Given yesterday’s election results, here are some observations and recommendations that I would like to offer to the leadership of the Democratic party—locally, statewide, and nationally:
1. Deluging registered Democrats with fund-raising appeals is ultimately counterproductive. I am on the lists for five dozen or so Democratic and progressive organizations, and at a certain point, the incessant appeals become not only extremely annoying, but also overwrought, incoherent, and cumulatively discouraging. Ahead of one reporting deadline, I received 68 appeals for donations between 10 p.m. and midnight. Some of the messages proclaimed that we were on the verge of winning decisively while others warned that the apocalypse was upon us.
Someone needs to conceive of another way to raise money in 2016, or soon most Democrats and progressives will unsubscribe to most of the lists.
2. Given that the Democrats did much better at fund-raising than at getting out the vote, there needs to be more emphasis on messaging. It is clearly not enough to warn voters about what the extremist Republicans will do if they are elected and to suggest that a vote for a Democrat is therefore always a preferable choice.
The strong progressive positions on social issues that most Democrats support clearly have a ceiling in their appeal: that is, however important those positions are, they are not in themselves enough. Moreover, the Democrats have lost the support of working-class Whites not primarily because those voters are less socially progressive but because, with the decline of the industrial unions, the Democratic party has had no coherent economic platform for the working class. Simply supporting an increase in the minimum wage is not an adequate economic platform because it does nothing directly for the bulk of the working class. We may wish that people will rise above their own self-interest on important issues, but that is generally not what motivates them to vote, especially in off-year elections.
On economic issues, the Democrats have moved so far to the political Center that on those issues their positions are largely indistinct from those of the Republicans. Both parties are seen as being much more concerned with Wall Street than with Main Street. That perception, as much as voter suppression efforts by the Right, has led to decreasing voter turnout and increasing apathy toward politics.
Likewise, in a number of posts to this blog, I have asked how, exactly, the Department of Education would be different under a Republican president. One has to wonder what the significance of an ideological distinction is if it makes no practical difference.
Although I do not think that unmitigated Leftist populism is going to have a broad enough appeal, I do think that elements of that populism can be combined with tax incentives to promote hiring by small businesses, hiring in nascent industries, and hiring within the U.S. The Republicans talk a lot about incentivizing small businesses, but they seldom produce legislation that actually helps small businesses. Almost all of their economic proposals are designed to benefit large corporations and the most affluent. There is a large potential opening here for Democrats. The message should be not that the government is trying to pick economic winners and losers but that the government is giving entrepreneurs incentives to take risks, to innovate, and to lay the foundation for new industries that will generate a more broadly based prosperity.
Certainly, incentives can be created for our colleges and universities to partner in all sorts of new ways with new and existing enterprising—while not simply transforming our colleges and universities into vocational schools or publicly subsidized research and development centers for corporations.
I also think that the whole notion of unionization needs to be reconceived. Given the large and increasing numbers of working-class people employed by “temp” agencies and as “independent contractors,” the old, workplace-based model of highly structured unions is not going to work. Given the cumulative impact of the Far Right’s villainization of unions and the inexorable erosion in union membership and confidence in unions caused by automation and outsourcing, it might be time to start thinking in terms of workers associations that have defined purposes that would appeal to workers–such as insuring safe working environments, preventing exploitative work practices, and providing benefits at low cost. These associations will, however, only be as effective as the legislation that would give them a legal standing broadly comparable to, if distinct in many details from, that given to unions.
Given the exploitation of adjunct faculty, our institutions—no, our profession–might become an “incubator for change” in this respect, too.
3. Having a more appealing platform will be meaningless if the Democrats do not develop more viable candidates. President Obama’s election and re-election have, I think, created a poor model for selecting and advancing candidates. His personal charisma and gifts, his singular historical significance, his excellent campaign team, and the mediocrity of his opponents have made strategists think that anyone can be packaged successfully as a candidate through the promotion of a superficially engaging personal story, a combination of aggressive fundraising, an extensive use of mass media, and an adept exploitation of digital communications and social media.
But a candidate still has to know what he or she stands for and how to campaign, and the only way for most potential candidates to develop those skills is to practice them. In the PBS documentary on the Roosevelts, Ken Burns focused on how much effort FDR expended when he set his sights on a career in politics—on the endless cycle of local meetings at which he spoke in the years between when he decided to seek political office and when he actually announced his candidacy for an office. Despite his family name—despite his family’s wealth and wealthy connections and his family’s political prominence—he did not rely on those advantages but, instead, leveraged them in his effort to transform himself, over time, into one of the consummate politicians in American history.
Today is the day on which candidates running in 2016, 2018, and 2020 should be starting their campaigns for local, statewide, or national office—not overtly but implicitly. The Democratic party should be sponsoring promising candidates to speak before party leadership groups, to allied progressive groups, and to the general public at any available events. If people are going to make a career out of politics, then let’s insist that they devote themselves to that career as we expect other professionals to devote themselves to their careers and disciplines.
To close, then, the Democratic party took a shellacking last night, but the balance of power has actually not shifted as dramatically as the Republican party would like everyone to believe. In our current political realities, as well as our economic realities, we seem to be echoing the Gilded Age, in which neither party could find an appealing message that carried beyond an election cycle or two.
The very big bright spot for Democrats is that the Republicans also continue to have major issues with developing a fresh platform, with appealing to and satisfying all elements of their base, and with identifying candidates that have more than a very transient or niche appeal. They are very beatable, but, to win elections, Democrats have to run on much more than the importance of simply beating them.