Repudiating Partisanship in the Wake of November 7
On Tuesday, November 7, 2017, Democrats won decisive victories in states across the country. In New Jersey and Virginia, Democrats Phil Murphy and Ralph Northam won their respective gubernatorial races. In Hoboken, NJ, Ravi Bhalla became the state’s first Sikh mayor, triumphing in the face of a months-long ethnic smear campaign. By way of a ballot referendum in Maine, constituents decided to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. In Charlotte, NC, state residents made Vi Lyes, a 66-year-old former city administrator, the city’s first black female mayor. Lyes ran in response to widespread anger over North Carolina’s infamous transgender bathroom bill and the police’s shooting of a man named Keith Lamont Scott. In Aurora, Colorado, a 23-year-old Mexican American woman sickened by Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election unseated her Trump-supporting city councilwoman.
On the same day that these results poured in and during the week that followed, columnists in America’s foremost newspapers offered a variety of responses. These responses fell into two broad camps: those that sought to explain what happened on November 7, and those that proposed ways for Democrats to build on their emergent victories.
In the first camp, New York Times columnists Michelle Goldberg and Frank Bruni, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, and Washington Post contributor Ed Rogers declared that Democrats’ victories were the revenge of the anti-Trump coalition, referred to by many as “the Resistance.” Other columnists, such as The Chicago Tribune’s Clarence Page and The Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby, credited the resolve of progressive grassroots organizing groups such as Flippable, Indivisible, and Run for Something with Democrats’ successes.
In the second camp—responses discussing how Democrats might build on their early November victories—Washington Post contributors Rachel Bitecofer and Quentin Kidd suggested that Democrats should continue to exploit the hatred for President Trump that motivated so many to go to the polls on November 7th. Fellow Washington Post columnist David Von Drehle suggested, in lieu of this tactic, that Democrats focus their efforts on reconnecting with the working-class white voters who turned out en masse for President Trump in 2016. Another Washington Post contributor, Jared Bernstein, posited that Democrats must focus on “direct job creation” among white working-class communities and jobless enclaves in major cities, too. Still another columnist, The New York Times’s Michelle Goldberg, opined that Democrats won because they combined former President Barack Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton’s strategy of appealing to a coalition of white professionals and minorities with Senator Bernie Sanders’s strategy of grassroots organizing and support for economic populism. Doubling down on this synthesis, Goldberg concluded, is how Democrats can build on their victories.
In the flurry of results, verbose analysis, and ultimately redundant punditry that followed the elections of Tuesday the 7th, many Americans overlooked a study that CNN quietly published that same day. The study—conducted for CNN by SSRS—revealed that Americans’ views of the Democratic Party hit their lowest point in 25 years. Just 37% of Americans have a favorable opinion of Democrats, and 54% confess to having a wholly unfavorable opinion. This 54% of the population that disapproves of Democrats includes key Democratic constituencies; 48% of non-whites and 33% of people under the age of 35 hold unfavorable views of the Democratic Party. In addition to this, 32% of all voters say they have an unfavorable view of the party whose candidate they plan to support in 2018.
These numbers stand in stark contrast to Democrats’ triumphs on Tuesday, November 7. And yet, only one columnist in the days following November 7 mentioned the evident tension between the aforementioned CNN study and Democrats’ victories.
In an op-ed for The Boston Globe, columnist Scot Lehigh wrote that the numbers published by CNN, “add an important interpretive twist to the Democrats’ strong gains in Virginia: It’s best read as a determined step away from Trump rather than a headlong rush into the opposition party’s arms.” Mr. Lehigh was right to caution Democrats from excessive celebration and making the premature assumption that more wins will naturally follow those of November 7. However, the Globe columnist failed to go any deeper than this in his analysis. He never offered, as a columnist and commentator should, an explanation for why Democrats’ popularity had sunk so low. Mr. Lehigh continued:
The Democrats’ problem is less apparent now, but will become more so as time goes on. Although they are united in their loathing of Trump, unity in opposition shouldn’t be mistaken for a broader issues or governing consensus…. Still, for those dismayed by the bitterness and belligerence of today’s politics, this week provides the first solid suggestion that we may have reached a turning point.
Though Mr. Lehigh started his piece well by exposing the disparity between Democrats’ wins and their widespread unpopularity, he failed to explain this curious gap.
In light of columnists’ good points that Democrats have not focused enough attention on working-class, less-educated whites or on direct job creation, it is conceivable to explain the party’s unpopularity by pointing to these two phenomena. Given the sizable divide between the “Clinton” and “Sanders/Warren” wings of the Party exposed during the 2016 election, it is also conceivable to explain Democrats’ unpopularity by pointing to their inability to bring these two portions of the Party together.
And yet, these explanations alone do not fully explain Democrats’ unpopularity. It remains true that Democrats have not engaged in thorough and direct outreach to the working-class whites who voted for President Obama in 2012 and for President Trump in 2016. However, this does not explain why 48% of non-whites and 33% of people under the age of 35 hold unfavorable opinions of Democrats. Nonwhites consistently vote blue, and Millennials are perhaps the most liberal generation the United States has ever known. Empathy is a powerful feeling, and though non-whites and voters under the age of 35 undoubtedly feel for their white brethren in coal country and the Rust Belt, Democrats’ lackluster outreach to the white working class likely is not the source of their displeasure. Democrats’ lack of focus on direct job creation cannot solely be it, either. On July 24, 2017, Democrats unveiled “A Better Deal,” a progressive platform in which the Party’s establishment declared its support for increasing the minimum wage, creating millions of new jobs, protecting unions, and checking corporate power. While the current Republican-controlled Congress has prevented Democrats from executing the goals laid out in this platform, Democratic rhetoric has increasingly pushed economic issues to the center of political discussion.
The split between the more moderate “Clinton” wing of the Party and the increasingly progressive “Sanders/Warren” wing of the Party cannot fully explain Democrats’ unpopularity either. In response to Republicans’ repeated attempts to repeal and replace Obamacare, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) unveiled a sweeping single-payer health care plan on September 13, 2017. Democrats of all stripes came out in support of this bold legislation, from moderates such as Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) to very progressive Democrats such as Senators Kamala Harris (D-CA), Corey Booker (D-NJ), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).
With this in mind, it becomes clear that Democrats’ abysmal 54% disapproval rating and the general political disillusionment that CNN documented in its November 7 study must stem, at least in part, from another source—that Americans are tired of the tenor of our politics. In the case of Democrats specifically, Americans are tired of the party’s emphasis on unproductive partisan comparisons and negative tactics.
Between March 1, 2017, and November 5, 2017—a period during which President Trump and Republicans made multiple attempts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, institute unconstitutional travel bans, and obtain tax breaks for the richest among us—Democrats’ popularity fell from 44% to 37%. When viewed through the prism of the Party’s decision to double down on negative partisan rhetoric, this decline becomes more understandable.
In the wake of the 2016 election, large swaths of the Democratic Party lamented the Clinton campaign’s emphasis on attacking President Trump and offering negative reasons, rather than affirmative ones, for why the former Secretary of State should have occupied the Oval Office. In the months that followed, every candidate for the position of Chairman of the Democratic National Committee repudiated this negative strategy, acknowledging it as a poor way to seek elected office, and committed the Party to articulating a positive message. Then-candidate Tom Perez explained:
We forgot to talk to people…. When Donald Trump says, ‘I’m going to bring the coal jobs back,’ we know that’s a lie. But people understand that he feels their pain. And our response was: ‘Vote for us because he’s crazy.’ I’ll stipulate to that, but that’s not a message.
By admitting this mistake, Perez, who is now the chairman of the DNC, seemed ready and willing to move the Democratic Party in a new direction. That was February 25, 2017. Today is November 17. The rhetoric of the party has not appreciably changed. In its two largest messaging campaigns since Perez’s election to the position of Chairman—“Resistance Summer” and “A Better Deal”—the Democratic Party has offered Americans more of the same partisanship and negativity that voters previously rejected.
Throughout Resistance Summer, in their rhetoric and actions, Democrats spent more time attacking Republican policies and initiatives than they did proposing Democratic policies and positive solutions to the problems before us. They built upon one of Secretary Clinton’s fatal flaws: articulating not what Democrats stand for but what and whom they stand against. While this resistance to Republican policies like repeal and replace was both necessary and urgent, Democrats allowed this negativity and default belligerence to consume their party’s identity.
Perhaps in response to precisely this line of criticism, on July 24, 2017, Democrats unveiled their new platform: A Better Deal. The slogan, banal in presentation and about as forgettable as Lincoln Chaffee’s stint as a Democratic candidate for president, includes several noteworthy allusions. The name makes references to President Trump’s The Art of the Deal and House Republicans’ conservative agenda, “A Better Way.” The not so subtle implication of these allusions is that Democrats know how to broker a deal far better than the President does, and that House Republicans cannot offer a better way forward for our country—only Democrats can. The slogan “A Better Deal” also makes reference to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s seminal progressive agenda, “The New Deal.” By alluding to The New Deal, the Democratic establishment seems to hope that its voters will recall the promise of this exciting moment in our country’s history and the programs the Party and our government undertook to forge a brighter future for America. What Democrats evidently miss is that this slogan offers Americans more of the same: continued, debasing partisan comparisons and negative, if slightly subtler, attacks on the Republican Party.
Dislike for this new slogan was so pervasive that The New York Times hosted a competition to see if readers could come up with a better mantle for the Democratic Party. While some responses dripped with sarcasm—“It’s My Party, and I’ll Cry If I Want To,” “Stop the Madness,” “Make Reading the Newspaper Relaxing Again”— others captured the hope within many Americans that Democrats will overcome the partisanship and negativity of this moment and articulate a new vision for our country. These included: “The New American Dream,” “For the Many, Not the Few,” “By the People and For the People,” “We’re With You: We’re Democrats.”
These messages affirm what the Democratic leadership should have known all along: that the Democratic Party has been the strongest and the most successful when its messages communicated a new, higher cause to which the Party called all Americans. The New Deal, The Great Society, and the Obama campaign’s iconic and invigorating “Yes, We Can,” did not shackle the Democratic Party to the mistakes and failures of the Republican Party like the rhetoric of the Clinton campaign, Resistance Summer, and “A Better Deal” did. These messages expressed clearly and unapologetically the America that Democrats hoped to forge; they called all Americans to participate in these bold new projects. Thus, if Democrats hope to reverse the downward trajectory of their approval ratings, they should focus more on working-class whites, on creating gainful work, on healing the Clinton-Sanders divide that threatens to sunder the Party, but they should do this within a larger framework that unequivocally rejects the debasing partisanship, useless noise, and negative tactics of the moment.
On Tuesday, November 7, voters across the country elected Democrats in part because of the success of the Party’s negative tactics. As columnists Michelle Goldberg, Frank Bruni, Peggy Noonan, and Ed Rogers pointed out, Tuesday was, in many ways, the revenge of the anti-Trump left, the success of the embattled Resistance. This partisan strategy can work in the short term, in blue states like Virginia and New Jersey that Secretary Clinton carried in 2016, and in places where dislike for President Trump is acute. As Democrats’ 37% approval rating shows, however, this strategy cannot succeed in the long term, and it will continue to drag both Democrats’ popularity and the spirits of the American people down.
To succeed in the truest sense and build on the victories of November 7 means that Democrats must untether themselves from the unproductive partisanship and polarizing “isness” of our present. In its place, they must offer a vision for our country, that in the spirit of The New Deal, The Great Society, and Yes, We Can, reaches out and grasps for the eternal “oughtness” of our national future.
(Overhead picture: Democrats unveil their new agenda, "A Better Deal." Source: Astrid Riecken/The Washington Post/Getty Images.)