Two years ago on Halloween, I was staring down the final week of a punishing campaign cycle and anticipating a painful victory. I wrote a piece about how we were about to learn the wrong lessons from the 2016 Presidential election cycle. At the time, I was focused on the misinterpretation of the real and profound angst in the American electorate on both the Left and Right. Unfortunately, two years later, nearly everything I said still feels deeply true: Our leaders need to focus on progress over power and most citizens feel ignored by political parties more interested in point-scoring than leadership.
Now I worry that we’re about to misinterpret the results of another election cycle, furthering (and perhaps accelerating) the downward spiral of our politics. What was missing then, and is still needed now, is a more explicit prescription for how we, as a country, begin to walk away from what seems like an inexorable downward slide and move toward a future in which we can reclaim our “only in America” story for everyone.
Current conventional wisdom is focused on just how big the Blue Wave of 2018 is going to be. Will Democrats claim the Senate? The House? By how much? Who will be the new Speaker? These questions obscure the larger and more critical conversation we need to be having: how and why we have ended up with this level of dysfunction and violence in U.S. politics, and what needs to change — not just for the Democratic Party, but for the country.
Democrats have lost the ability to articulate why we believe what we believe.
Having spent the last decade working in politics as a digital and technology leader in the Obama campaigns, I’ve been a co-conspirator in the Democratic Party’s digital revolution. But over the last few years, while I have tried to focus on how we rebuild the party itself, what I’ve witnessed is a party increasingly focused on more technology and better tactics as its principal answer to its disorganization and irrelevance. What I don’t see is a focus on the values, ideas, and other fundamental building blocks of citizen-centric leadership that are desperately needed in American civic life.
As a consequence of urbanization and our ever-increasing focus on technology, Democrats have gradually lost the ability to articulate why we believe what we believe. And faced with conservative opposition whose convictions are deeply held (or at least forcefully argued), we increasingly lack confidence in our own ideas. When it comes to the most profound ideological arguments facing America, we have unilaterally disarmed for fear that we might not be persuasive. And we have replaced conviction and an eagerness for genuine debate with bumper-sticker policy and rage.
As we’ve isolated ourselves in our moral superiority, we’ve become more and more dependent on technology as savior. But there is no app for this. Confidence is inspiring; dodging debates and banishing those with whom we disagree to ideological exile is not. Our self-righteousness is a fragile defense. It creates a smugness that makes conversations with people with whom we don’t agree almost impossible.
This dynamic has only grown worse over the last two years. In the era of President Trump, we are continually baited into arguments we don’t want, and have settled into an unending battle we can’t and may not even want to win. But we are so consumed with beating him and his Republican accomplices that we have lost sight of our own values — the only thing that might save the Democratic Party.
The Democratic Party is lost in the fog of how to win rather than how to lead.
Since we mostly talk to other people who agree with us, we’ve become lazy. We assume our conclusions are obvious, and we skip the step where we win (or even explain) the argument in the first place. “Well, obviously health care is a basic human right, so let’s create a Medicare for All system.” This sounds perfectly reasonable — so long as you accept the basic premise that Americans actually deserve anything from their government, beyond life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We assume the answer is obvious and fight about how to deliver on an argument we haven’t won. Instead of making the case for deserving people’s faith in our leadership — because we understand, care about, and are willing to ameliorate their pain — too much of Democratic rhetoric is focused on resistance and retribution.
People are inspired by values, by the confidence of the deeply held “why.” The Democratic Party currently feels defined by “well, obviously” arguments — an utter certainty that anyone still asking fundamental questions “just doesn’t get it” and never will. Lost in the fog of how to win rather than how to lead, they are succeeding at neither. This focus on winning blinds them to two realities: one, Democrats are fighting the wrong fights — ones defined by self-centered, self-serving opponents who will always be better at being self-centered and self-serving; and two, because so much of the momentum is part of this downward spiral, winning the current battles means permanently undermining our institutions and people’s faith in our commitment to service.
As we look ahead to next week’s midterms, many on the Left and within the Democratic Party are already assuming victory (at least in the House), and framing it as a validation of the “all anti-Trump, all the time” strategy of the last two years. And while there are numerous lessons to learn from both the successes and failures of the last cycle (here’s a good start), we have to be especially wary of how we interpret a would-be victory.
Most of our post-mortem analysis will focus narrowly on the tactics behind the victories. But winning doesn’t mean we did everything right, losing doesn’t mean we did everything wrong, and wins are rarely tactical roadmaps for other wins. Each candidate and each campaign is unique. We can’t watch one candidate win by focusing on healthcare and conclude an all-healthcare-all-the-time message is the right answer everywhere. This cycle has seen new leaders emerge all over the country, often despite a lack of support from the party. It is this candidate model that we should be learning from and replicating: authenticity, a deeply personal narrative, a deep connection to the people of the district, and a stronger commitment to service than to personal ambition.
The candidates who are creating a real connection with their communities — win or lose — are doing so not because they have mastered some new targeting tool or embraced some magical combination of bumper-sticker-friendly policy positions, but because they represent a missing leadership that we are desperate for. We want politics that feels rooted in our collective success, a vision rooted in real belief, and a hunger for power rooted not in self-interest but in public good. We must focus on cultivating this kind of leadership and rebuilding our faith in politics — not on winning the next election cycle.
Winning doesn’t mean we did everything right, and wins aren’t roadmaps for other wins.
We live in a system of self-government. Politics should be about how we serve each other, about what we need for our families to thrive, and what we need from one another in order to live in safety and harmony. Right now, our politics feel mostly like a series of angry popularity contests and about assigning blame for why our country feels unbalanced, unproductive, and unhealthy. Our leaders come across as deeply self-centered, disconnected from the needs and concerns of the people they represent, beholden to monied interests, and consumed by a narcissism of power that focuses them on winning not serving. Every argument, every disagreement feels like an existential threat. And on both sides, the volume knob seems only to go in one direction — to the point that it has become impossible to hear anything at all. If we continue down this path, we’re going to lose our republic.
So what we should learn from this cycle? Nothing.
We cannot afford to continue looking backwards for wisdom. We live in a largely deterministic culture that sees the present as an inevitable product of the past. This way of living requires no faith; it breeds cynicism and contemptuously scoffs at vision in ways that undermine our imagination. What we need is a new way of being in the present — driven by a better, more ambitious future. We have to stop wading through post-mortem analyses, assuming we’ll find some right set of tactics, some new technical solution, some magical answer to how to win the current battle and begin to open our minds to new possibilities. Instead of shaping our focus around what tired polls may or may not tell us about a tired electorate that is alternately consumed and exasperated by the politics of politics, we must reignite our believe in our own redemption.
When I say “our” I mean everyone’s, all 127 million American households — not just the ones I agree with. We need a serious discussion about the things we all need in order to live lives of purpose and significance, about creating a country in which everyone has a shot. And we must ensure that we share a foundation of access and resources with our neighbors so that this narrative — this “only in America” story — feels like something within reach for all of us.
Win or lose, these are the things that the Democratic Party must embrace:
- Progress over power: the country needs leaders who serve all the people they represent — not just the party.
- Governing over campaigning: winning is necessary to access certain kinds of power, but a party defined by winning and consumed by the drumbeat of election cycles will never focus on governing.
- Representing everyone: citizens deserve respect not condescension.
The question Democrats need to answer for voters right now is why should anyone trust us with the power to lead the country? Power is not the point of politics. Power is borrowed. It is granted to leaders by the people they represent. But first, it has to be earned. Democrats can begin to earn this trust right now — win or lose. But if they treat winning next week as an opportunity for political retribution or immediately launch their next campaigns, they will only confirm people’s belief that they care more about having power than using it. The path forward is about relentlessly working toward a country where everyone’s “only in America” story feels possible, encouraged, empowered, and inevitable.