A dozen or more candidates are pursuing the Democratic Party presidential nomination for 2020. They offer an array of policy proposals that impact health care, income inequality, protection of the environment, climate change, expanded educational opportunities, greater voter protection, a woman’s right to choose, and opposition to gender, racial, religious and ethnic discrimination. The list of goals to improve the lives of Americans is extensive. But these policy objectives have one common thread – they seek to improve opportunities for average Americans to have productive lives and to live in a country where they are protected from those who would do harm.
During the campaign candidates will be testing what ideas best energize those likely to participate in the primaries. They must be ever conscious, however, that a motivated liberal base can produce a primary winner with no chance of winning a general election. In elections such as 2016 some supporters of Bernie Sanders, in their disappointment, retained their allegiance to the point that they did not support the ultimate nominee. In fact, as hard as it is to imagine, some with a populist bent voted for Donald Trump. It is very important in pursuing the presidency that the candidates’ passion and fervor not get captured by a Republican labeling campaign. In advancing progressive ideas in moderate or conservative states- Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, for example – a candidate can emerge victorious from a motivated liberal base. Comments or policy initiatives in securing a victory in primaries can give a candidate a false sense of success. But winning such states’ electoral votes in a general election is entirely different. The enthusiasm generated by some issues can be shaped into negative narratives by the opposition. Some early forming narratives have already been articulated by President Trump and his supporters.
As the campaign heats up and candidates seek to distinguish themselves from their competitors, much debate has been generated by a liberal element of the Democratic Party newly elected to Congress. Diversity initially produces enthusiasm for different perspectives that must eventually be shaped into a common message that enjoys widespread support. But the positive good that can emerge from intra-party debates can go off the rails. Many non-presidential aspirants are actively creating pressure on prospective candidates to pursue policies that would probably strengthen the Democratic Party in states in which they already have a significant advantage – California, New York, Massachusetts, and the like -but could prove detrimental in more moderate states. While these voices need to be heard it is important to recognize that policies such as a “Green New Deal” or Medicare for all is susceptible to demagoguery. The goals are to gain the White House, retain the House and win the Senate. These must be accomplished if a policy agenda is to be achieved that restores a balance between the powerful and the majority of Americans. Winning a particular congressional district is far different than winning a state. What sells in New York or Maryland is very different than what will succeed in a more moderate state. A nation of 435 congressional districts reflects the uniqueness and diversity that is America.
The potential for a disconnect between popular votes and electoral votes has always been lurking in America’s constitutional structure. Although it was primarily the result of a compromise with the southern states fearful that a more populated north would eliminate slavery it has become the means for less populated states in general to counteract a popular vote. The election results of 2000 and 2016 are reminders, particularly for those unfamiliar with its history, that the founders were fearful of a president elected solely by popular vote. Demagogues, they believed, were less likely to achieve the office if the states had more power than individual voters. But the founders did not anticipate that future communication systems would enable messages to be sent across state lines in ways that would enable like-minded individuals to coalesce around a candidate.
The din created by this 24/7 onslaught through the Internet, cable T.V., social media, etc. has exacerbated disagreements not only between political parties but also within them. The era of floating an idea, sharing a draft of some ideas to be pursued, adjusting campaign messages has been replaced by instant exposure that freezes forever what has been said or done. This process makes it very difficult for candidates to grow. The response from candidates too often caught in hypocrisy, indiscretion, or contradictions is to exhibit dishonesty (“fake news” claims have become routine) or to display a public intransigence (“I don’t apologize” or “I didn’t say that” are examples). Rare is an acknowledgement by a candidate that a previously held position was ill informed, or in error or a mistake was made but for which they accept responsibility. A perpetual media cycle fed by a constant pursuit of profits does not forgive mistakes or errors in judgment. This “gotcha” world is detrimental to a more civil society. We no longer have the luxury of reflection and pursuit of the better fit. A populace that varies greatly in its information knowledge can be influenced by sound bites and manipulation conveyed through social media and other so-called news outlets.
We need to balance expected and sometimes exaggerated rhetoric with some common sense. Donald Trump’s populism thrives on attacking others through denigrating and demeaning comments, voicing anger at everyone but himself, making false claims about the return of a post-World War II economy, and convincing supporters dominated by high school educated white males in rural areas that only he can remedy their lot in life by exaggerating the impact of immigrants and non-white Americans. Candidate Trump conveniently omitted several factors that have contributed to the loss of jobs in the Midwest in particular. The impact that technology has had in reducing the number of employees needed to produce a product. Or how corporate profits determined the size and location of manufacturing facilities. Or how corporate America’s commitment to share holder profits meant that employees were seen solely as an expense and thus easily discarded. Or how the reduction in the use of coal and oil is being dictated by market forces. The majority of Americans who did not vote for Donald Trump have lamented that this approach proved successful in 2016. There already have been assertions by Trump campaign leaders that this approach will be used even more aggressively in 2020 to sell the idea that America is and must remain a white country.
The Democratic Party needs to demonstrate that there are more Americans of all political persuasions who take the governance of their country seriously. We need a leader who doesn’t seek to draw a distinction between a dictator and his regime’s behaviors. We need a leader who doesn’t demean and denigrate those who are in opposition. Claiming that fair and equitable treatment of minorities, foreign-born and numerous other groups is simply evidence of political correctness is shameful. We need a leader who understands that, while symbols have a role, they are not substitutes for adherence to the Constitution and the norms that have guided us (freedom of speech and the press, a judicial system free from interference, a national security system that is trusted and respected and does not get shoved aside to accommodate our adversaries). We need a leader who supports a capitalistic system that flourishes in partnership with government but understands that guardrails such as regulations, an independent judicial system, a tax system that does not skew towards the wealthy, and rigorous congressional oversight, are essential to protect against abuses in the economy, tax system, environment and to insure against violation of the rights of all Americans.
The Democratic Party must guard against attempts by the Trump Republican Party to select and shape the narratives for 2020. Competing ideas are evidence of a healthy party. But winning requires that policy proposals no matter how passionately espoused and factually supported not be converted into Republican shaped narratives. As witnessed in the 2016 Republican primary campaign we must also fight against pejorative personal labels (“little Marco”, “low energy Jeb”, “would any body vote for Carly with a face like that”) that is a strategy to deflect from a rigorous policy debate. The labeling of prospective Democratic candidates has already begun. These personal attacks were and continue to be the means to divert the public from his disinterest in substantive policy discussions. Democrats must pursue a campaign that is substantive and shaped by its proponents.
Vincent De Sanctis is a member of the Talbot County Democratic Forum. He writes from Tilghman.