The Party of Women

In the last 40 years, the Democratic Party, long the political home of Southern segregationists and Northern labor unionists, has been searching for a constituency. Ham-handed attempts to appeal to Black voters are no substitute for a ballot with Barack Obama at the top. Our appeal to Hispanics can be summed up as: “those other guys really hate you.” As for youth outreach, well:

The less said, the better. Hillary with the stars of “Broad City.”

If only the GOP would embark on a program to find brilliant new ways to piss off 51 percent of the American population. Hmmmm ….

How about, when asked for ways to prevent campus rape, the “moderate” Republican candidate for President were to advise staying away from parties? No? OK, Well for parents trying to balance work and kids, you can take your babies to work, right? Well, at least working women can earn money to raise those kids. OK, no kids, focus on work. Well, it’s not like all those Republicans elected in the States in 2010 pulled some bait and switch after promising jobs and spent their time trying to ban abortion instead, right? No, obviously not.

See, none of this is fair. Surely the top two Republican politicians in the US have a disciplined, professional attitude toward the majority of Americans. I’ll bet the GOP’s Presidential front-runner has a genius for pandering to women voters. No? Well, then, there’s always his responsible opponent.

The Democratic record on measures strengthening families’ health and pocketbooks could be a useful electoral counterpoint. I don’t think there’s any reason to be coy about it. If there’s one way Democrats, warts and all, could shatter the GOP’s governing coalition, this is it.

The Power of Simple

bernie-baby

In the 2016 Presidential election, one of the greatest sources of amusement has been experienced political pundits and journalists struggling to understand why political technocrats with long resumes and impressive accomplishments have fought long, sometimes losing, struggles against also-rans like Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders.

For me, this confusion signals the power and longevity of one of the most powerful myths in American politics: the idea that rational thought is important in voters’ decision-making. The logic of our constitution, with its protection of political speech, creating a “marketplace of ideas;” our belief in the meaning of debates; the roots of our philosophy of minimal government in the Scottish Enlightenment; etc. all embody this belief. The idea that, given the available information, people will make the decision best for them is so pervasive in American life that it’s impossible to give a complete account of its reach and consequence.

The truth is that, while humans are capable of using logic and reason after rigorous discipline and training, we can never be free of the biological nature of our brains. Ideas have power when they support our emotional attachments. When you ask people to do things like write checks, knock doors and drag our monkey asses to the polling place, you have to motivate us. You have to flatter us and insult our enemies because that territorial baboon never goes away. Narrow technocratic appeals ain’t gonna cut it, folks. Ask Jeb Bush or Lindsey Graham, or oh, you can’t, `cause they’re politically dead. Why hasn’t Hillary Clinton, whose power and presence scared almost every major Democrat out of the race this cycle, clinched the nomination in late April? The reason is that people need enemies and they need hope. Yeah, I hear your “tssk” of disapproval from here. You ain’t any different, and neither am I.

Like it or not, we’re tribal creatures with utopian leanings. When Trump promises that “We’re gonna win so much, your head will spin,” or Bernie promises “a political revolution,” it fires up millions of people. When they promise to make China or billionaires pay for their programs, their rallies fill up and voters stream to the polls. Supporters make heroes of political neophytes or obscure legislators, making art or dressing themselves or their children in their likeness, and generally making fools of themselves in their presence or in their name. This kind of irrational frenzy has political power because emotion impels action, and politics is not about getting people to think something. It’s about getting them to do something.

That the downside to emotional appeals in politics is, well, apocalyptic, doesn’t change the facts. Humans need simple, comprehensible emotional appeals to motivate them. Our responsibility as campaigners and activists is to understand and use the emotional character of the human mind to influence voters. If we want to drag America, kicking and screaming, into the Twenty-First Century, we gotta do it by the short-and-curlies. The Right gets that. We’d better start.

Why Bernie Sanders Matters

Although the Vermont senator’s path to the nomination is almost entirely closed, his popularity with key Democratic demographics tells us how to win national power. The key to Sanders’ success was his message of economic empowerment, amplified by a lifetime devoted to economic democracy. The reason for Democratic weakness is that our rhetoric of economic, cultural, and social pluralism is not paired with a consistent record of pursuing it.

Bernie Sanders

Without a lifetime of loyalty to the Democratic Party, young voters vote for Sanders, seeing authenticity in his consistency and longevity. The decrepit party Hillary and Bill Clinton inherited, hollowed out by the backlash to civil rights legislation and its own abandonment of the labor movement, lacks such ideological cohesion and, for lack of a better word, a brand. Without that identity, the general public, without activists’ loyalty to party, has no way of knowing what we stand for and no reason to turn out to vote for down-ballot races that lack the personalities of the national campaigns. The transactional, inches-every-down style that the Clintons and their inheritors favor merely deepens the problem.

The results of this lack of broad appeal could not be clearer. When you leave the cities and the coasts, Democratic power in America disappears. The GOP controls 23 state trifectas (governor and both houses of the legislature), the Democrats 7. Almost all the government that affects most people in this country is run by the most extreme conservatives to hold power in America in three-quarters of a century. This has been enough to threaten women’s right to chooseeffectively disenfranchise millions of Americans, and deny millions of Americans access to healthcare out of spite. The Democratic Party’s failure to turn out younger, poorer, non-white, and low-information voters in down-ballot elections is directly related to our lack of a consistent and appealing brand that could mobilize those voters. A strong economic populist appeal could be the key to that brand.

Sanders’ huge success with younger and independent voters shows there is a constituency for his populist brand of politics, and that the party cannot count on the loyalty of those left-leaning outsiders. Their loyalty must be earned. If the party were to adopt a Sanders or Warren-style populist message consistently enough to make it our brand, we could turn out an expanded electorate in Congressional and state races, instead of just the top of the ballot, enabling us to truly contest Republican power where they hold a decisive advantage.

Although Sanders’ political career may be coming to an end, his ability to raise enough money and inspire enough support to build a campaign completely outside the party make it inevitable that a younger and more appealing candidate will repeat his success to greater effect in a future cycle. It has also brought millions of new left-wing Democrats into the party at a time when aging county committees are crying out for new blood. I hope they are our future, because without them, we may not have one.