June 5th, 2017

In the 21st century’s second decade the surest path to election to public office boils down to repeating four words as often as possible to voters: I’m not a Democrat.

I’ve been chastised by Democratic Party operatives for decades—I think the first time was in 1985 after I first moved to Cleveland—for proudly calling myself an Independent. I’ve only voted for one presidential candidate twice (James Earl Carter in 1976 and 1980) and I turned my back on the party’s nominees in 2009 after President Barack Hussein Obama followed the lead of President William Jefferson Clinton by turning his back, not on those who made him president, but rather on those who voted him into that office.

New Democrats need an old message, the message that saw President Franklin Delano Roosevelt elected four times.

Matt Taibbi, writing in The Democrats Need a New Message for Rolling Stone, has some ideas on what that message ought to be:

Unsurprisingly, the disintegrating Trump bears a historically low approval rating. But polls also show that the Democratic Party has lost five percentage points in its own approval rating dating back to November, when it was at 45 percent.

The Democrats are now hovering around 40 percent, just a hair over the Trump-tarnished Republicans, at 39 percent. Similar surveys have shown that despite the near daily barrage of news stories pegging the president as a bumbling incompetent in the employ of a hostile foreign power, Trump, incredibly, would still beat Hillary Clinton in a rematch today, and perhaps even by a larger margin than before.

Read that last sentence again:

…Trump, incredibly, would still beat Hillary Clinton in a rematch today, and perhaps even by a larger margin than before.

How does that happen? Simple, President Trump is not a Democrat. The excuses for the winingness of that are seemingly endless and pointless. Taibbi continues:

America is obviously a deeply racist and paranoid country. Gerrymandering is a serious problem. Unscrupulous, truth-averse right-wing media has indeed spent decades bending the brains of huge pluralities of voters, particularly the elderly. And Republicans have often, but not always, had fundraising advantages in key races.

But the explanations themselves speak to a larger problem. The unspoken subtext of a lot of the Democrats’ excuse-making is their growing belief that the situation is hopeless—and not just because of fixable institutional factors like gerrymandering, but because we simply have a bad/irredeemable electorate that can never be reached.

This is why the “basket of deplorables” comment last summer was so devastating. That the line would become a sarcastic rallying cry for Trumpites was inevitable.

Ever since I moved to the Democratic Party echo chamber that is Cuyahoga County in Northeast Ohio I have faced an uphill battle trying to convince that the deplorables I grew up with in Washington County, Ohio, were anything but. My personal challenge has become a national problem. Taibbi writes:

[T]he “deplorables” comment didn’t just further alienate already lost Republican votes. It spoke to an internal sickness within the Democratic Party, which had surrendered to a negativistic vision of a hopelessly divided country.

Things are so polarized now that, as Georgia State professor Jennifer McCoy put it on NPR this spring, each side views the other not as fellow citizens with whom they happen to disagree, but as a “threatening enemy to be vanquished.”

The “deplorables” comment formalized this idea that Democrats had given up on a huge chunk of the population, and now sought only to defeat and subdue their enemies.

The people I grew up with—hell I have a sister-in-law who has been twice elected Marietta City Auditor as a Republican—are not deplorables.

Taibbi concludes:

You can’t just dismiss people as lost, even bad or misguided people. Unless every great thinker from Christ to Tolstoy to Gandhi to Dr. King is wrong, it’s especially those people you have to keep believing in, and trying to reach.

The Democrats have forgotten this. While it may not be the case with Quist, who seems to have run a decent campaign, the Democrats in general have lost the ability (and the inclination) to reach out to the entire population.

They’re continuing, if not worsening, last year’s mistake of running almost exclusively on Trump/Republican negatives. The Correct the Record types who police the Internet on the party’s behalf are relentless on that score, seeming to spend most of their time denouncing people for their wrong opinions or party disloyalty. They don’t seem to have anything to say to voters in flyover country, except to point out that they’re (at best) dupes for falling for Republican rhetoric.

But “Republicans are bad” isn’t a message or a plan, which is why the Democrats have managed the near impossible: losing ground overall during the singular catastrophe of the Trump presidency.

The party doesn’t see that the largest group of potential swing voters out there doesn’t need to be talked out of voting Republican. It needs to be talked out of not voting at all. The recent polls bear this out, showing that the people who have been turned off to the Democrats in recent months now say that in a do-over, they would vote for third parties or not at all.

People need a reason to be excited by politics, and not just disgusted with the other side. Until the Democrats figure that out, these improbable losses will keep piling up.

Bernie Sanders (and across the pond, Jeremy Corbyn) provide that reason. We all need to listen and heed their message.

Our survival depends upon doing so.

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