DEMOCRATS ON THE COUCH

How to Resolve the Democratic Party’s Bitter Conflict to Triumph Over Trump

To Win in 2020, Democrats have to cease the infighting and unify forces. Here’s how a family therapist would intervene in their self-destructive divide.

Istock image. Photoshop by Brain Seitz.

Like a vulture spotting troubled prey, Donald Trump has honed in on Democrats’ disunity, knowing it’s their greatest vulnerability. Immediately following Biden’s ascent as the presumptive nominee, Trump began taunting the “Bernie people” that, once again, they’d been dismissed by Party establishment and deemed irrelevant.

By stoking the embers that have been smoldering between the two wings of the Democratic Party since 2016, Trump has set out to amplify chaos and divisiveness — his signature strategy for control and dominance. This is how Donald Trump wins, by exploiting the weaknesses of his opponents. But if Democrats are able to truly join forces, they can undermine his strategy and stop him in his tracks.

While Party leaders have banded together with across the board endorsements of Joe Biden and with olive branches extended via policy tweaks, “making nice” isn’t enough. Pretending all is fine is the precise type of non-problem solving that has plagued the Democratic Party over the past four years, a neglect that has only exacerbated intra-party polarization. Papering over fuming tinder never extinguishes a fire; it fuels it.

The fact of the matter is that Democrats are still contentiously divided and contemptuously conflicted, with each wing of the Party feeling threatened by the other. Those on the center-left think the progressive-left is too radical, too naive, too impetuous, and too out-of-touch with Middle America. Those on the “woke” left think centrists are too complacent, too careful, too incremental, and too willing to cater to Republican and corporate interests.

The question becomes: What to do about it? How do Democrats extract themselves from their “circular firing squad” as Obama has phrased it, overcome the desire to dictate Party ideology, and unify the Party to damn well get elected?

Here’s how a family therapist trained in handling deep-seated conflict would intervene…

Finding Common Ground

As when treating families on the verge of breakdown due to entrenched conflict, finding common ground is the obvious starting point. Applied here, it’s safe to say that each and every Democrat is desperate to oust Donald Trump and gain Democratic majority on the Hill. The ultimate goal is to bring justice to the American people and sanity to our government.

With this urgent aim in mind, Democrats must muster the maturity needed to do whatever it will take, within legal and ethical boundaries, to beat Trump and win seats in Congress. This means fighting together for a common goal, not against each other for ideological purposes. This means putting principles and the welfare of American citizens ahead of ideology, righteous stances and dogged beliefs. This means letting go of rigid, right/wrong attitudes that pamper egos yet hamper productive movement forward. And yes, this means bringing sanity into the Democratic Party.

Once common ground is clearly established, it then boils down to a basic decision to either be part of the solution or part of the problem. To win together or be defeated apart. To feel triumphant or continue to feel bitter. The choice, and the outcome, is up to Democrats.

Building Rapport

The next therapeutic step in tempering strife in dysfunctional social systems is building rapport between opposing sides. When each side understands where the other is “coming from,” empathy develops, judgment lessens, and stances can soften.

As it applies here, it’s helpful to recognize that both centrists and progressives have best intentions to defeat Trump and the Republican Party in 2020, yet each side simply has different instincts about how to meet this too-critical-to-fail challenge that has everyone in a panic.

Establishment Democrats are clinging to what once worked for them, as people tend to do in a crisis. Centrism managed to get Bill Clinton elected (with the help of third-party spoiler, Ross Perot) and re-elected, ending a robust 20-year run Republicans had in the White House during the prior 24 years. So-called “New Democrats” had broken through a solid electoral wall and snatched the presidency from an incumbent Republican. This tide-changing feat redefined what a successful Democratic campaign and candidate looked like — a fair reason for centrists to believe their way is the path to victory.

Progressive Democrats, on the other hand, are coming at this crisis with a fresh, no-holds barred approach to righting what’s gone horribly wrong in our democracy since then. With a focus on the future, they’re bringing unfettered passion, idealism and bold ideas for tackling this crisis head on. A vital, increasingly powerful block of young voters enthusiastically embraces these views — a fair reason for progressives to believe their way is the path to victory.

By understanding that this intra-party conflict involves different means to the same end and why each holds the views they do, helps reduce animosity— fundamental for any kind of true unification. This vital step doesn’t happen when “making nice.”

Reframing

Once this foundation is set, the next interventional technique involves reframing conflict to breakthrough dysfunctional deadlocks damaging the health and strength of a system (i.e, family, party, company, etc.). In this case, reframing can diminish the paradoxical thinking that has the two wings of the Democratic Party trapped in discord.

With a broader understanding of the problem, the solution is not either/or. It’s “and/and,” with both sides being “right” to an extent, and both sides needing to make adjustments and cede ground — but not the way they think they do, and are adamantly resisting.

Centrists believe they have to reach moderate voters by “moving to the center” at times even compromising principles, albeit subtly and perhaps unintentionally, to get there. Reaching middle-of-the-road voters is essential, but moving to the “center” is not the answer. Appealing to the center is.

Becoming Republican-lite doesn’t make Democrats more appealing to anyone — left, right or center. No one wants a watered-down version of anything, especially principles. When this happens, Democrats lose their moral footing, their identity and their distinction from Republicans, a key concept in branding, marketing, and selling one product (or party) over another.

The only movement to the middle should be between the two poles on the left — the center left and progressive left — modifying positions and policies in a way that properly responds to and serves the needs of constituents, while keeping principles and party brand intact.

Progressives, on the other hand, are so focused on creating change with reformative policies that they don’t even think about appealing to voters who aren’t already sitting in their pews, singing the same tune. And, they sure as hell are not going to shift their positions or compromise principles to do it.

Democrats do have to reach voters beyond their base if they want to increase their number of supporters. This is what campaigning is about — nothing more, nothing less. And this must be the goal if you want to win, regardless of how “right” your positions are, or how righteous you feel.

So, for example, when a successful, two-term Democratic governor of a purple state warns: “Socialism is not the answer to beat Donald Trump and achieve big, progressive goals,” the constructive reaction would be curiosity not outrage. The productive response would be: “Really? Tell me more,” not booing to drown out the unwanted opinion as happened at the Democratic convention in California last summer.

This is the type of attitude that will doom the Democratic Party. I understand the intense desperation to right what’s gone terribly wrong in this country. But this takes getting elected, which takes successful campaigning, which takes listening to and understanding the views and values of the voters you need to sway.

Only after you understand voters’ views, needs and values do you have any hope of: 1) communicating with them in a way that resonates; 2) bonding with them; and 3) inspiring them to rally behind you. Fighting, denying, chiding, deriding or ignoring differing viewpoints (progressive Democrats’ default mode) alienates and even repels voters, which is utterly self-defeating if your goal is to win.

Moving Forward Together for the Win

While progressives need to listen more broadly, and centrists need to anchor into principles more deeply, the Democratic Party as a whole needs to get their act together by climbing to a higher perspective and actually identify what unifies them — the common mission they hold and the values and principles that guide them. Without this, you’re on open seas without a compass — lost. Good luck trying to get anyone on board that ship.

The lack of a big-picture, unifying philosophy from which to build positions and campaigns is the self-imposed handicap that repeatedly undermines Democrats at the polls — not stances that are too progressive, candidates that are “unelectable,” or the Republican Party’s egregiously dirty tricks.

Next, Democrats have to communicate their mission, values and principles in a way that emotionally engages voters and drives them to the polls. This is achieved through a compelling narrative that tells the Democratic Party’s story — who they are, what they believe, and why they do what they do. Not facts. Not logic. And not policy proposals, no matter how deliberatively detailed or beneficial.

This is exactly why the Republican “culture wars” of the last forty years and Donald Trump, of late, have been so effective. They’ve had complete command of campaign narratives, persuasively telling the story of why Americans should vote for them and not those rotten Democrats. This is the reason Trump triumphed in 2016, and why Republicans defeat Democrats again and again — not because their policies benefit Middle America, which they assuredly do not.

Democrats do have to become more like Republicans, but only by mastering the art of persuasion, not by “moving center.” Unlike Republicans, however, Democrats don’t have to dupe voters with deceptive rhetoric because they are fighting for the good of average Americans.

I’ve laid out such a narrative along with a proposed mission and five-point strategy in a soon-to-be-released white paper: “Make America, America: The Stand the Democratic Party Must Take, the Story They Need to Tell, and the Leadership They Have to Find…A Strategy for Success.” In it, I explain how Democrats can pull the Party together, spur non-voters, and bond with swing voters all while running on a strong and principled platform of reformative change.

In my next column, I’ll go into detail about narratives and persuasion, and show what it will take for Democrats to master this crucial campaign skill. But the first task is to resolve the internal discord. Only by consolidating like a laser — electrified, in sync and focused on a common mission — can Democrats have the potency needed to triumph in 2020 and beyond.

If ever there’s been a “now or never” for Democrats to “get it together” by coming together, it’s now. And, it’s a choice. Take it, or leave it and victory behind.

For an introduction to the “Democrats on the Couch” series:

And to learn more about my work, or to be alerted when the white paper is released, please go to www.deencommunications.com

Author “Saving America's Grace.” Therapist turned Dem comms strategist taking on GOP manipulation/polarization/ dysfunction/messaging www.deencommunications.com

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