In the novel Primary Colors, Libby is distraught after McGovern loses in 1972. And she tells Jack that they need to learn how to play dirty in politics. And Jack tells her no, “Our job is to make it clean. Because if it’s clean, we win — because our ideas are better.” I love that line because it so sums up liberal thinking. It also sums up the way things are today. Regardless of what you think of the Democrats, at least they have ideas. The Republicans don’t have any ideas other than that the rich should be given everything they want.
It is well known that when you talk to voters about policy, they overwhelmingly agree with the Democrats. People are in favor in Social Security. They are in favor of Medicare. The same thing holds true with most other things. They agree that global warming is real and that we should do something about it. We need to invest in infrastructure — the people agree with that. The people believe that the rich have had things their way for too long and that the poor and middle classes need to be helped out. Americans agree so much with the Democratic Party that it’s amazing that the Republican Party still exists.
The Republican Party Thrives
Yet exist it does. Not only did the Republican Party just win the presidency (with a minority of the votes), but they control the Senate and the House. They control most of the state governments. For all the talk of the Republican Party dying, they are doing really well. All this talk about the Republican Party dying seems to be based on people like me and the assumption that It should be dying. The voters think otherwise.
And the reason for this is that the voters aren’t interested in policy. And the Democrats are as guilty of this as the Republicans are. We can, if we like, get together in small groups and grouse about how stupid the voters are. And if we do that, we are going to continue to have more glorious victories like 2014 and 2016. The fact that voters don’t care much about policy is not their problem. It is our problem. It is the nation’s problem. As this election shows, it is the world’s problem.
This last election was especially substanceless. There were basically only two things that were talked about. For a small period of time, we talked about the tape where Donald Trump and Billy Bush discussed women in a most vile way and the older man claimed to get away with sexual assault on multiple occasions because he was famous. To me, the most chilling thing on the tape was, “And when you’re a star, they let you do it — you can do anything.” That’s not a boast; that’s just a fact.
But that was just a week’s worth of entertainment news. The rest of the time was about Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. That was particularly interesting for a number of reasons. The first is that it was a technical matter. It’s the kind of stuff that I make a living writing about. So I know that at most one percent of Americans had even the vaguest idea of what the issue was. And the more you knew, the less you cared. It was truly of no interest.
The second thing about it was that “email server” became “email” — something people knew more about. But again, it was an issue that no one really understood. She wasn’t using the private server for classified correspondence. So why did that matter? That was a question that never came up. Occasionally, there was some discussion that some bit of email had since been classified since it went through the server. But that was the closest we ever got.
The third thing about it was that we weren’t talking about troop movements. We all know that way too information is classified. The fact that things were sent as unclassified but later determined to be classified tells us much. So even if Hillary Clinton had sent classified material, so what? Is there anything there that anyone care about? No.
Voters Do Care
Yet lots of people did care — about “emails.” That is to say they cared about the story. “Emails” is a real life example of a McGuffin. That’s something in a movie that the action revolves around. A good example of this is found in the movie Ronin. Everyone is trying to get their hands on something that is inside a steel case. We never find out what it is because it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that everyone in the film cares about.
In the case of Hillary Clinton’s “emails,” everyone cared because it was constantly implied that it was important. It wasn’t. But how is it that the Democratic Party allowed this to be the story? How is it that no one was interested in the fact that a vote for Donald Trump was a vote for taking health insurance away from 20 million people? I know that voters in the United States care about that. They care about a lot of other things too — substantial things. Yet the election had all the gravitas of the Miss Teen USA beauty pageant.
What Democrats Must Do
The Democratic Party has two options. It can get a hell of a lot better at putting on a good reality television election. Or it can get people to care about the policies that they already care about. Frankly, I think the party has been working more on the former. And the reason is because it isn’t as committed to those popular policies as it claims to be.
This year, the Republicans took away a big issue that really ought to belong to the Democrats: our unfair economic system. Sure, they used it in a xenophobic way that has almost nothing to do with reality. And they won’t do anything to make the lives better of those who continue to suffer under our unjust economic system. But what would the Democratic Party do?
Last time I checked, the Democratic Party was still pretty keen on the latest “free trade” deal. Most Democratic politicians still turn slightly green when they talk about raising taxes. The Senate Democrats are poised to elect as leader a Wall Street apparatchik. It’s not that the Democrats are bad. But they seem much more committed to the thinking of Ronald Reagan than FDR
The first thing the Democratic Party needs to do is to proudly embrace its liberalism. It isn’t enough to be against racism and sexism and homophobia. Because all of those will thrive as long as economic inequality thrives. A vote for Wall Street is a vote for segregation and the glass ceiling and the lynching tree. The question that voters ask is, “Do you care?” And the answer, when it comes to the Democratic Party, is not clear.