Before the 2016 election, a woman showed up at Hillary Clinton’s headquarters in Flint, Michigan, asking for a lawn sign and offering to canvass. She was told those efforts were not “scientifically” significant ways to get votes and was turned away. After Clinton lost Michigan and, of course, the election, the story, reported in Politico months later, became emblematic of a suicidal campaign locked into algorithms and metrics while ignoring messaging. But it also illustrates a larger conundrum for Democrats, one that dates to the late 1960s. It was then that the Democrats, in a shift that ultimately crippled their ability to win elections, began to rely on narrow policy arguments, each tailored toward a different constituency, over grand, national narratives capable of uniting their base.
In 1964, a political scientist named Philip E. Converse published a chapter in a book called Ideology and Its Discontents, in which he argued that voters selected leaders they thought would benefit their “group,” rather than basing their decisions on broader political ideologies. His observations launched 50 years of research into voter behavior, from push polling to the effect of weather on electoral outcomes. This changed both parties, but Democrats most of all. Republicans adopted data and metrics, too, but they also crafted a powerful story—of the little guy crushed under the heel of a huge government bureaucracy that props up lazy ingrates—that would dominate American politics for the next 40 years. It is only recently that the Democrats finally seem to be developing a clear political message of their own.
Since the end of the Progressive Era in the early twentieth century, there have been two great narratives in American politics. In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal united urban Democrats and racist Southern Democrats, African Americans who could still vote, Republican businessmen, and Western Progressive Republicans—the “sons of the wild jackass”—by offering a vision of American society in which the federal government protected its citizens from the disastrous effects of runaway crony capitalism. For decades, Democrats would build their policies, including Johnson’s Great Society, on this idea.
In the 1950s, another powerful political narrative emerged, this time from the other side of the political spectrum. It was a mythological tale of the little guy against the giant; David against Goliath; “individual freedom” against the “ant heap of totalitarianism,” as Ronald Reagan put it in a 1964 speech supporting Barry Goldwater. No longer a protector, the federal government was transformed into an oppressor, an institution commandeered by liberals who took from hard-working Americans and gave to the undeserving. Developed at William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review in the late 1950s and ’60s, it was embraced by Barry Goldwater, developed by Richard Nixon, honed by Reagan a decade later, and used by Newt Gingrich in 1994 to purge the Republican Party of traditionalists.
By then, Democrats had largely ceased to articulate FDR’s ideas. But they didn’t really try to craft a new story about America either. Bill Clinton and his successors in Democratic politics bought in to the basic story conservatives had been telling for years—of an America made up of makers and takers—or they at least recognized that as the framework within which they had to work, in order to sell their policies to the American people. Clinton is perhaps the best example, famously declaring “the era of big government is over.”
That it took Democrats until 2018 to start seriously conceiving of a new narrative about who they are and what they stand for owes much to a cottage industry of books published in the early 2000s, predicting the collapse of the Republican Party as its older, white demographic died off. These books, perhaps unintentionally, convinced party power brokers they didn’t need to create a narrative to compete with conservatives because they could win on demographics alone.
Hillary Clinton’s defeat ended that dynamic. No matter their motives, both of the upstart candidates, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, fueled their supporters with powerful stories of what America should be, in contrast to what it currently is. Their popularity is instructive.
The current crop of Democratic candidates is haltingly advancing a new narrative. Some of it recalls the New Deal. Many of the candidates this fall support busting up monopolies and taking on the power of corporate interests. They talk of a living wage and jobs for all Americans. But they are also advancing a new tale that recaptures the language of patriotism that Democrats neglected amid the counterculture upheaval of the 1960s and finally ceded to Republicans during the Reagan years. Then, patriotism centered around the image of a maverick individual soldier fighting communism. Now it’s built around service, community, and family loyalty.
Women are often the ones using this new definition of patriotism. A powerful campaign ad by former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath of Kentucky focuses on Republican plans to gut health care and vows to “take back our country for my kids and yours.” Texas candidate Mary Jennings Hegar, an Air Force veteran, highlights her service in Afghanistan and rails against the incumbent congressman for working for big donors rather than constituents who have sacrificed for their country and want a level playing field. It is a call for service above self, country above party.
The Trump administration is making it easier for Democrats to construct this new patriotism. The president has said that he needs to save “the big, fat, sloppy United States,” calling the country “foolish” and the site of “carnage.” He has sided with the Russian government over his own intelligence community, and his party’s leaders have cozied up to Russian spies. All this gives Democrats an opening to claim that they are proudly defending the nation against a seemingly hostile president. After decades of being excoriated as un-American, they are the ones sticking up for the FBI, the CIA, the Constitution, and the rule of law. In a powerful moment in July, when Republicans killed a Democratic proposal to appropriate money for election security, Democrats on the floor of the House broke into a chant of “USA, USA!”
The idea that Democrats, rather than Republicans, are patriots has the potential to change American politics. For 50 years, Republicans argued that overwhelmingly popular Democratic programs, such as the social safety net, government regulations, and infrastructure building programs, were socialist. But if Democrats can link those programs to a new vision of what it means to be an American, they will accomplish what FDR did: not only unite the left and liberal wings of the Democratic Party, but also attract disenchanted Republicans. In July, Virginia Kruta, an editor at the conservative Daily Caller, noted “just how easy it would be” to fall for the Democrats’ message.
There is still room for Republicans to disavow Trump and to call for a society based on equal access to opportunity and equality before the law. That was, after all, the narrative of one of America’s greatest storytellers at a moment that defined patriotism, and—as the president likes to remind people—he was a Republican: Abraham Lincoln. But for now, it seems Democrats have this narrative to themselves.