One of the undying dogmas of political punditry is that it’s difficult or impossible to identify what the Democratic party is about. The claim refashions standard Hillary Clinton criticism into a more forward looking assessment. It is wheeled out constantly as a display of liberal self-criticism that also functions as a plea for Democrats to fix whatever went wrong in 2016. Democrats need to work on branding. What is their message? It is an identity crisis!
The argument for the dogma, to the extent that there is one, takes the form of a challenge: can you give a slogan-like summary of the Democratic platform—something analogous to the tried and true ‘Make America Great Again’? Can you say what Hillary Clinton ran on?
Then you come up empty. Q.E.D.
When we’re reminded of Hillary Clinton’s stacks of position papers, we see that the issue is not about substance. It is instead about messaging and identity. Criticizing the Democratic party message is an implicit admission that the Trump-Republican brand is superior from a marketing standpoint. Unlike Hillary, Trump had a message. Democrats are content to discuss the details of policy, but seemingly, according to the dogma, this is precisely the problem. Not only is substance not a message, but it cannot be.
Can you say what Trump ran on? “MAGA” is a brand. It doesn’t actually say anything. In a certain respect, this is its effectiveness. People insert whatever they want. It is an attitude.
The closest it comes to content is the allusion to a time when white people’s power was more comfortable and unquestioned. Whereas before, when Republicans hid their racism behind actual policies, Trump decided largely to dispense with policies and rely only on the partially veiled racism. That is why the most enduring promises of the Trump campaign are first and foremost dog whistles. As president, Trump takes only a causal and fleeting interest in implementing any policies.
It is not that Trump discovered how to message his policies effectively. His discovery is that policy doesn’t matter. It was possible to bring the racism closer to the surface, jettison the facade of principle, and govern on a purely cosmetic level. This is the shift that Trump has brought about: ignore substance and policy. Focus only on tribalism, scapegoating, and lying.
He gambled that a critical mass of voters were not interested in information, argument, and competence. Simply, his approach was to treat people like they’re stupid. It enabled him to skip needing to understand and communicate any considered substantive positions. Theater is all that mattered. He ended up being right enough to win.
We need to see that the ‘messaging problem’ dogma cedes the whole frame of public discourse over to Trump and his brand. It is an endorsement of the underlying assumption that politics is not about substance. The criticism attempts to push the Democratic party onto Trump’s playing field—a space in which chants, hats, and atavistic slogans, all divorced for any interest in the truth, count as ideal messaging.
It is imperative that we question the urge to transform Trump’s success into a model that can be emulated by Democrats. The dogma is a euphemistic insult of the intelligence of American voters. Treating people like they’re stupid can never be the key to a campaign, even though incessant lying and cruelty worked this time.
Trump dominates the public consciousness to such an extent that we sometimes fail to notice where we are drifting. We debate the absurdity of a single action but only on the terms he has set for us. The dogma is an instance.
Let’s step back and reframe the issue. What we need is a simple way to state what identifies the Democratic party that is both accurate and contentful. I have already hinted at my proposal:
Trump and Republicans: policy doesn’t matter
Democrats: policy matters
People confidently proclaim that simply being anti-Trump is not enough. But since Trump is opposed to almost everything that is or could be good about America, being anti-Trump is actually a substantive position. It means being anti-anti-American values. It mean being anti-anti-policy. That is, when you oppose someone who lacks substance, you immediately distinguish yourself as an advocate of substantial, principled, and contentful politics. That is the identity of the Democratic party.
There is a separate question about the details of the substance, but when we pan back on public discourse and refuse to accept the basics of Trump’s political world, we find where the conflict truly lies. It is depressingly basic, but it is what we are debating now. If you want to debate the specifics of policies, Democrats have stuff for you. All disagreements among Democrats fall under the broad agreement that implementing good policy is the important role of government. Trump and the Republicans currently disagree.
What the Democrats can and do stand for is simple and blunt: policy matters. Stick it on a hat.