The Democrats Have a Messaging Problem

In the age of Trump, liberals need to behave as mischievously as Republicans always have.

Elizabeth Drew reminds us of the difference between the parties when it comes to messaging. The Republicans, being homogeneous and hierarchical, excel at it, while the Democrats, being egalitarian and diverse, don’t. But there’s another reason they differ on messaging.

It has to do with habits of mind. Democrats are good students. When they make arguments in favor of such-and-such a policy, they usually allow evidence to lead them to a conclusion. This habit of mind is why the Democrats are better at governing than Republicans. They base policies on political objectives, but their objectives are largely based on the facts.

Conversely, Republicans are bad students. When they make arguments in favor of such-and-such a policy, they tend to cram whatever has the appearance of evidence into whatever conclusion they have already come to. This habit of mind is why they are terrible at governing. They base policies almost entirely on political objectives. At best, they dismiss evidence to the contrary. At worst, they attack authorities trying to get them to snap out of it.

From these habits of mind come two kinds of behavior. The Republicans are not only top-down in their messaging but categorically convinced of their rightness, because they do not care if empirical reality contravenes their convictions. The result is sounding authoritative and strong. The Democrats, however, do care, because their constituencies are diverse. They can’t just say the sky is green and expect everyone to fall in line. Assertions must be justified. The result is sounding meek and mild.

There is one area of focus that scrambles the pattern. Elizabeth Drew points it out:

I also find it baffling that Democrats haven’t noisily taken on Trump for refusing to implement a law passed overwhelmingly by Congress that allows him to impose new sanctions on Russia. It was a law Trump opposed, but had to sign because a veto would have been overridden. The Republicans have traditionally been adept at seeing threats to the national security in the administrations of Democratic presidents, but it would seem that in the case of the current Republican administration, Democrats have been strangely quiet on this subject.

For as long as the president refuses to implement sanctions against Russia, the Democrats will have a unique opportunity to behave as badly as the Republicans. They can level a charge against the president—something, for instance, like “Trump is in bed with the Russians”—and let it hang in the air while each iteration of the Russia investigation slowly but surely fills in the gap. In other words, this is a time to be a bad student, to make a claim in search of evidence. Even if the Democrats are wrong on the details, they will be right on the big, moral picture.

Conversely, the Republicans can’t claim Trump is innocent, because each new finding from the Russia investigation would almost instantly contradict such a claim. Because their habits of mind are so rigid, because they cannot behave like good students, they must return to the norm: dismiss evidence to the contrary, or at worse, attack authorities trying to get them to snap out of it.

Meanwhile, Trump has his own way. The more he cries “WITCH HUNT!” the more he gives credence to the Democratic claims that the president is in bed with the Russians. It remains to be seen if there is a strong legal case against Trump, but the Democrats know everything they need to know to prosecute a strong political case.

If only they were better at messaging.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is a Washington Monthly contributing writer.