Assuming matters go along smoothly and impeachment does not strike, Democrats will be using the next 3 years to contemplate a strategy to unseat Donald Trump and Congress Republicans. Considering the disaster that was US election 2016, a healthy dose of soul searching is precisely what the doctor ordered. Catastrophe is not strong enough of a word to describe the cataclysmic disaster that November’s election was for the DNC. Losing the Executive, Senate, failing to make up ground in the House, relinquishing control of 2/3rds of state governorships and possibly now the Supreme Court for a generation makes it hard to imagine a tougher pill to swallow.
Recognizing the problem, both political and as a matter of public policy is the first step towards toppling the Trump regime and wrestling the reins of power back from Republicans. Only then can Democrats move towards effectively challenging their opponents. The first steps towards a new strategy and direction for the party will take place in a few weeks, when members vote for a new chairman/woman of the DNC, replacing interim leader Donna Brazile on February 28th. Although these steps are important in establishing the direction of the party, what the Democrats really suffer from is a lack of identity and message.
Part of why Republicans have been so successful in electoral politics has been their insistence on a clear and unwavering message. Public policy effectiveness aside, good politics requires a party to present to the population their vision and message for the future. Donald Trump was able to do this and for better or worse, inspired enough Americans to look forward to casting their vote for him and the Republican Party. Barack Obama’s message of ‘hope’ and ‘change’ was similar in that it sold positivity and optimism to constituents. This past general election, Hilary Clinton and Democrats had one thing they could hang their hat on, namely: ‘Trump is bad’ and ‘elect me so he won’t get elected’. This strategy is not only ineffective messaging but it dares voters to do otherwise, a big strategic mishap. Furthermore, this inert proposition was followed with a hollow void in vision. It is hard to put a finger upon what Hilary Clinton stood for, her frequent dishonesty and flip-flopping creating a hazy and unclear picture of what she intended. Instead, the message emanating from the Democratic party materialized itself as ‘more of the same’ and ‘trust us, we are better’. This message, be it unintended or not, carries a veneer of technocratic allure, suicide in today’s populist political climate.
In politics, a vision is better than no vision at all
In order to prevent another catastrophe, Democrats need to pick up the pieces that made them so successful in the past and arrange them into a cogent message all Americans can relate to. Dropping the negativity and technocratic hubris will go a long way in clearing a new slate based on positive messaging and optimistic enthusiasm. Democrats also need to drop their fixation with the opposition in favour of prioritizing and reinforcing their own message. Criticism of the opposition is effective, however criticism without an alternative message can appear drab. Congress Democrats need to focus their attention on using Republican missteps to push their narrative and policy goals. Keeping Donald Trump in the news and focusing on criticism of Republican public policy does nothing but maintain their positions at the top of the agenda and news cycle. Instead, Democrats need to spotlight whenever they can and reinforce their priorities and make it clear what they stand for. This way, it makes it harder for Republicans to muddle and misconstrue their positions, and it markets the Democratic party as a party that is competent and ambitious. People want to feel like they are entrusting their vote in an organization that knows what it is doing and is confident enough to flaunt their identity. They want to feel like they are understood and listened to, an unclear and weak message does not incite these feelings.
The content of the message comes second to the tone and clarity it is delivered in. Fighting for effective public policy is dimension that is wasted unless it comes with the staff required to support it. Democrats need to show Americans they have a clear message that they believe in and that they are confident will make their lives better. Adopting positivity, enthusiasm and strength will be crucial in effectively pushing whatever policies and direction they adopt come February 28th. Waiting for Donald Trump and Congress Republicans to hang themselves in their incompetence is too long of a strategy to undertake, better to wrestle the power from them by convincing Americans you might have a vision too. Because in politics, a vision is better than no vision at all.
Photo: Flickr, attributed to Gage Skidmore