Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren (L), former Vice President Joe Biden (C) and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders participate of the seventh Democratic primary debate in Des Moines, Iowa on January 14, 2020. (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)
The chaos of the primaries, the lack of a clear party vision in the last debate—are Democrats a progressive party, a party of moderates, a plaything for billionaires, or just people sniping each other for virtue points? It is time for concern.
Politics is always about the biggest story you tell and how voters see themselves in that story. If the Democrats lose in November, one of the main reasons—and the competition is strong—will be that they’ve gotten trapped inside a set of false narratives. Or they’re, in the words of James Carville, “Losing our damn minds.”
Think how powerful the narratives of “Morning in America” and “Hope and Change” were, and contrast those with the Dems’ “things suck more than you realize, people,” and you see where this is headed.
At the top of the list is the economy. The Democratic narrative is that the economy is bad, with a recession just around the corner (or maybe the corner after that, keep looking). Yet outside the debate hall, 59 percent of Americans say they are better off than they were a year ago. Overall quality of life is satisfactory for a massive 84 percent. Unemployment is at historic lows. Wages are up a bit.
The reality is bad enough for Dems. But the narrative problem is that they’re confusing a strong economy with economic inequality. The economy does benefit everyone, but it benefits a small percentage at the top much more. They have not gotten this message across to an electorate that is happy to have any job, content with some rise in wages, and, for the half of Americans who own some stock, want to see just enough growth in their 401(k) to suggest at least part of retirement won’t be dependent on canned soup being on sale. The Dems are running on a narrative that the economy is failing; Americans believe that if it is failing, it’s failing less than it did before, and that’s good enough.
Holding Democrats back is their false narrative of all-you-can-eat white privilege. Economic inequality across America is not primarily racial, though it does have a racial component. But Dems are still telling the same old story, as if whites across the Midwest have the same union factory jobs that raised them and blacks never did. The powerful message of “we’re all in this together” is being thrown away for black victimization narrative votes that may or may not turn out on Election Day.
Dems also insist on lumping blacks, Hispanics (30 percent of whom support Trump), Chinese, and everyone non-lily into “People of Color,” a classic case of one size fits none. It would be an award-winning SNL skit to watch Larry David’s Bernie try to convince a Chinese friend, a medical doctor with kids in the Ivies, that as a “POC,” his personal concerns have significant crossover with what’s happening to a guy uptown as played by guest host Samuel L. Jackson. It’s about money, stupid, not color.
Dems seem to be working this narrative into the ground in an effort to alienate as many voters as possible. Poor whites, too meth-addled to see Trump making false promises, deserve to be replaced by driverless delivery trucks. Poor blacks, it’s not your fault, because racism. Everyone else not white, whatever, go with the black folk on this one, ‘kay? An issue that could unite 90 percent of Americans gets lost. And if you don’t agree racism is the root cause of everything, from “top to bottom,” as Bernie says, well, you’re a racist! James Carville says for the Democratic Party to win it has to drive a narrative that “doesn’t give off vapors that we’re smarter than everyone or culturally arrogant.” Instead the strategy seems to be Dems turning from criticizing ideas to criticizing voters.
Much of the rest is a mighty credibility issue for the Dems. They have stuck with so many proven false narratives so long, no one believes them anymore. Trump did not work with Putin to get elected, yet Maddow on MSDNC is still pushing something similar even today. Do we really need to talk about how few Americans cared so little about impeachment? Trump did not start World War III. Roe v. Wade is still firmly the law.
But the transpeople! Dems have clung to the narrative that trans rights are somehow a major issue among voters. Biden tweeted, “Let’s be clear: Transgender equality is the civil rights issue of our time.” While most voters want to see transpeople treated decently, there is no national election issue here. Same for all the other virtuous baggage Dems drag around the social media. For example, rights and benefits for illegal immigrants. It makes them seem out of touch with mainstream America, a particular liability in an election likely to hinge on purple voters in swing states.
Dems also cling too hard to the narrative of Barack Obama. Maybe he deserves accolades for this or that, maybe not, but that the guy who seems to be the talk of the Democratic Party isn’t one of the people on the ballot does not indicate strength. Barack’s and Michelle’s formal portraits are touring the nation, apparently so Democrats can worship them like artifacts from some lost cargo cult, a “communal experience of a particular moment in time,” according to the National Portrait Gallery. Five equally desperate candidates, with Biden in the lead Art Garfunkel role, are airing ads featuring St. Barack.
Health care is a kitchen-table economic issue. A majority of Americans, regardless of party affiliation, rank cutting health care and drug costs as their top priority. That polls as far more important than passing a major health system overhaul like Medicare for All. Americans are not interested in converting the entire economy over to some flavor of socialism just so they can see a doctor. The bigger the change the Dems sell, the more it frightens people away.
Same for all the other free stuff Dems are using to troll for votes (college, loans, reparations). Each good idea is wrapped in a grad school seminar paper requiring America to convert its economy from something people have grown to live with into something they aren’t sure they understand. It is a hell of a narrative: Democrats turning an election against Trump into a sub-referendum on socialism lite at a time when Americans’ personal economic satisfaction is at a record high.
James Carville summed it up, saying, “We have candidates talking about open borders and decriminalizing illegal immigration. You’ve got Bernie Sanders talking about letting criminals and terrorists vote from jail cells. It doesn’t matter what you think about any of that, or if there are good arguments—talking about that is not how you win a national election…. By framing, repeating, and delivering a coherent, meaningful message that is relevant to people’s lives and having the political skill not to be sucked into every rabbit hole that somebody puts in front of you.”
Where once you had hope and change, now there’s the always exasperated Warren, the out-of-breath grumpy Bernie, that frozen Pete grin, Steyer giving his TED talks, Biden looking like the last surviving member of a rock band playing a Holiday Inn gig remembering when he and Barack once filled arenas, man. And now, Mike Bloomberg, cosplaying a Democrat. Oh well. The Beto revival of 2024 isn’t that far away.
If I were writing ad copy for the Republicans, I might try this: “Voters, do me a favor. Look out the window. Do you see a republic on the edge of collapse, Rome, the U.S. in 1860? Is your life controlled by an authoritarian? That’s what Democrats say is out there. But you don’t see that, do you? You see more people with jobs. You have a little more. And more kids down the block are home from war than are gearing up to fight in places like Libya and Syria that none of us really care about. Your choice is pretty straightforward at this point. Have a good night, and a good day at work tomorrow.”
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent.