On Thursday, I wrote that Democrats are failing to address the fact that Republicans have broken our political system. One of the things that hampers their ability to do so is that they forget that politics is a team sport and join the media’s “both sides do it” narrative, which weakens their team’s message.
Simon Rosenberg has written a very thoughtful piece about how young people are “breaking hard toward the Democrats.” But he starts the piece with a demonstration of what it means to play a team sport.
Let’s say you were born in 1974 and are 45 years old today. You were 14 when George H.W. Bush was elected to office and during your teenage years, those when political understandings first form and begin to harden, the economy fell into recession, the deficit exploded, an era of deep military engagement in the Middle East began, and Bush became one of only three Presidents in the post-war period to lose re-election. But then in your twenties this all changed, as Bill Clinton was elected President and the economy boomed, the Internet age began, deficits became surpluses, and median income climbed by over $7,000 per household. The US spent its time in these years fashioning a new post-Cold War order through diplomacy and trade agreements, rather than through military conflict.
This era of economic prosperity and peace came to a halt in your late-twenties and early-thirties with a second Bush, 9/11, failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the worst economic and financial crisis in 75 years. Millions of jobs were lost, median income fell by almost 10%, and the stock market collapsed. But then in your mid-thirties Obama, and all that he represented, was elected President. The economy recovered, uninsured rates plummeted, the deficit came down, and global cooperation on things like climate and trade once again took precedence over military conflict.
Then came the shock and the ugliness of the Trump Presidency, starting with Russia’s extraordinary intervention on his behalf, and continuing with his giving trillions in tax cuts to those who needed it the least, threatening health care for tens of millions, subjecting women and kids to inhumane conditions at the border, and tearing at the country’s broader social fabric though his relentless attacks on women and people of color.
There is nothing in that account of recent history that is an exaggeration, much less a lie. There are probably other things that happened during the Clinton and Obama presidencies that Democrats could and should critique. But from a big picture perspective focused on peace and prosperity, that is an accurate account of the last 45 years.
Now imagine a Democratic candidate who started there and then said, “But we still have a lot of work to do and new challenges that need to be addressed. I want to build on that Democratic tradition of peace and prosperity going forward. Here’s my plan for how we can accomplish that.” A statement like that develops a brand for Democrats that draws the contrast with Republicans. Candidates can then build their own platforms on a foundation of confidence that instills trust and optimism, which is the only way to combat the cynicism about government that is at the heart of the Republican strategy.
Any candidate who embraced such a message would not only strengthen their own campaign, but they would also build the case for Democrats running down ballot and create the kind of team they’ll need in order to have a shot at getting anything done.
As to why Democratic candidates don’t do that, I think Keith Humphreys may have captured the problem here at the Washington Monthly back in 2014 when he responded to critiques from criminal justice reform advocates who took issue with his reporting on reduced incarceration rates.
But a small group of people are upset that I have engaged in what might be called “airing clean laundry”. Their argument is that by letting the public know that incarceration rates are going down, I am effectively declaring that mass incarceration is over (even though I have repeatedly said just the opposite) and implicitly encouraging everyone to move on to some other social problem.
The consequentialist argument against sharing good news regarding a longstanding social problem is that it invariably undermines further reform by reducing the public’s sense of urgency. I am not convinced that this hypothesis is correct. Ignoring evidence of positive change can increase despair and thereby reduce the willingness of advocates to keep trying. In contrast, showing evidence of success builds hope and confidence. Further, highlighting the achievements of reformers brings them attention and respect, which can help sustain them in their difficult work.
During a conversation with President Obama, the author Marilynn Robinson put it this way.
Most of the things we do have no defenders because people tend to feel the worst thing you can say is the truest thing you can say.
In other words, Democratic candidates might be worried that by talking about their party’s historical successes, they’re not conveying the “worst/truest thing” and could undermine the sense of urgency they need to inspire voters. Humphreys suggests that “showing evidence of success builds hope and confidence.” Especially during a time when Republicans are banking on cynicism, I think he’s right.