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.