The Democrats Don't Know What They Stand For

An identity crisis has led to a messaging crisis.

Welcome back to What Went Wrong?, a newsletter about the failures, inefficiencies, and screw-ups that define 21st-century American life, written by Harry Cheadle. Photo of some cookies by theterrifictc.

To be a Democrat is to live in a constant state of low-grade disorientation. Who are the “Democrats”? What do they believe that non-Democrats don’t? Who are you? Who am I? These are some of the questions voters have for Democrats, and which a worrying number of Democrats don’t seem able to answer. 

A May analysis of the 2020 election crafted in part by the centrist think tank Third Way reported that “campaign teams we spoke with felt that the Party didn’t have a message beyond ‘Donald Trump sucks,’” and that “Democrats focused on arguing that Trump was bad, not why a Democratic majority would help voters.” A memo the firm Lake Strategies produced for the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC—the opposite end of the mainstream Democratic political spectrum from Third Way—opened with the observation that “most voters have trouble describing a clear positive vision of what the Democratic Party stands for.” The New Republic’s Alex Pareene, surveying these documents, concluded that the Democratic Party, lacking the ideologically-aligned media apparatus weaponized by conservatives for years, needs to invest in “propaganda” that promotes the party itself rather than endorsing or attacking individual candidates. (This party-first approach, a recent political science study found, might be effective at persuading voters.)

A good rule of thumb is that Americans know less about politics than you think; explaining simple concepts over and over again, as if to a child, is never a bad messaging strategy. So some videos explaining what the Democratic Party is and what it wants to do would be helpful, not just because actual Democrats are confused but because the Republican Party is currently trying to portray Democrats as socialists who are teaching your kids to hate white people.

But treating the question of “what defines the Democratic Party?” as one that’s primarily about messaging—i.e. what the strategist class should push out to the masses—is a mistake. The party is bad at explaining what it believes in because as currently constituted it can’t really believe in anything. 

The perks of negativity

Why aren’t there more positive, pro-Democratic rather than anti-Republican ads circulating during elections? One reason is that the most powerful Democratic campaign organs are relentlessly hostile. The House Majority and Senate Majority Super PACs, staffed by longtime Democratic operatives and funded by megadonors and dark money, spent more than $360 million combined in 2020, the vast majority of which went to attack ads on Republicans. The DSCC and DCCC—the Democratic committees in charge of elections—also put much more money behind pillorying Republicans than they do supporting Democrats.

Of course, the GOP also has Super PACs that exist mostly to run attack ads, but it’s the Democrats who are all saying they have a branding problem, to the point where even candidates themselves are complaining of a muddied message. Maybe some of the hundreds of millions that gets spent telling everyone how bad conservatives are could instead go toward explaining why the Democrats are good?

But positive ads come with a catch. They have to be in favor of something, and being in favor of specific policies opens you up to criticisms. Saying “Medicare for All” or “Green New Deal,” for instance, risks alienating moderates. Not saying those things could anger progressives. The Democratic Party wins power by appealing to a coalition of dozens of different groups, from young socialists in major metro areas to swing-voting suburban moderates, from environmentalists to union members. Picking a message that appeals to all of those people is tricky—but every part of the Democratic coalition hates Republicans. The most unifying message therefore isn’t about what Democrats support, but what they oppose.

Individual candidates make choices about which part of the Democratic agenda they want to emphasize, of course, and it’s from their campaigns that voters get messages about what these individual Democrats believe. But voters aren’t just hearing from their local candidates, they’re plugged into a messy, sprawling media-political-industrial complex that is telling them a million different things. A Democrat in a swing district may respond to accusations that she is a socialist by saying that she hates socialism and loves America, especially the part of America she was born and raised in. But then some other Democrat will say that actually, some socialism is fine, in fact America would be better if it were a little bit more socialist, and this sound bite gets picked up by partisan media and hotly debated on the internet. What’s the hypothetical unifying Democratic message to trumpet here? “The Democrats: Against socialism, mostly, but also it’s fine to be a socialist”? There are a host of issues where Democrats disagree with one another, to the point where the problem isn’t messaging, but deep-seated intra-party differences.

The Democrats need to decide what they want, then sell it 

The fractured nature of the party means that Democratic politicians serve a variety of masters, from activists to business interests to the highly educated small donors who fuel many campaigns. So you have Democrats wanting to roll back the state and local tax (SALT) deduction cap, which would effectively lower tax rates on wealthy people in blue states, even as Democrats want to raise taxes to pay for increased government spending. Or you have House Ways and Means Committee Chair Richard Neal teaming up with Democratic leadership to scuttle a bill meant to cut down on surprise medical bills. Very popular ideas like legalizing cannabis or raising the minimum wage have either faced opposition from Democratic senators or been voted down by Democrats.

Even causes that theoretically unite Democrats have proved to be divisive in practice. The whole party agrees that protecting voting rights is important: gerrymandering and voter suppression bills are being pushed by Republicans at the state level, and Democrats need to respond. But there are Democratic senators, most notably West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, who don’t think voting rights are so important that it is worth fiddling with Senate supermajority rules to pass a bill to protect them. Democrats all say they want to do a bunch of stuff, but do they want to do it so badly they are willing to take drastic legislative action? The answer, in the Biden era, is a resounding no.

I’ve found at least one example of the kind of “propaganda” Pareene wants to see more of. It comes from a Democratic Party-affiliated dark money group that put out an ad in Virginia highlighting the national party’s passing of Covid-related aid, and emphasizing (citing a specific bill) that state Democrats were working to reopen schools. 

This is what many smart liberal campaign wonks want to see more of: positive messaging around specific, popular policies that comes early in an election cycle. It’s impossible to say at this point whether the ad will be effective, but the strategy behind it makes sense. 

The question is, what is the national Democrats’ version of this ad? What accomplishment will they be able to point to as a concrete win for voters, how will they have made people’s lives better? By the time of the 2022 midterms, the American Rescue Act will be almost two years old, too far back in the past to make a campaign centerpiece. Democrats do need better propaganda, but first, they need an accomplishment upon which to build that feel-good message. A party ultimately isn’t defined by its messaging strategy, it’s defined by what it actually does, and that’s where Democrats need to start. 

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