Democrats are Easy to Hate

There’s a race for Mayor of Philadelphia on May 21st. Mayor Kennedy is probably going to get re-elected, but not because he polls well- his opponents are the pro-charter school State Senator he crushed four years ago and the City Controller who lost his primary for re-election just two years ago. Kenney’s own loss of popularity is somewhat tied to his passage of “the soda tax,” a well intentioned idea to fund Philadelphia Public Schools, which of course didn’t all end up going to the schools. Kenney’s standing in his former strongholds of South and Northeast Philadelphia don’t like it. He’ll probably win a very, very low turnout race by 20% though. There’s nothing to love.

The best way to sum up the public standing of Democratic Politics, both in Philadelphia and beyond, was the recent video of State Rep. Brian Sims having an altercation with a pro-life woman outside of a Planned Parenthood in Philadelphia. Intellectually speaking, I agree with Sims point. In fact, I usually agree with Sims, in terms of a political point. I probably agree with that woman on very little. Somehow, I watch the video though and feel like Sims was basically a dick, a liberal who wanted an altercation with a conservative, because she committed the crime of believing different stuff. It’s a bad look. This is particularly a quagmire because of the reality of the situation- lawmakers that woman votes for are passing bills like the Alabama and Georgia anti-abortion bills that will criminalize women for receiving constitutionally protected health care, and probably put the health of hundreds of thousands of women at risk. I get that. Yet, Sims makes the woman advocating for that the “victim” here, in the optics.

The Democratic Party, at it’s best, is the defender of the marginalized minority. We stand up for the rights and well-being of the disadvantaged, minorities, and those who are different than the majority of us. That would be those kids in the Philadelphia schools that Jim Kenney passed the soda tax for. That would be the women who need to have a choice, for their life and well being. It would be every African-American wrongfully shot by police officers. It would be the Asylum seekers we open our doors to, whether they be Bosnian or Guatemalan. It would be for all of us, when we fight to protect our environment. The Democratic Party that emerged from the 1960’s has been a party that fights for the marginalized, and that has been a valuable public service.

The problem has been pretty straight forward though- the other side has defined the American left as being against many of the institutions and norms that have been identified as “good” in American culture. Worse yet, they’ve done so by using the words and actions of those on the American left. Kenney’s soda tax shows he’ll “hammer the working class” to pay for the big ideas of “Center City liberals.” The Sims video reinforces that we hate religious people. Ilhan Omar’s use of traditionally anti-Semitic language to describe the Israeli lobby in the U.S. reinforces that “liberals hate Israel.” AOC’s release of a “white paper” on the Green New Deal that blames “cow farts” for climate change and calls for “economic support for people who ‘choose not to work'” was a treasure trove of reinforcement for stereotypes about Democrats. They’ve even managed to turn Black Lives Matter into Democrats hating police, only a quarter century after Joe Biden and Bill Clinton passed the COPS Act.

You can’t be against the local church, the hardworking police officers, a good steak on the grill, a bottle of “pop,” the state of Israel, the existence of national borders, and the basic existence of traditional, cultural norms, and win elections in most of America. Most Democrats aren’t, of course, but that is not the message being broadcast by Fox News, or virtually anyone shilling against justice and reform. That message worked for Nixon in ’68, Reagan in ’80, Gingrich in ’94, and Trump in ’16. It pulled people who voted for Barack Obama over to Trump, and it did so across most demographics. While it is important that we defend those who need it, it’s also important to remember that even most of our voters live fairly normal lives.

In poll after poll, Americans say they agree with Democratic positions on policy issues. That was even true in the exit polls in 2004 and 2016, the last two Republican Presidential victories. Democrats usually only lose the questions about leadership, relatability (who would you have a beer with), and honesty and conviction in our causes. Despite that, Republicans have controlled the White House for 32 of the last 50 years, the House for 20 of the last 26 years, and the Senate for almost 15 of the last 26 years. It turns out being “right” isn’t that important to winning elections and making change. Americans, despite their desire to see some changes and reforms, don’t hate their “way of life,” or view their culture as fundamentally flawed. We can argue the merits of how right or wrong they are, but that won’t change it.

My basic plea to Democrats is simple- stop sticking up for bad actions by those we deem as having good intentions or causes. It’s literally fueling the fire for the other side. As long as the voters outside of the big cities view us as dishonest brokers, who hate everything about their way of life, we’re going to continue to be electoral losers. As we saw with a disciplined message in 2018, lead by pros like Speaker Pelosi, it doesn’t have to be this way.

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Demographics Won’t Save Us

Three facts:

  1. America is roughly a quarter century from the projected point where white people are no longer the majority.
  2. In 2040, roughly twenty years from now, half the country will live in eight states (CA, TX, FL, NY, IL, PA, NC, GA).
  3. When the country becomes majority-majority, at least 37 states will be majority white. That’s total population. Even more states will likely be majority white voters.

With those three facts, I think it is safe to say that demographics are not destiny. In 2020, demographics are a very real threat to actually doom the Democrats. Considering how far we are from reaching the point where current demographic politics tilt the other way, it’s fair to say that many of us will never see that day.

It’s also important to remember all the danger that can get done along the way. We’ve already seen the Voting Rights Act gutted of much of it’s enforcement powers, and now we’re seeing a real attempt to drive down Latino participation in the census by adding a “citizenship question.” If the Trump Administration is successful at curtailing legal immigration through draconian methods, including ending the lawful act of seeking asylum as we know it, the demographic future Democrats spoke of in the Obama years may be dramatically different. Couple all of this with Trump having won white millennials, and you can see the storm clouds.

All of this leads me to my main point here- Democrats shouldn’t rely on demographics saving them in 2020 or beyond. They need only look at their 2018 message and coalition to see their path forward to winning elections. It’s not division, but actually a broad agenda of progress. It’s not choosing who gets progress, but offering progress to the whole nation. This is hard for many activists, who deeply want to see accountability for the current disaster that is the GOP, and it’s voters. That’s a road to nowhere though. That’s not understanding why we lost in 2016. That’s believing that being right is more important than being practical. We should reject it.

Some Democrats Have No Idea Why They Lost In 2016

To hear my boss in North Carolina tell it, he actually thought we were going to win the Tar Heel state for Hillary Clinton deep into the night of November 8th, 2016. The numbers from Mecklenburg, Wake, Durham, and Orange Counties, the backbone of Democratic power in the state, were hitting voter turnout and performance targets. Turnout was high statewide, presumably a good thing for Democrats. But it wasn’t enough. Democrats lost the battleground state by slightly less than 175,000 votes in the end.

In my native Pennsylvania, the story was similar. Hillary Clinton’s margin out of Philadelphia was greater than either of Bill Clinton’s, Al Gore’s, John Kerry’s or anyone else who won the state not named Barack Obama. She carried all four of Philadelphia’s “collar counties,” the former backbone of Republicans in the state, and in some cases carried them substantially. She carried Allegheny County (Pittsburgh area) by a margin exceeding President Obama’s. She carried places like Dauphin County (the state capitol) and Centre County (Penn State), something unthinkable when Gore and Kerry were carrying the state. Turnout was very high across the state. Like North Carolina, Hillary spared no efforts to win the state, visiting constantly.

The list of examples showing the same thing is fairly substantial. Hillary campaigned hard in Florida, and exceeded the early vote numbers that she was expected to need in almost every metropolitan area. She lost the state very close. Turnout was high, her margins in the cities were impressive, and yet every swing state seemed to break the same way. Yet the myth persists- Hillary’s campaign didn’t do enough to motivate the base Democrats and they didn’t do enough to spike turnout among “marginal” voters. Some Democrats insist that we must do this better to win in 2020. The facts would argue that we did this pretty well in 2016, AND that there may be only limited ability to do this better in 2020. Just about every candidate running would be lucky to match her performance among the base in 2020. I know, it’s a sobering thought, but the facts say this conventional talking point is wrong.

There’s also an equally false myth out there about Donald Trump- that he motivated tens of millions of new white “hillbilly” voters to turn out. Let me let you in on a little secret, he didn’t. Trump got a little less than two million more votes than Mitt Romney, which with the increased voter turnout, made for a 1% drop in the Republican share of the vote. Trump got the same percentage of the vote as McCain did in a blowout loss in 2008, which means he basically got the population growth difference. This may shock you, but basically if Clinton has received 49% instead of 48%, she probably would have won six more states, and an electoral blowout (provided they weren’t all in the big coastal blue states). Donald Trump actually had no special turnout machine, his margin was not a bunch of new white Republicans. His victory was actually fueled by key crossover Democrats in the swing states, and people disgusted with both that picked third party candidates.

The bitter truth is that Democrats lost the 2016 not because they didn’t do enough to motivate the base voters in Philadelphia, Cleveland or Charlotte, but because of voters they lost in Eastern North Carolina, Northeast Pennsylvania, Eastern Iowa, and suburban Milwaukee. Our ability to win them back isn’t the only factor that matters in 2020, but it is a very big one.

How the Democrats are Losing the Online Game

Tell the truth, how many fundraising e-mails did you delete this weekend? For me, it got so bad that I unsubscribed from close to a dozen e-mail lists. Back in the dark ages when I was in college (2002-2006), I got myself on every e-mail list I could. It felt like I actually got information about the 2004 Presidential candidates back then. That’s not what e-mails are used for on political campaigns in 2019.

Democrats now view digital campaign organizing, e-mails, and even their website as an ATM. In the wake of McCain-Feingold and the Citizens United Supreme Court Decision, Democrats face a real challenge in keeping up financially with the right-wing financial machine. They’ve exasperated that by ingesting the poison pill rhetoric that all lobbyists and political action committees (PACs) are terrible, and we can’t take their money. The Bernie purity rhetoric, and even President Obama’s a generation ago, puts Democrats behind the eight ball. So what’s been the answer? Go grassroots. Ask for $27 over and over again. We still can’t keep up, but it’s worth a shot. Pledge to take no PAC money or federal lobbyist money at all- even from unions, Planned Parenthood, or Environmental groups- to try and motivate activists who have little understanding of campaign budgets to fund your campaign.

The net result is a million micro-messages from every group and candidate on the left to try and motivate you to give some cash. It turns into annoying white noise. It works fine for interest groups in DC, who do the best in this messy void, but leaves everyone else all over the map. It leads to the “Democrats have no message” meme.

What about the Republican Party? They don’t have quite the same issues. In 2016 everyone knew that the Trump message was “Make America Great Again,” and “Crooked Hillary.” Hillary Clinton was a criminal that would take the America you and your descendants built away from you, and give it to “other” people, but Donald Trump would stop that and restore it to you. Yes, they did field, television, and mail to get that message to you, but on a far scaled down level from what Mitt Romney and John McCain has done. They understood that the race would be decided at the margins, so they went cheaper and more straight to the point- they talked to you online. Sure, maybe some GRU guy in Moscow was giving them an assist, but don’t underestimate what the GOP did. They were getting 20 impressions on your brain through Facebook, for the price of one TV ad, at a far more efficient clip too. They hit their audience directly with one simple, straight forward message- Make America Great Again. The whole right-wing took part.

So what’s going to happen in 2020? Look no further than this week’s Wisconsin election for the State Supreme Court. Democrats narrowly lost, despite hitting their turnout targets across the board. Republican turnout simply spiked. What was their message? Socialism. It didn’t matter if it was the Koch funded groups, the NRA, or religious conservatives, they simply told you the Democratic “socialists” are coming to take what you want away from you. They’ll take your guns, your church, and your tax dollars, and give America to those “others.” They will spend hundreds of millions of dollars into digital ads on the internet that tell their voters to fear Democrats, because socialism.

As the really smart friend of mine that does digital campaign work explained this to me yesterday, I realized just how messed up the Democratic Party is on digital. We’re trying to use the internet to finance our campaigns, while they’re using it to poison the Democratic brand. It’s a mismatch. If no one in the Democratic Party figures this out soon, it could be too late- and Donald Trump could be basking in “four more years” chants.

Unhinged Trump- Landing a Plane With No Wings

Let’s be clear, none of this is normal. The President of the United States spent his Sunday taking to Twitter to attack dead Senators, special prosecutors, and television personalities. He called for government sanctions against “Saturday Night Live” for making fun of him. Last week Donald Trump said it would be “very bad, very bad” if his supporters are unhappy. Again, this isn’t normal.

I don’t so much fear what an avowed moron can do within the limits of the Presidency, but I do fear the future he is making possible. Many of the limits on Presidential power are created by adherence to norms. They are based on respect for the process and the rule of law. This man doesn’t accept any of that. Fortunately he’s largely incompetent. That will not always be the case.

The bigger fear is the creation of a “generation Trump.” Would a successor, whether it is Don Jr., Pence, or something even worse, find both motivation in Trump, and increased competence in themselves? Could we find his erosion of norms and our government processes becomes a long term problem?

Donald Trump may lose in 2020 on the strength of pure opposition to all he stands for. The only way for his ideology to be defeated and sent to the scrap heap of history is for conservative Americans to reject his unhinged behavior. I hold out little hope that he loses the Republican nomination in 2020, but I do hope that 20 or 30% of Republicans will choose to vote for someone, anyone else in 2020. It’s the only way to destroy this dangerous ideology.

A Bold New World View, Part 5- The Parties

Read Part 1 here.

Read Part 2 here.

Read Part 3 here.

Read Part 4 here.

Steak or fish. A or B. Black or White. American politics is somewhat limiting and constrained. Our political system has been built for stability, not for passions of the moment. From our constitution to our election laws, the idea is to eventually get to something almost like a consensus. Having two parties to choose from increases the likelihood of that.

But really though, what are our political parties? Political parties, in the official sense, are the committee people who make them up. In most cases, you elect your county party committee at the precinct level, and your state committee people at a county level, or some other higher political division level. The DNC and RNC members are chosen by state party and elected leaders. In an official sense, both parties are people chosen directly and indirectly by the voters. In reality, parties are a lot more.

In the case of both parties, there are two other groups with very direct power and oversight in the parties- elected officials and major donors. Elected officials are elected directly by the public, get to set policies that usually end up as party policy, and most importantly get to hand out appointments and jobs- all the stuff the party faithful care about. Major donors have a ton of influence, because elections cost money. As long as TV, mail, internet ads, canvass programs, offices, and staff cost money, donors will exist. Candidates who can’t raise any money, and parties for that matter, can’t tell anyone why they’re great and deserve your votes. Both of these groups have a ton of sway over political parties, and how they’re going to operate.

The thing about all three of these groups though is that they combine to make up less than 1% of both our 320 million plus population, and our 135 million actually active voters. In other words, they can’t make our political system run on their own. In fact, they can’t even run the political parties on their own. They’re all indispensable, and yet entirely inadequate to drive our politics in 2019.

The great divergence of the two political parties occurs at this point- who the base, or activists are. For the Republicans, they are an alliance of groups- big businesses, military hawks, Christian conservatives, and other traditionalist groups (generally white and male)- who generally share an ideological view. For the Democrats, they are a coalition of groups who often don’t completely share ideological positions- African-Americans, leftists, feminists, labor, Latinos, Jewish Americans, Muslim Americans, the LGBT community, and many other change related groups. All members of the Republican alliance are conservatives, or part of the right, usually. Not every group in the Democratic coalition is part of “the left” though, at least in the eyes of the others. Member groups of the Republican alliance can move further right without fear of alienating the other partners, in part because they all agree generally in their world view, and in part because they all oppose the direction of Democrats, pretty much at their core. When some groups within the Democratic coalition move right or left, they draw the ire of other partners.

Obviously this doesn’t cover every voter in both parties, which speaks to the general dislike of politics that many people feel. Many voters end up picking the lesser of the two evils because they’re not very ideological themselves, or they don’t fit perfectly in any of these boxes, or they dislike one or two groups on their side. In normal elections, these voters end up as swing voters, up for grabs to the candidate willing to come get them. In recent elections, particularly 2016, these voters end up pressed into “their” corner- happy about it or not.

Our two party system leaves a lot to be desired in recent times, but it’s also the greatest tool for stability this country has seen. Ironically, displeasure for the increasingly polarized positions of the two parties may end up changing that in the near time. Even if the parties end up going the way of the Whigs though, we have a system that is built to accommodate two.