Stop Saying that Democrats Don’t Have a Message

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.logo-green

5 thoughts on “Stop Saying that Democrats Don’t Have a Message”

  1. I find myself having a two-sided reaction to your post. On the surface level, of course! Who could be against having good policy? Who would want to vote for a party (the current Republican Party) that seemingly doesn’t know what it’s doing and doesn’t care that it doesn’t know? Who wouldn’t feel condescended to if told that, “I’m not going to address you with high-falutin’ policy stuff that would be over your head.” If care about, and proficiency at, good policy is “elitist,” then give me that “elitism.” If it is “elitist,” then it is a problem with the fact that people feel disengaged with that “elite” discourse; it is not a problem with the discourse itself. The solution, then, would be to help people engage in that discourse through patient, clear education, political rhetoric, etc. Exactly the sort of thing that you do here on your blog. So, this part of me says “Bravo!” to your post.

    But then there is another part of me that simply recoils at that loaded word, “policy.” And why does it feel like a loaded word? Why does part of me want to recoil at the word “policy” in this context, much like the famous quote from Göring, “When I hear the word culture, I reach for my Browning [pistol].”

    I’ve spent a few minutes interrogating this feeling in myself, asking myself whether it is just me, or whether perhaps many other Americans (even many Trump voters) would feel the same way, and also asking myself whether this is entirely an irrationally defensive impulse against an innocuous word, or whether it is a way of legitimately combating incorrect and harmful ideas or implications that the word smuggles into our political discourse.

    What is the concept of “policy” defined in contrast to? I would say, “spoils” or “tribalism.” In other words, there are two ways of doing politics: you can use politics (laws, discourse, etc.) to obtain spoils for yourself and your “side” or “tribe” at the expense of others (i.e. you can treat politics as a zero-sum game or even negative-sum game where some of the spoils will be destroyed in the course of the partisan warfare, but where at least your side will still come out ahead), or you can use politics to solve problems in clever ways that manage to benefit everyone (i.e. politics can be a positive-sum game).

    So far, so good. I don’t doubt that there exist in the realm of possibility some positive-sum solutions to some political problems. And I think many Trump voters would agree with this “theoretical” idea.

    However, these positive-sum solutions are tricky, complex, fragile, vulnerable to one side or the other defecting in the “prisoner’s dilemma” type of situation in which they are based.

    This is especially true if your society is riven by a fundamental conflict of interest—”fundamental” in the sense that this conflict of interest does not depend on each party perceiving their relationship as conflicting, but rather instead that the conflict is rooted in something objective, something outside of the intentions of each party to be hostile to one another—a conflict of interest that would persist even if both parties had the intention of overcoming that conflict of interest, or a conflict that would persist even if neither party had any conscious awareness of the existence of that conflict of interest.

    It might be difficult to see how a conflict can exist if neither side wants to fight it or even knows of its existence. We tend to see conflicts as solely the result of clashes between opposed subjective intentions. People harm each other because people want to harm each other. To get them to stop harming each other, we just need to “stop the hate!” Preach peace and love. Sing kumbayaa while holding hands in a big circle.

    Imagine that a wage-worker and an employer go through this ritual, pledge to be nice and generous towards one another, and pledge to devote their energies towards a common goal (such as building a wholesome country…or invading some neighboring country). Will that erase their class conflict? Will that create a classless society?

    The Nazis thought yes. Hitler thought that, if the children of the Hitler Youth made sure not to allow classist sentiments to arise between those who had rich parents and those who had poor ones, those children would grow up into a harmonious, classless German people. For example:

    The Nazis were mistaken. Even if a wage-worker and an employer, or youth of different backgrounds, pledge to be nice to each other, the employers will still find themselves pressured into paying as low of a wage as they can by objective economic incentives originating outside of anyone’s conscious control. “I would like to pay you a higher wage, but I just can’t.”

    Let’s say that the employer chooses, through iron force of will, to not yield to these pressures. Fine. It makes no difference. That employer will be out-competed, and gradually driven out of business, by the employers who do yield to the incentive. Even if we assume that the employer’s country passes a minimum wage law, AND succeeds in enforcing the law, there will still be competition from other employers on the world market. As Marx said in the Manifesto, “Lower prices are the heavy artillery by which capitalism batters down Chinese walls” and “compels other nations upon pain of extinction to become bourgeois themselves.” We would need a single world government with the ability to enforce a minimum wage law over the entire world market in order to get away from these objective economic forces that destine the worker to be paid as low of a wage as possible by her employer (either the original employer if that employer chooses to forsake the original pledge and yield to the economic forces, or a new employer who makes no such pledge of class harmony and instead yields to the economic incentives towards lower wages and is thereby rewarded by capitalism with the right to be the new employer). “Greed” and class conflict are enforced under capitalism not by subjective wills, but by that abstract system of economic incentives that Adam Smith called “The Invisible Hand,” that Marx called “The Law of Value” or simply “Capital.” This is what it means for a conflict to be “fundamental” and “objective” rather than due to any subjective intentions by one side or the other to harm or hate.

    Interestingly, many on the far-right adopt a mirror-image of Marx’s thinking, arguing that it is in fact class conflict that is a socially-constructed conflict (socially-constructed “by the Jews” to weaken their group, no doubt), whereas racial and/or religious and/or gender conflicts are actually the objective ones. If you tell them that these conflicts only exist because of their hate of these other groups, and that the conflict would end if they simply stopped hating, they will tell you, “No, the conflict will rage on whether we return fire or not. To give up what you call our “hate” would simply make us defenseless in the face of this inevitable conflict.” This attitude is true in the case of class conflict, but tragically false in the case of any other type of conflict (with the exception of conflict between men and women, which partially has an objective basis of conflicting interests over which child-rearing strategies give the best chance of passing on genes and thus eliciting rewards programmed by those genes).

    Considering the existence of these real and perceived fundamental conflicts in society, successfully-implemented laws that are truly “positive-sum” for all are exceedingly rare. If politicians were more honest, they would admit that with most laws there will be (or are!) winners and losers. They would admit that some small fraction of Americans are harmed by the Affordable Care Act. They would admit that ICE deportations that separate children from their parents are not in the interest of those families (at the very least! It is an open question whether those deportations are in the interest of very many Americans at all). These caveats about most laws having some “losers” need not necessarily invalidate those laws. Those caveats would simply become an acknowledged factor in political negotiations. Or rather, they would if politicians would acknowledge these proposals trade-offs with winners and losers rather than pitch every piece of legislation they support as an unalloyed good for everyone.

    Positive-sum legislation used to be a bit more common, and a bit more feasible, during the so-called “Golden Age of American Capitalism” (1945-1970) when America was the workshop of the world, with a relative monopoly on state-of-the-art means of production (enabling American employers to both pay relatively high wages, pay relatively high taxes, AND still retain relatively high profits)…until other countries caught up with the U.S. and became a mounting constraint on what American businesses and politicians could do without jeopardizing profitability, investment, jobs, etc.

    Accordingly, since the 1980s positive-sum legislation has become objectively less feasible for America, and politicians’ platitudes about wanting to “help all Americans” increasingly ring hollow. Anyone who preaches about “policy” is inadvertently plowing that discredited path.

    I think what many people find refreshing about Trump is that he acknowledges (not explicitly, but through dog-whistles) that there are fundamental conflicts in society (although he and his supporters mis-identify which ones are truly fundamental), and Trump implies that there will be winners and losers with his policies…and white Americans are led to believe that Trump is “on their side” and that they will be the “winners” in the inevitable zero-sum or negative-sum conflict. Trump might not be a policy genius—i.e. someone good at delivering positive-sum solutions…but who is? At least he will reliably try to bring back the spoils for “our side.” So people think. (Of course, they would never publicly admit to thinking along those lines. In order to save face, we all have to pretend to be interested in “the good of the country” as a whole.)

    Compare that with Hillary Clinton and liberals. If you take as a given that positive-sum solutions are not really possible, and that no politicians are really working towards positive-sum solutions, and that any politicians implying that they are working towards positive-sum solutions are liars who are afraid to disclose whose side they are “really” on…then you would start to wonder whether Hillary Clinton really was just pursuing her own corrupt interests or serving “The Globalists” or “The New World Order” or “The Anglo-Zionists” or “The Jews” or “The Reptilians” or some other shadowy force. If you then go on to point out how intelligent Hillary Clinton is (and she is undoubtedly a capable person, no side will dispute that), then you make your case for her even worse…because if she is a wolf in sheep’s clothing and “not really on your side,” then the last thing you want is an intelligent opponent.

    In a lot of ways, the right-wing caricature of Hillary Clinton lines up well with the traditional right-wing anti-Semitic caricature of Jews: intelligent, clever (maybe “too clever,”), but also physically sickly with something vaguely “impure” about her, and dark forces having to prop-up her ailing body:

    So, if you think that you can change the minds of Trump supporters by touting Hillary’s policy skillz, I have bad news for you: I think you will need to dig down to a deeper level of basic assumptions about conflict in society and whether it is likely for any politician to achieve, or even desire, good, positive-sum policy for all.


  2. It’s also funny that you use a picture of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton for this article because my impression is that people are not confused about what Bernie stands for. It’s not a problem that he shares with Hillary Clinton and the moderate wing of the Democratic Party. (Instead, Bernie’s problem is that some Democrats don’t like what he stands for, or are afraid that what he stands for will not have enough mass appeal to independents to make him electable, which is a separate problem).

    You might object, “Wash’t Hillary Clinton very specific about her policy proposals during her campaign? How could anyone not know what she stands for?” I think it is because people know that, when presidents get elected, they suddenly face all sorts of constraints and are under all sorts of contradictory compromises. Campaign platforms are a big Christmas wish-list, of which 90% of the proposals will probably never come to fruition or even be strongly advocated by an administration so that they can focus most of their “political capital” on the 10% that really matters to them (for example, we now know that for the Republicans, Trump included, it was tax cuts, and almost everything else was window dressing).

    And I felt left in the dark about what really mattered in Hillary Clinton’s eyes. What was the 10% of her platform that she would really go to bat for? And importantly, when conflicting interests try to obstruct that top-10% of her platform, whose interests will she prioritize? In other words, the important question is not so much “WHAT does she stand for?” but “WHO does she stand for?” And you can’t just answer “Everyone!” or “The People!” or “Fairness!” or “Justice!” or some vague generality that is meant to please everyone because voters know that, in reality, “The American People” are not one homogenous bloc who all have the same interests on every issue, and promising to sort things out “fairly” when interests clash tells you nothing about whose definition of “fairness” or “justice” you will be operating from….

    …Unless you believe that there is a clear and obvious answer to what is “fair” or “moral” in politics, and America’s problem is simply that we and our politicians act immorally and unfairly when we ought to know better or do know better, which I still think some liberals fall into, not realizing that, while it might seem obvious to them, they are really begging the question, and even if they explain how their answers for what is “fair” or “moral” logically follow from their premises, many Americans simply don’t share those fundamental humanistic or classical liberal premises.

    With Trump, by contrast, I couldn’t tell you what he stands for, but I know who he stands for: American industrial capitalists and, to a lesser extent, the white male labor aristrocracy. And Bernie? The working class, although he won’t put it so bluntly for fear of scaring away liberals.

    The reason why I find Trump’s election refreshing is that, to me, it signals that more and more Americans are giving up on the illusion that there is one “American people” that has internally-reconcilable interests; more and more Americans are instead throwing in their lot with who they think is “on their side” (they happen to be wrong about what “their side” is and whether Trump is “on their side,” but the initial impulse is sound). As Joe Hill, organizer of the I.W.W. once said, “Well, it is about time that every rebel wakes up to the fact that “the people” and the working class have nothing in common.”

    Americans now understand that certain sections of the “American people” have interests that, sadly (because I don’t enjoy the spectre of conflict just for the fun of it, and would love to find a way to reconcile these interests if it could truly be done), are irreconcilable. Now they just have to correctly identify which social forces can mutually reconcile with their interests (immigrants, foreigners) and which socially forces cannot mutually reconcile with their interests (investors), and correctly align themselves accordingly.


  3. […] left to stand up for the role of government. Democrats, by and large, want to build stuff. They are the only party of policy. Republicans want to dismantle, repeal, undo, and corrupt. No policy necessary. Hence, Republicans […]


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