph Northam, New Jersey Governor-elect Phil Murphy, and Alabama Senator-elect Doug Jones—won without stooping to the level of their opponents, let alone Trump’s.

One prominent Twitter critic of “when they go low, we go high” is David Atkins, a Washington Monthly contributor and California Democratic Party official. “The idea of not going into the gutter with your opponent is always a good idea,” he told me last week. But Obama’s motto contributed to a perception that Clinton didn’t share voter anger at a broken political and economic system, akin to her insistence that “America is already great,” he said. “I think the whole attitude of ‘when they go low, we go high’ came across in a really privileged way to a lot of people,” he added. “If you’re going to tout your own decency, you don’t do it in a way that reinforces the perception of being the party of out-of-touch, comfortable, college-educated people.... The key for Democrats going forward is to retain the decency inherent in that phrase but still manage to communicate that we feel the anger.”

Lieu, the California congressman, is less concerned with retaining his decency, at least when it comes to challenging Trump. “If he calls people names, I’m going to call people names,” he said on CNN last month. In an interview, Lieu qualified that he only punches up with his barbs, reserving them for the president and his administration. He also allowed that his Democratic colleagues should choose the tone that best works for them. Still, he said Democrats need to be more aggressive. “If the president of the United States is going to go into the gutter,” he told me, “I’m going to go into the gutter with him and fight back.”

The trouble is, 2017 showed how going into the gutter with Trump can produce cringe-worthy results for Democrats. In his CNN appearance, Lieu defended tweeting about “Lyin’ Jeff Sessions” by saying the attorney general had in fact lied to the U.S. Senate in testimony earlier in the year. But Lieu’s Trumpian name-calling prompted host John Berman to ask him, “Is that a grown up thing to do, congressman?... When they go low, we stay low?” Fellow host Poppy Harlow added, “Is that what you would teach your children to do? Is that what we should teach our children to do?” This is not productive exposure for a Democratic congressman on national television. Lieu replied that he teaches his children to stand up to bullies, but the segment was a failed effort. He wasn’t convincing anyone.

Neither was Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez back in April, when he cussed left and right while campaigning against the Republicans. Not only was that approach painfully clunky—“They call it a skinny budget, I call it a shitty budget!”—it felt contrived, undercutting Perez’s attempt to project authentic anger. “It’s ridiculous,” longtime Democratic strategist Bob Shrum told me. “What are you trying to prove? That you’re talking in a barroom at midnight after too many drinks?” Shrum said Democrats should have launched tougher attacks against Trump’s business record last year, like the ads that sunk Mitt Romney’s president bid. “You’re never going to beat Trump by getting down to his level,” he added. “I think the worst mistake we could make would be to think if they go low, we go low.”

Democratic candidates didn’t make that mistake in 2017. Assessing the Virginia race, The Washington Post editorial board rightly wrote that “Northam, whose knack for working across the aisle once prompted Republicans in the state Senate to ask him to switch parties, mounted a campaign largely true to his reputation for decency and good sense.” That campaign prevailed in the face of a racist and xenophobic effort by GOP gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie, who stoked fear and white grievance with ads about street gangs, sanctuary cities, and Confederate statues. Then, in Alabama, Doug Jones defeated theocratic Republican and credibly accused child molester Roy Moore with a message of unity. “I have always believed that the people of Alabama have more in common than to divide us,” he said in his victory speech last week. “We have shown not just around the state of Alabama but we have shown the country the way that we can be unified.”

Van Jones, the progressive CNN commentator and author of Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together, said these results speak for themselves. “We just proved in Virginia and Alabama that we don’t have to [go low],” he told me, and he might have added New Jersey as well. Murphy won “a race that didn’t see a lot of personal insults or harsh language,” NJ Advance Media political reporter Brent Johnson said. The exception, he added, was Republican nominee Kim Guadagno, who released one incendiary ad on immigration. (The Star-Ledger editorial board called the spot “flat-out dishonest, a cheap attempt to whip up the most ugly and unfounded fears of unauthorized immigrants, and to use that fear to slime Murphy.”)

“Let’s be nice because it’s the right thing to do—and it happens to be effective,” said Sally Kohn, a CNN commentator and author of the forthcoming The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity. Kohn and Jones both say they’re informed by a historical view—by the nonviolence of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. “I’m gonna stick with it being the right thing to do even when it doesn’t feel like it’s working,” Kohn said, “in the great tradition of leaders and movements that have done that.” She added, “The religious, spiritual, and moral heroes we elevate in society are all the ones who literally said ‘turn the other cheek’ and ‘go high’ to heaven.” Jones said his message to Democrats after Trump’s victory is, “If you’re belief system can’t withstand a single setback, take Dr. King off your wall. Take Gandhi off your wall.” Jones also noted that an inspirational message of hope is precisely what propelled the Obamas into the White House, and he wondered why Democrats would want to “throw out everything that worked for us in 2008.”

The political climate today is nothing like it was in 2008, and it’s true that Democrats must confront the growing number of Republican lies. They’ve got to fight the fake news and Russian influence that skewed the results last November, and recognize Obama might have been wrong not to speak up about Russian interference at the time. Adam Parkhomenko, a longtime Clinton booster who served as the Democratic National Committee’s national field director last fall, told me “when they go low, we go high” just isn’t “something Democrats running against Republicans in 2017 and beyond can use as a one-sentence playbook.” For example, he defends a controversial Latino Victory Fund ad for Northam that showed a white man chasing down minority children in a pickup truck with a Gillespie bumper sticker and Confederate flag. Parkhomenko acknowledged that the spot was “basically taking a page from the Republican playbook,” but said it accurately depicted how people of color feel under siege in this hostile political environment. What we know from 2017 is, when they go low, we stay highbut we’re not afraid to throw a punch at any time,” he said.

Ultimately, this is true to the spirit of Michelle Obama’s motto. As LaFrance wrote at The Atlantic, the former first lady’s campaigning last year demonstrated that “going high doesn’t mean focusing on policy over politics—and it doesn’t mean avoiding an attack on one’s opponent. Going high doesn’t mean staying silent when bullied, but speaking out.” As Lieu said, “Doug Jones’s campaign absolutely pointed out the child molestation charges against Roy Moore. Democrats absolutely pointed out the awful things Roy Moore said.”

But the biggest successes of this year weren’t achieved by stooping to the GOP’s level. Democratic candidates simply rode the wave of discontent with Trump, and turned out their voters with a largely positive agenda. Parkhomenko said Doug Jones and his team “did what a lot of campaigns have not done recently. They focused on their base and did not take black voters for granted.” At the same time, Shrum said, “Jones consistently conducted himself in a way that communicated with people and reached out to people who hadn’t voted Democratic in a long time.” “It’s not just about going high,” Van Jones told me. “It’s about going door-to-door, going to every house party you can to raise money, going to swing states.” He said the problem with last year was Democrats simply weren’t energized enough: We’d been in a Barack Obama bubble bath in 2016, and we were wet and wrinkly, and we thought Trump was going to defeat himself.”

Today, Democrats are nothing if not energized. If history and this year’s elections are a guide, anti-Trump sentiment alone may be enough to carry them to midterm victories. But the party is also in a better place today because it’s beginning to heal the wounds of the 2016 primary and bridge the divide between its populist and establishment wings. (That’s heartening to Atkins, who told me “the path forward is to be decentnot go in the gutter, and ‘go high’ in that respectbut to make sure you communicate your frustration with what is broken, how elites have failed, and the Democratic plan to fix it.”) Democrats are also drawing a striking moral contrast with Republicans on issues like sexual assault and harassment. Continuing to “go high” will allow them to keep that mantle.

“You can be a truth-telling firebrand—bold, edgy, inspiring, clever, relatable—and not be a jerk,” Kohn said. Democrats easily cleared that bar in 2017, and are in a position to do so ahead of next year’s midterm. David Axelrod, the former Obama strategist, likes to say that Americans want “the remedy, not the replica” for incumbent presidents. With Trump still the standard-bearer of the Republican Party, and as deep in the gutter as ever, that’s reason enough for the Democrats to stay high in 2018.