Let’s start with a proposition that nearly all Democrats can enthusiastically rally around: The party’s messaging is awful. It’s piss-poor.
If you live in a deep-blue ZIP code, or just travel in circles with your fellow Democrats, you’re lucky if you can get through a wedding reception, a kindergarten graduation, a bar mitzvah—a funeral!—without overhearing a conversation, or participating in one, in which this frustration boils over. Why don’t they say this? What about this phrase? How about a 30-second spot that says this!
Everyone thinks they could do it better. The party is lousy with these Citizen Consultant types who believe the Democrats’ highly paid strategists don’t craft the right words. They don’t punch hard enough. They don’t punch low enough. They have no idea how to convey to normal Americans that what the party is peddling is good for them.
And perhaps most of all: They just don’t know how best to make villains out of Republicans.
“Why didn’t every voter in America repeatedly see those pictures of the Trump sons standing over the dead leopards and other exotic animals they hunt in Africa! How about the one of a smirking Don Jr. with a knife in one hand and a severed elephant tail in the other? People would hate that!”
That’s me, quoting myself, as I spouted off in my own deep-blue ZIP code—more than once, I’m sure.
“You really think that would work?” Jefrey Pollock, president of the Global Strategy Group, said when I shared this idea with him. “Why would anyone care?”
They would care because it shows how essentially cruel, or even sadistic, the Trumps are. It’s the kind of thing that would stick with people, burrow into their brains; they’d talk about it with neighbors. Or so I think. But I believe Pollock was trying to tell me that it’s harder than it looks.
There’s an election coming up, if you haven’t heard, and though matters have improved somewhat, the odds are still that it won’t go well for Democrats. While they stand a good chance of keeping control of the Senate, holding their slim majority in the House seems unlikely. The current situation may well be beyond the scope of what even the best messaging can ameliorate, unless anger over the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade makes all the difference. As Neil Oxman, a longtime political consultant in Pennsylvania, told me, “The message when you’re in charge is to solve the problems. Get the oil companies to stop gouging, call up the National Guard to take on supply-chain problems at the docks. Do whatever it takes.”
But there will be a presidential election in 2024, midterms two years later, another presidential in 2028, and on and on. Gas prices will cycle down, and baby formula will reappear on shelves. It should become possible again to fly without a nightmare of missed connections and canceled flights. Covid may even abate.
What will be the Democratic pitch going forward? Who’s going to come up with something better than Build Back Better?
Conservatives have played an effective long game—on abortion, notably, with the phrase “right to life” being the most brilliant political branding of our time; on “smaller government” and deregulation; on pushing tax “relief” rather than tax cuts; on owning words like values, faith, and freedom.
Even when they do not win elections, and when their actual positions are unpopular, they set the tone of political discourse and keep Democrats back on their heels. To give one example, conservatives have just about bludgeoned the word “liberal” right out of existence.
Yes, Democrats are the perennial “party of the future,” the overwhelming choice of younger voters. But what is the long-term approach other than waiting for a bunch of old white people—y’know, the types who most reliably vote in midterm elections and who cast the ballots that determine who controls the statehouses—to die out?
In taking on this story, I set out to explore a series of questions. The first ones were: Are Democrats really as bad at this as we think they are, and if so, why?
If you view messaging as a form of combat, with each side using words and images as weapons of persuasion, Republicans are undeniably superior. To be fair, they start out with substantial advantages—one of the big ones being that they are utterly shameless. “We have lawyers go through things to make sure what we’re saying is defensible,” said Democratic pollster and strategist Anna Greenberg. “They have no such compunctions. They just put fucking lies on television.”
That, unfortunately, is a given. But Republicans in almost all cases are constructing a larger story—that Democrats want to exert control over freedom-loving Americans. They’re coming for the guns. Throwing the border wide open so undocumented immigrants can vote. Indoctrinating children and making them feel bad about their heritage.
Democrats were led for eight years by one of the most gifted orators in the nation’s history. He was a success. On his last day in office, Barack Obama registered a 58 percent approval rating. But it is hard to define a legacy. In looking back, the Obama years feel like a Broadway show with a few stirring musical numbers and no book. What, other than the man himself and the story of his remarkable and unlikely journey to the White House, bound them together?
Much of it was not his fault. Obama was blocked from Day One by Mitch McConnell and other Republicans whose stated and unpatriotic goal was to make him fail. He was hectored by conservative figures, most notably Donald Trump, to produce his “long-form” birth certificate (did anyone ever even hear of that term, until they started yelling about it?) through nearly his entire first term.
In politics, it is not enough just to try to knock down the other side’s lies and distractions. If you’re not careful, you can make it worse. “Truth,” said Anat Shenker-Osorio, a Bay Area–based strategist for progressive candidates and organizations, “has very little impact on persuasion.”
Republican Glenn Youngkin stormed to victory in last November’s race for governor in Virginia by railing against the teaching of critical race theory in the commonwealth’s schools. It was pure fiction. Critical race theory—which holds that systemic racism is embedded in U.S. institutions and laws—is a product of academia and is taught in some colleges and universities, not in K-12 public schools. That didn’t stop Youngkin from signing an executive order, on his first day in office, ordering that all evidence of critical race theory be rooted out of the state’s public schools.
Youngkin’s opponent, Terry McAuliffe, a Clinton-era retread and former Virginia governor, not only failed to effectively deflect Youngkin’s nonsense but compounded it by responding: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” There was nothing wrong with the sentiment—that educators, not parents, should write curricula. But it played right into Youngkin’s trope that schoolchildren were being brainwashed behind closed doors.
As an issue, critical race theory is as real as the war on Christmas. It is as real as “ballot harvesting,” a lie that attaches to a lie—the fiction that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. But Republicans are effectively using the myth of ballot harvesting (sounds awful, right?) as a pretext for passing laws in the states to restrict voting access.
There is a genius to all of these things. The phony issues stand in for an absence of any policy initiatives. Republicans are so unapologetically out of ideas that the party did not even have a platform in 2020.
Former President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, no matter what you think of its merits, represented a sincere and thought-through effort to tackle a set of problems. Bush and his education secretary, Margaret Spellings, stood up a version of it in Texas when he was governor. It is difficult to think of any substantial Republican ideas—other than tax cuts and deregulation—in the two decades since No Child Left Behind was enacted by Congress in 2001.
“The Republicans were a party of ideas through the ’70s, ’80s, and even the ’90s,” said Melissa Deckman, a political scientist and the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute in Washington. “More recently, the Republican agenda in Congress has been only about conservative judges, cutting taxes, and maybe building the wall.”
Democrats brought Social Security to Americans. Medicare. Workplace safety. Republicans opposed it all back in the day and would again if it were just now coming up for a vote. They’d oppose mandatory seat belt–wearing, which dates to the Reagan years and his secretary of transportation, Elizabeth Dole, as an infringement on personal freedoms.
Liberated from the difficult task of having to defend policies and ideas, Republicans play exclusively on offense. It is another of their advantages. They attack—usually on the same familiar grounds—and the Democrats do a poor job of defending.
Consider the Affordable Care Act, instantly recast by Republicans as Obamacare. It is broadly popular now. Many of its discrete aspects—especially the provision that prevents insurers from denying coverage to individuals with preexisting conditions—were popular from the beginning. But the furious opposition to it prevented Democrats from passing a better and more comprehensive health plan, stopped the party’s electoral momentum, and crimped its legislative ambitions for nearly the entirety of Obama’s two terms.
There were echoes of the opposition to the ACA in GOP hostility to President Biden’s most ambitious plans. Republican figures opposed the totality but not the particulars that benefited their voters.
Representative Kay Granger, a Texas Republican from Fort Worth, voted against Biden’s big infrastructure bill, which Congress enacted last year, calling it a “socialist plan full of crushing taxes and radical spending.” Then, when the Army Corps of Engineers announced that $403 million from that pot of money would go to a flood control project in her district, she hailed it as “a great day for Fort Worth.” That is a particular kind of hypocrisy, to celebrate and even claim credit for what you opposed, and Granger was not the only Republican to do so.
Early in Obama’s first term, the Republican pollster and strategist Frank Luntz helped craft opposition to the ACA. “I did, and I do disagree with Obamacare,” he told me. “We called it a government takeover. I can’t take credit for that. A woman at a focus group in St. Louis said to me, ‘This feels like a government takeover.’ I said how many of the rest of you feel like that, and everyone started nodding.”
But the vast majority of Americans kept their employer-provided health care and their own doctors, so Obamacare was, in fact, nothing like a government takeover. Nor did it come with “death panels,” the government functionaries who supposedly were going to decide who would get care and who was so old or sick they would be left to die. (The fantasy of “death panels” sprang from the vivid imagination of Sarah Palin, who first posted about them on her Facebook page.)
Blowback to the ACA helped birth the Tea Party movement and cost Democrats a Senate seat in Massachusetts, of all places, when Republican Scott Brown won a special election in January 2010 to fill the late Ted Kennedy’s seat. The following November, Democrats lost six more Senate seats, and Republicans took control of the House with a gain of 63 seats and got a net gain of six governorships.
The losses in Congress were by no means only about the health plan. But Republicans effectively broadened the scope of their opposition to it in order to argue that Democrats were the party of overreach.
The former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey was one of the godfathers of the Tea Party movement, and I happened to be traveling with him in 2009 as he railed against the Democrats’ health care plan. I was struck by the simplicity of his language, which he used to land a kind of one-two punch.
His point was that the Democratic plan was not just wrong in its specific provisions—it was an assault on the American way of life. During a rally at a Harley-Davidson dealership in North Carolina, he said that Democrats in Washington had “an aggressive dislike for our heritage” and a disregard for the nation’s founding documents.
“What should be your guide?” asked Armey, who has a Ph.D. in economics. “The Constitution. This ain’t no thinkin’ thing.”
Republicans pay careful attention to words, the simpler the better, as Armey’s homespun comment–ain’t no thinkin’ thing—would indicate. When they settle on ones that work, they just keep rolling them off the conveyor belt and sending them throughout the land.
Democrats, and particularly the progressive wing of the party, are sloppy with language. You get the impression they use words that they like, rather than what might best connect on the receiving end, which really ought to be the point.
Take one seemingly small example: the word Latinx. It is well-intended, gender-neutral, and inclusive. President Biden has used it. But it’s confusing, even (or especially) to Latinos. It is a term hatched in academia and adopted by the left that doesn’t play on the street. Politically, it’s a net minus. “The first time I heard that word, in the mid-2000s, I was teaching at a university in New York. I wasn’t quite sure I understood and laughed, thinking it was a joke,” the author and cultural critic Luisita López Torregrosa wrote in 2021.
“My first thought was that it wasn’t Spanish—but that it was pretentious. Many Latinos like myself see the ‘X’ as odd and off-putting because it doesn’t follow the traditional structure of Spanish, making it awkward and difficult to pronounce because in Spanish few words end with two consonants.”
A Democratic firm that focuses on Latino outreach, Bendixen & Amandi International, asked 800 voters of Latin American descent last year about the term Latinx. Two percent preferred it, compared to 40 percent who said it bothered or offended them.
In explaining why his organization would not use it, Domingo García, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said, “It’s sort of seen as something used inside the Beltway or in Ivy League tower settings. LULAC always rep Jose and Maria on Main Street in the barrio, and we need to make sure we talk to them the way we talk to each other.”
Democrats have been losing ground with Hispanic voters for a range of reasons. The biggest one is certainly not the use of Latinx. But it is, however, a symptom of a broader problem—an inability to connect at gut level. When voters say they feel Democrats are talking over their heads, they’re not wrong.
I would make the same argument against “food insecurity,” another term that feels like it was formulated in a university laboratory. (It actually comes out of the United Nations.) I understand—it takes into account food safety and nutritional value—but if you were trying to move someone to action, is it really better than hunger?
“We’re wonks on the left,” said Alex Lawson, the executive director of Social Security Works, which advocates to protect and strengthen Social Security. “The messaging is honest, straightforward, and too nerdy.”
Luntz, the Republican consultant, is a ubiquitous television presence and longtime Republican wordsmith. He pays close attention to the language employed by both sides, and if he hears something good used by his opponents, he sets out to puncture it. To counter “global warming”—which suggests the planet is in danger of baking—Luntz advised his clients to use the less–alarming-sounding “climate change.” (His clients included the Republican Party and President George W. Bush; he told me that he now regrets this and has since consulted for the Environmental Defense Fund.)
Luntz is not a Trump fan but believes the former president’s resurrection of the slogan “America First” was brilliant. “It’s just two words,” he pointed out, and they resonate. When I countered that America First is a phrase associated with the aviator Charles Lindbergh, an antisemite who wanted the United States to stay out of World War II and negotiate with Hitler, Luntz threw back his head and laughed. “You’re a freak,” he said. “Do you know how many Americans know that? One percent? A half-percent?”
I got the point. Republicans don’t assume voters have much historical literacy. They don’t overestimate their intelligence. But Democrats do.
“Sell the brownie, not the recipe,” is the top-line advice that Shenker-Osorio gives to her clients. She has consulted for various candidates and organizations, both overseas and in the United States, including the Senate Democratic Caucus. She tries to coax progressives out of their long-windedness—their instinct to aim messages at the head rather than the heart—and their tragic inability to get to the point.
“I want them to say fewer things and say them more often,” she said. “But Democrats get bored with that. They’re not good at it. I say this with so much sadness, but Elizabeth Warren spent an entire campaign selling the recipe rather than the brownie. I tell people: Don’t take your policy out in public. It’s not seemly. Your policy is not your message. The message is the outcome of your policy. For example, ‘We’re going to give you family leave so you’re going to be there the first time your baby smiles. We’ll raise the minimum wage so you can put food on your table, and you’ll be home to eat dinner with your family.’”
I heard the same frustrations from others involved in Democratic messaging. They get it. But it’s hard to get others to understand and follow along.
“D.C. Democrats are always complaining about the messaging, or they’re sure they’ve got the right message,” Lawson said. “But the problem is we’ve got 300 different messengers. You can even see multiple different messages coming out on the Sunday shows.”
Said Paul Maslin, a Democratic consultant whose career goes back to the 1976 Carter campaign: “The New Deal was something tangible. The Great Society was the same thing. These were coherent things that connected ideals to legislation. What we have now is a mishmash.”
The Green New Deal and Medicare for All are not broadly popular, at least not yet, and have not carried the day even within the Democratic Party. But whether or not you agree with the ideas, or with others advocated by the party’s progressive wing, they are reasonable policy positions. They don’t spring from delusion or fantasy, and the people pushing them are not unhinged.
The current Republican agenda is a hodgepodge of looniness and hate. You want to imagine all of it would fail just of its own accord, but the depressing truth is that there’s a market for it.
The most mean-spirited positions do not emanate from a far pole of the conservative movement. They swim in the mainstream—for instance, the recently enacted platform of the Republican Party in Texas, the nation’s second-largest state, which defines homosexuality as “abnormal” behavior.
Or the Republican orthodoxy that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump.
Or, for that matter, the majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court’s takedown of Roe v. Wade, written by Justice Samuel Alito, which quotes as an authority on the subject of reproductive rights seventeenth-century English jurist Matthew Hale—who held that men could not be prosecuted for raping their wives—as well as a thirteenth-century cleric and jurist by the name of Henry de Bracton.
Add to that the concurring opinion of Clarence Thomas, who wrote that the court “should reconsider” other decisions—including the decriminalization of same-sex relationships; the right to gay marriage; and 1965’s Griswold v. Connecticut, which held that married couples have a right to contraception.
The two major parties “do not operate as simple mirror images,” the political scientists Matt Grossman and David Hopkins observe in their 2016 book, Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats. They write that even as Democrats have moved to the left on certain social issues, the party’s governing style can be described as “technocratic incrementalism over one guided by a comprehensive value system.” Democratic voters largely expect their elected officials to compromise—both among themselves, and, where possible, with the opposing party.
Republicans, by contrast, view politics as “ideological conflict” and demand that their elected officials adhere to “doctrinal purity.” They “interpret electoral defeat as a consequence of insufficient, rather than excessive, ideological purity.”
The tone of this very smart book is mild, as you’d expect from two academics. I would take it further than they do: One of our political parties operates within the realm of reason and sanity. The other has crossed over into a world of dark and dangerous madness.
In 2016, a North Carolina man fired an AR-15 rifle inside a Washington pizza parlor, based on his belief that a Satanic child sex abuse ring involving Hillary Clinton and other Democrats was operating out of its basement. This was a fantasy spun out of the weirder corners of right-wing philosophy, and the attack, which became known as Pizzagate, was the first time that many Americans heard the crackpot beliefs of the online community that would soon be calling itself QAnon.
Six years later, polling by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 25 percent of Republicans believe in QAnon’s three core concepts, which PRRI defined as: The government, media and financial sector are run by Satan-worshipping pedophiles; there is a “storm” coming soon that will sweep elites from power; the nation is so far off track that American patriots may have to resort to violence to save it.
There’s an abundance of additional evidence that the American fringe is now the GOP mainstream. About 70 percent of Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. Republican elected officials, including members of Congress, now push the belief that Democrats are involved in “grooming” children for pedophiles.
Democrats tend to be “diverse and eclectic,” said Geoffrey Layman, chairman of the political science department at the University of Notre Dame. “They don’t buy the party talking points hook, line, and sinker.”
Republicans lean toward “authoritarianism,” he continued. “They believe what they are told by their leaders, whether it’s Fox News or their political leaders. It’s no longer a Reagan-era vision of conservative government, God, and country. Trumpism has elements of that. But the base does not question when he quotes ‘Two Corinthians.’ They accepted the Trumpist takeover of the party in order to win.”
Professional Democrats are equally horrified by the content of the conservative messaging—and by the fact that it works. Far-right, Trumpist rhetoric energizes the Republican base, and in 2020 drove a massive turnout, countering Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts and nearly giving Trump a second term.
Democrats have won in the nationwide vote count seven of the last eight presidential elections. But Republican messaging is having an impact where it counts: in battleground—or newly battleground—states.
Pennsylvania is the best example. It looked safely Democratic, at least in presidential cycles, having voted for the party’s nominee six consecutive times between 1992 and 2012, in all cases by comfortable margins. But Trump narrowly carried the state in 2016 over Hillary Clinton—and Joe Biden won it back four years later in a contest that was nearly as close.
With a population that is older and whiter than the national average, Pennsylvania is full of voters who are especially vulnerable to Republican appeals. The same is true of Wisconsin and Michigan, two other states that have trended more Republican in the last decade. “They’re not selling anything or trying to do anything,” Layman said. “What unites them is MAGA-ism—the shared sense that America used to be a country that worked for us, and we need to get back to that greatness.”
The backward-looking appeals are nakedly racist—whether the subject is border security, government spending, or even China and Covid. “They basically only have one story to tell,” said Shenker-Osorio. “It’s about status threat and racial grievance.”
Some Democrats believe, or at least want to hope, that this is sort of a Republican last gasp. “Their fundamental argument is, basically, we want to stand in the way of a country that is surging past us,” Maslin said. “They’re a wounded animal fighting a last battle.” Maybe so. But their story is unifying for a big chunk of Americans, even if it is not a majority. It demonizes enemies, gives voice to the aggrieved, and sends an army of angry working-class voters to the polls.
It’s a common refrain now to say that U.S. politics are tribal, but what gets left out is that Democrats are not a good tribe and, in fact, are a long way from the Oxford English Dictionary definition of “a close-knit community under a defined leader, chief, or ruling council.” Democrats let their members wander off in all manner of unproductive directions. They don’t go to war with winning as the sole value. They don’t banish their dissidents.
Steven Greene is a professor of political science at North Carolina State University with an expertise in public opinion and elections. When I told him the questions I was exploring, he responded by highlighting the divisions in the Dem tribe: “Are Democrats horrible at messaging? No. Liberal advocacy groups, who are not trying to win elections, are horrible at it. They’re the ones talking about ‘chest feeding,’ the ones arguing for Lia Thomas and other trans athletes to compete against women.” Establishment Democrats, he continued, “did not argue for defunding the police or use that phrase. But the left and its organized groups do. These are deeply unpopular opinions.” The party, he said, is currently engaged in “generational warfare. They’re eating themselves from the inside.”
In June, New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow observed that Democrats are pushing some issues too far and too fast and paying a price. “‘TooFar’ is not a viral hashtag—yet,” Blow wrote, “but it is the prevailing ethos of the moment and the sentiment animating our politics and our culture, the sense that is propelling a massive backlash across the political spectrum.” (He pointed out that Republicans have their own too-far problems.) He predicted that Chesa Boudin, the San Francisco district attorney and a crusader for criminal justice reform, might lose his office in a recall election out of voters’ sense of too-farism—which he did.
Two weeks after Blow’s column, his colleague at the Times, Jamelle Bouie, took the opposite position, attacking the party’s “sanguine complacency.” Where Blow saw too little caution, Bouie wrote that Democratic elders, many of them in their seventies and eighties, were exercising too much of it. “What’s missing from party leaders, an absence that is endlessly frustrating to younger liberals, is any sense of urgency and crisis—any sense that our system is on the brink,” he wrote.
Bouie is right, too. But the two positions are hard to square. Many more moderate Democrats look at the current state of affairs—mass shootings, polar ice caps melting, threats to democracy itself—with the same alarm that the party’s progressive wing does. But their impatience is tempered by the reality of the party’s precarious hold on power, currently a slim majority in the House and a one-vote edge in the Senate. (That margin comes with the necessity of a tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris and depends on Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona aligning with the Democratic tribe.)
A sense of patience and optimism—the feeling that if you just wait it out and keep working, life will get better—was a hallmark of the post–World War II generation of New Deal liberals. They emerged from a Depression and a triumphant battle with Nazism into a degree of comfort and wealth, and many passed their tomorrow-will-be-a-brighter-day outlook on to their boomer children.
But to this generation of younger Democrats, those feelings seem radically out of date. Progressive Democrats are pushing for measures to address a climate crisis they see as urgent. “But then you have the moderates in the party who say we don’t want to talk about the Green New Deal,” Maslin said. “Their feeling is: We’re on the front lines and it’s going to get us beat. As Democrats, we’re in a box. We defend the system, defend government, and say we can make it work. The Republicans don’t have that burden. Did anyone really believe Trump was going to build the wall?”
A more cautious approach risks alienating younger voters, always the least reliable slice of the electorate. They turned out for Obama, and young Democrats, and especially young women, have been eager volunteers in recent elections. But a Washington Post story in July indicated that enthusiasm for Democrats among the youngest voters was lagging. “If there isn’t something substantive done on the issues they care about, there is a real danger that young voters will not vote or volunteer on campaigns to the same degree as they did in 2020,” David McLennan, a political science professor and polling director at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina, told the Post. “They are very unhappy with the ability of Democrats to get stuff done.” (In late August, Biden did announce some student debt relief.)
Maslin told me his nightmare scenario. “What I worry about,” he said, “is if the younger third, primarily millennials, throws up their hands and says this isn’t fucking worth it. If that happens, God help us.”
Democrats have been left with a narrow path to victory, both in assembling majorities in Congress and winning the presidency. The formula requires huge margins in the cities and close-in suburbs and a continued hold on female voters, Black voters, and college-educated whites. There was some slippage of Black support in 2020 and, more alarmingly, a bigger drop-off in the party’s winning margins with Hispanics. Most of the rest of the electorate—noncollege-educated whites, churchgoing white Christians, just about everyone in that big swath of red across the nation’s midsection—is currently unreachable. They’re the other tribe.
This leads to the perennial Democratic lament that working-class and poor voters in the Rust Belt—in the hollows of West Virginia, in hamlets in Arkansas—are voting against their economic self-interests. This is such a strongly held belief that it could almost be part of their party platforms.
Stop it already. It’s like the classic definition of insanity—doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Democrats will not win over hearts in the dug-in Republican base by, say, improving dental care options in the ACA. The likelihood is that Republicans in Washington would vote against it and then claim credit in their districts when it passes.
There’s a raft of political science research that voters, and maybe especially Republican voters, are led by emotion as much as rationality. They go with the team they feel is pulling for them. Is it really voting against their self-interest when they cast ballots to put people in office who speak their language and make them feel better?
The pursuit of happiness is right there in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence! It makes people happy to cast a vote that elevates their tribe. It’s not rational, of course, but the Democrats’ consistent miscalculation is to believe that people address the world as they do—which is to say, rationally. “When it’s said that people are voting against their self-interest, it’s a mistake to define self-interest in purely economic terms,” said Laurel Elder, a political science professor at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York, and the co-author, with Steven Greene, of The Politics of Parenthood. “They vote on emotion, on what gives meaning to their lives.”
Elder told me about panel data—repeated surveys of the same people over the course of time—that asked how they thought the economy was faring. “When Obama was president, the Republicans said the economy was not doing well,” Elder stated. “The very same people said it was doing great as soon as Trump came into office.”
What can Democrats do to unite their tribe and bring new members into the fold?
California Governor Gavin Newsom took the unusual step of running a TV advertisement this summer in Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis and his Republican allies pushed through what became known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law—the measure that restricts what teachers can instruct about sexual orientation and gender identity. Florida is also a national leader in the dubious category of ripping controversial books from the shelves of school libraries. “Freedom is under attack in your state,” Newsom says in the ad. “I urge all of you living in Florida to join the fight, or join us in California, where we believe in freedom.”
Representative Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat and candidate for an open Senate seat, occupies a place on the ideological spectrum far to the right of the San Francisco–born Newsom. In a July appearance on Meet the Press, he addressed the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade. “This is the largest governmental overreach in the private lives of citizens in my lifetime,” Ryan said. “This is big government coming into your doctor’s office, to your bedroom. It’s crazy. This is not freedom. America is a country built on freedom. Everybody’s free except for a woman when she’s pregnant? Holy cow, that’s a huge stretch.”
Note the repeated use, from both men, of a single word: freedom.
In August, voters in deep-red Kansas resoundingly defeated a referendum that would have changed the state’s constitution to say that there was no right to abortion in the state, by a margin of 59 to 41 percent. The name of the organization that formed to defend the reproductive rights of women in the state: Kansans for Constitutional Freedom.
Freedom is one of the big words that Republicans have owned. “Democrats don’t want to talk about religion, faith, and freedom,” Luntz told me. “That comes off the Republican tongue like butter. Democrats choke on it.”
I don’t think Luntz is necessarily correct about the value of the first two words. In an increasingly secular nation, invoking religion can cut both ways. As for faith—in what? The word has come to mean just one thing, religious faith, but many secular Americans would say they do have faith—in family, in science, in America’s future.
Freedom, though, is the winning word for Democrats. It is the beacon that brought immigrants pouring into this country. In its fullest form, it is what the descendants of enslaved Africans have fought for over the whole of the nation’s 246-year history. It’s the through line for the nation’s proudest accomplishments and purest ambitions.
The Supreme Court decision overturning Roe unmasked Republican hypocrisy over the word. Democrats have begun to reclaim it and should keep at it. And seize on every chance to attach it to their issues.
Freedom for women to have control over their own choices and bodies. Freedom to vote. Freedom to love who you want. Freedom to read what you want. Freedom to earn a living wage. Freedom to send your children off to school without fear they’ll be riddled with bullets from an AR-15. Freedom for your kids and grandkids to dwell on a livable planet.
The last Republican president, Donald Trump, buddied up with former KGB agent Vladimir Putin. An organization led by establishment Republicans, the Conservative Political Action Conference, held a conference earlier this year in Hungary, which is led by Viktor Orban, an anti-gay, anti-immigrant strongman systematically dismantling his nation’s democracy. CPAC then welcomed Orban to its conference in Texas, days after he decried “race-mixing” and argued that Hungary should be for pure Europeans—remarks so vile that a longtime ally resigned her position as an Orban adviser and decried the comments as “a pure Nazi speech worthy of Goebbels.”
This is the current direction of American conservatives. Toward authoritarianism, scapegoating of outsiders, and Soviet-style disinformation. The hard-right lurch of the conservative movement is a tragedy for the nation, an urgent threat to our democracy.
It’s also an opportunity that Democrats cannot squander. They need to wrap themselves in the flag and use the words that hammer home that they represent the true, patriotic American values.
Above all, they need to improve on the ham-handed messaging that continually threatens to turn victory into defeat. In August, after months of bickering and sputtering, Democrats passed a historic package of legislation that will address climate change, lower the costs that Americans pay for health care, raise taxes on the biggest corporations, and reduce the federal deficit. It was a monumental victory—so sweeping that some compared it to the achievements of the first two years of Johnson’s Great Society and FDR’s New Deal.
Democrats, predictably, gave the Biden package a ponderous name: the Inflation Reduction Act. All that does is remind people that inflation is bad and invite ridicule if it is not brought under control quickly.
Go figure. It’s like they wanted to give those Citizen Consultants something fresh to complain about.
I would have called it, I don’t know, the Prosperity and Freedom Act. What exactly would that mean? Who cares?
Just keep talking about the ways the legislation helps ordinary Americans. Makes corporations pay their fair share of taxes. Keeps the planet livable for future generations.
Sell the brownie, not the recipe—and see how that works.