The Democrats have a messaging problem, and it could come back to bite them
If you have read any of my past blogs, you’ll know that I find myself in a somewhat awkward position. In many ways I am stuck in the middle — not between the left and the right, but between the left and the far left. I’m not really a traditional liberal, but I’m also not a socialist. I take issue with many of the actions Democrats take, both as individuals and as a party, but I cannot embrace the “DemExit” mentality, not in the era of an increasingly extreme and empowered GOP.
The reason I am telling you this is that I feel it begins to illustrate one of the shortcomings of the Democratic Party, particularly as it relates to their messaging and organizing. There is a growing movement that finds itself frustrated with the Democrats, spurred in part by the candidacy of Bernie Sanders in 2016, and their unwillingness to move away from the often institutionalist, corporatist, status-quo that they have occupied at least since Bill Clinton and his Third Way movement. I don’t feel quite as strongly on this as some do (I still largely place the Democratic Party left of center, while some put them center or center right), but I certainly share many of these concerns in one way or another.
Now, this group still overwhelmingly voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 general election, despite what you might hear from some staunch Clinton supporters. Roughly 75% of Bernie Sanders primary supporters cast a vote for Clinton, as I wrote about here. I suspect the same to happen this November as we work to take back seats around the country. But the anger and disappointment is still clearly there, if even just festering under the surface, and were it not for the dehumanizing plague that is Donald Trump and the Republican Party, there may be a real lack of enthusiasm among those that lean a little further left, particularly when it comes to economic issues.
And what does the Democratic Party have to show for its relative moderation? Have they managed to bring a sizable swath of center and center-right voters into the fold? The upcoming midterms may give us more insight here, but as of now, the answer seems to be a pretty clear “no.” Clinton was much closer to the center than Trump, but lost. The party platform was closer to the center than that of the Republicans, and yet they lost both chambers, too.
Close to 90% of Republicans say they approve of Donald Trump. That’s not unheard of, and Obama hit that mark among Democrats when he was in office, but he also spent his fair share of time in the high-70’s and low-80’s. To me, this suggests that the strategy of playing to the middle isn’t doing much in the way of siphoning off the support of moderate Republicans — if anything, it may be less successful than the GOP strategy of being as extreme and awful as they’d like.
What we are left with is a Democratic Party with an ever-shrinking base. Yes, enthusiasm is up going in to the midterms, and there could very well be a wave. But how much of those votes are going to be anti-Trump votes as opposed to pro-Democratic Party votes? That’s impossible to know, but my instinct is that it’s a higher share than one would like.
The number of people who passionately identify with the Democratic Party is declining. What happens when (if?) the existential threat is gone, and Marco Rubio is the standard bearer of the Republican Party again? You have a left that is fed-up with the status quo, and wants a party that will fight for social democratic (or socialistic, depending on the individual) policies and ideals rather than for incrementalism. But you also have an opposition party that thinks the Democrats are the socialists. The decision to try to waffle about in the middle doesn’t seem to be working, as neither side seems apt to join them. One side thinks they need to be more willing to consider some types of socialism, the other side thinks they are ready to exhume Stalin’s corpse and replace the Lincoln Memorial with it. What, then, is their constituency?
I began this essay by saying I often feel stuck in the middle, and I still think that’s true; but so too are the Democrats. What they need to do is decide on a path and set out on it instead of hanging out at the trailhead, trying to please everyone only to end up pleasing no one.