What Democrats Did Wrong And What We Must Do Now

Democrats allowed left-wing activists to hijack the media narrative and mistook social justice for equality.

Democratic voters Davidson North Carolina
Democratic voters in Davidson, North Carolina listen to a speech, October 12 (Hillary for America/Alyssa S.)

#notmypresident is only the latest in a string of absurd mistakes we on the left are making. We lost; yes, we won the popular vote, but we’ve all known since 2000 that the system allowed that. We have the power to do something about that in 2009-11, when we had a supermajority, but we lost focus, we forgot and now we’re here.

So we need to take responsibility for our own mistakes. In an age of atonement for progressives, we must first list our mistakes so we can understand why we lost. Here are the three biggest ones:

  • We became the party of Obama, not the party of progressives.
  • We allowed our activist allies to hijack the media narrative and alienated our passive allies in Middle America.
  • We lost focus on equality and became more obsessed with social justice, which are not always the same things.

Problem #1: We became the Obamacrats and forgot we were also Democrats

I most of all made this mistake: I misunderstood Barack Obama’s overwhelming victories in 2008 and 2012 and completely overlooked 2010 and 2014. It was easy enough; fewer people always vote in the midterms and those fewer tend to be conservative.

But it belied a deeper weakness as well: Democrats could not win unless Obama was on the ballot. State after state fell to Republicans; the GOP governed 31 states, enough to shepherd a constitutional amendment into being. Now they may rule 34. They also may hold 33 state legislatures, just one shy needed to call a constitutional convention via Article 5 of the US .

Not only did we lose Congress the moment Obama was not up for election, but we utterly misread what that meant.

Obama’s high level of statesmanship, his post-partisan rhetoric, his obvious intelligence and his powerful background all combined to create an inadvertent cult of personality that ended up being the Democratic Party. It was neither his intent nor the party’s, but it became obvious as soon as we understood Hillary Clinton could not match his popularity.

Solution #1: Gut the national and local party hacks and replace them while organizing the party for local and state elections

Through primaries, we Democratic rank and file must vote against every Democratic elected official who misread the party; they are irredeemably incompetent and must be replaced. They know only the age of Obama and they will try their failed strategies again in 2018 and 2020. We cannot let them. We need charisma not just on the national stage but on the local one as well; it’s obvious none of the Democrats on the state and local level know how to do anything but bask in Obama’s now-dying glow.

The top targets should be the superdelegates who voted for Hillary in spite of empirical evidence that Bernie Sanders was a stronger candidate. There should also be digging into why Elizabeth Warren did not run; it’s probable she was pressured to stay out by the Clinton factions, knowing Warren stood a good chance to defeat Hillary.

If anything, the fact that we had just three candidates for president during the primary while the Republicans had a mind boggling sixteen in August is proof the Democratic Party machinery is broken. We must destroy it and replace it.

Problem #2: Our activist allies created a media narrative that alienated American moderates and forced them to either switch sides or stay home

And this will be controversial, I know. But if we are to move forward and become a party again – let alone a national party — all must be reckoned.

It’s important to note that our activist allies are absolutely right. Their failure is how they communicated, not necessarily what they wanted. In politics, communication is often more important than policy.

In nearly all cases, activists talked down to Middle America: you’re stupid, you’re racist, you’ll never be moral. Don’t say this, don’t think that, march with us, but in the back, your silence is the same as violence, etc. These messages were often overlooked by traditional media, but were instead amplified by social media, shared out through Facebook, Reddit, 4chan and Twitter. When an activist stated they wanted white marchers to stand behind everyone else, it went viral, because it enraged and horrified Middle America.

Democratic feminists painted the choice between Hillary and Trump as a choice between misogyny and gender loyalty: there could be no middle ground, no nuance, in this battle between good and evil. They did the same in the primaries, forcing us progressives between the false choice of hating women by supporting Sanders or achieving gender equality by supporting a deeply flawed, largely unpopular candidate.

This tactic failed: voting women in America chose Trump.

Activists in the police reform movement, such as Black Lives Matter, did more damage. It is not that the police don’t need to reform; it’s obvious they do. It’s not that they don’t target African Americans disproportionately; they do. It’s that the movement made little to no attempt to go beyond a very simple narrative: black people were being murdered by out-of-control police.

The truth was more nuanced; Michael Brown was, after all, lawfully killed (PDF), yet Hillary felt compelled to bring his mother to rallies, trotting her out as a part of the increasingly obvious false narrative that only African Americans were suffering from out-of-control police.

After the Dallas shootings, Americans became convinced that BLM-inspired activists were targeting police. This was also untrue, but it was hard to refute when BLM provided little to no thought as to how to also protect police from bad guys. It became another false dichotomy in a conversation that went nowhere.

If the activists’ goal was to turn out African American voters and their liberal white allies, it failed: Hillary lost shares with white voters, African American voters and, astoundingly, Hispanic voters as well.

Of all the activists, only the LGBTQ movement succeeded. Even Trump has said he will protect their newly-won rights. Why? Because LGBTQ activists did not end up talking down to their countrymen. Instead, they emphasized that “Love is Love is Love,” something that Middle America can ultimately sympathize with. They are now dancing on dangerous ground with their approach to transgender rights: rather than emphasizing the harmless nature of transgender people, they are increasingly painting their opponents as bigots. This will backfire electorally as well if they persist.

Solution #2: Communicate the harmlessness of social justice rather than the morality of it

When it comes to feminist aims to capture the White House, the narrative must be, “Why not?” rather than “Stop hating women.” The former invites a rational, but ultimately wrong, response; best of all, responses can be parsed through and broken down, bridges can be built, alliances can be made. The latter goes nowhere; it forces people to knee-jerk reactions and suddenly the alt-right seems appealing.

As for police and criminal justice reform, the very phrase “Black Lives Matter” is automatically moralistic and ineffective: It excludes the hundreds of Hispanic, Native American and, yes, white victims of incompetent, trigger-happy police. We all benefit from a better trained and more accountable police force. That is the narrative we must push, rather than we must because we owe it to African American communities for the sins of dead people from the past. They must also respond to the very real concerns that police are being targeted. The solution is a combination of both better police training and better protection for police.

Finally, the LGBTQ movement must focus back on how harmless sexual and gender preference is in modern life. This is key to answering charges that the movement will eventually lead to the normalization of pedophilia; there is clear and present harm in pedophilia that there is not in a transgender person.

Problem #3: We lost focus on equality and became obsessed with social justice

And this will be yet more controversy, because if you’re right, you’re right, right?

But being holier-than-thou does more than keep you from being invited to parties; you lose total control of your nation state, as well.

Misreading America, we all believed that the era of Obama had ushered in a progressive age that was held up only by the nuances of electoral math: conservative and rural states have always had an outsized influence on American politics and so we could safely believe that as rural folks aged and died out, our progressive beliefs would become the new cultural fabric of the United States.

So from 2012 onward, we increasingly squabbled not with conservatives, who we wrote off, but with one another. We tried to carve out social space for social justice pet projects, from the divestment strategy against Israeli occupation to a war on rape culture to the construction of increasingly elaborate “safe spaces.”

The battle was fought increasingly less with reason and increasingly more with shame. We learned terms like “white privilege”, “microaggression” and “triggered.” None of them were rational approaches to the problem of equality. All were meant to instill social justice through, essentially, shame.

In a country with a proud tradition of free speech, none of that was going to work for long. Rather than winning over the progressive left through reason, activists instead cowed our politicians, educators, writers and thinkers through shame.

Conservatives watched in horror; the alt-right coalesced through the Internet to strike back, acting on the exact same human impulse that is so well demonstrated at the end of the first episode of Black Mirror‘s Season 3.

None of it was rational either, which meant it could have only so much shelf life. Focusing on privilege was meant to shame powerful people into activism. It did the opposite, since people with inherited power saw no reason to apologize for being born. Focusing on microaggressions was meant to shame people who inadvertently said or did supposedly racist things. Instead, it smacked of a thought police tactic. Inventing safe spaces was supposed to shame people out of saying upsetting things to one another. Instead, it became censorship.

Under the wave of social activism that took place in Obama’s second term, few activists engaged in rational, meaningful conversation, but instead approached activism as moral warriors whose most common responses relied upon shaming the opposition.

Baby boomers, the generation that largely propelled Trump to power, have never responded well to shaming. Ask their few surviving parents.

Worse, millennials, especially white ones, reacted by forming the alt-right, feeling under siege and seeing no moral way forward. If they were already bad people, they felt they might as well act like it.

Solution #3: Remember that social justice is equality, which means meeting people halfway

Activists should ask no one to apologize for existing. That someone is born into power does not make them a bad person, nor does it make them suddenly responsible for society’s ills, unless they themselves are directly involved. Being born rich doesn’t mean you created income inequality, nor are responsible for it; but being born rich and refusing to pay reasonable wages does. Passive existence in the background is not the same as committing an act of violence.

If a space is truly to be safe, it must allow even vitriol to enter and be engaged, debated and defeated. A KKK member must be able to visit Harvard and be able to speak, and then be refuted, in an orderly and rational debate, if society is to move forward. Shouting them down with “Take your hate speech off our campus” is the same exclusionary tactic that a KKK member uses when they ask for whites-only neighborhoods.

Democrats must refuse the shame-based activism that makes up much of its ideological rank and file. President Obama, to his credit, never stooped so low. Hillary too tried to avoid it as well. But her surrogates did not; neither did her supporters.

The coalition that elected Obama can still exist. So many voted for him because he did not try to shame anyone into doing so. Surely he could have; instead, he focused on the overwhelming awe he had of America for making the step forward with him. What Americans heard was a uniquely qualified presidential candidate who just happened to be African American, not an African American who deserved to be president to redress past injustices committed by other people. This was what equality looked like in an election.

The way forward

Riots are not the answer. Trump certainly will respond with troops once he is commander-in-chief. And while some may welcome a battle with our army, remember that Middle America fears lawless disorder and will cheer tanks in the streets of disorderly cities. Rejecting Trump as president is not the answer. Organizing for 2018, to capture Congress and stop him before he can enact much policy, is.

Shaming his supporters will solve nothing. We must build bridges instead. We must emphasize that the Democrats have solutions to their problems.

Rising health-care costs must be combated not by destroying Obamacare but by replacing it with a single-payer system.

Income inequality must not be redressed by fighting trade wars but by taxing the wealth of globalization’s winners to provide economic security programs for its losers.

Social justice must not be achieved by giving dominance to one identity but by building a new common identity together.

Immigration must not be solved through deportation but by guest worker programs that allow us to benefit from temporary workers who take their skills and wealth home to enrich their countries and provide us better trade partners while allowing us to pick the most talented and committed to stay and strengthen us.

Democrats have a future. But we must reject our mistakes of the past and begin again. Now is the time.

This story first appeared on American Politics Made Super, November 11, 2016.

One comment

  1. You make a number of salient points. More reflective than anything I’ve heard from the Democrats or their hysterical fans in the social justice movement.

    But to put the pin squarely on the back of the donkey…… Democrats lost because they forgot about joblessness in the worst economic climate since the Great Depression. Consequently, labor force participation in the US has declined to its lowest levels since the mid-1970’s. Throw in millions of foreclosed homes, ravaged neighborhoods, economic dead zones all over the country and your point about social justice forgetting about equality takes on a razor edge. Democrats AND progressives forgot about economic issues and pursued a selfish, bourgeois agenda that became downright insulting to the poor and working class across all ethnic groups.

    Democrats saved the rich and the guilty and threw everyone in economic danger under a bus. All that symbolic social justice crap was just smoke and mirrors to buy off the oppressed, one special interest at a time, while preserving all privilege for themselves. A cynical strategy the oppressed saw clearly enough and stayed home at election time.

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