In the primary race to take on President Trump, the Democrats went in search of a charismatic moderate. They never found what they were looking for.
What they got instead was charismatic leftists and boring moderates. The choice in this primary is between “I can win because I’m normal and centrist,” or “I can win because I am inspiring you and will inspire others.”
But regardless of who the Democratic candidate ends up as - regardless even of whether they beat Trump in November - the Democratic party has been missing something big, and something that almost no one is talking about.
It’s the thing this newsletter is setting out to remedy as of today: a gigantic opportunity that Trump has handed to them on a silver platter to reliably win elections again.
But first, history.
The language of the American myth
In middle school we learned that every single person in this country either fought an oppressive government, came in search of more opportunity for themselves, or is descended from someone who did the same. This includes the 12-14% of America who identify as African Americans: the oppressive government they have been fighting is our own. The same goes for Native Americans, who were hunted and fled or were force-marched by our government to lands chosen for them.
Everyone in America knows what it is to fight an oppressive government, whether ours or one from the Old World. It is literally in our collective DNA.
That’s why we talk about freedom so much in America. And for the past generation, the GOP has owned that word.
Since at least the time of Reagan, Republicans have talked relentlessly about values central to the American project deeply rooted in our shared history. Meanwhile, Democrats have told us about policy goals they wanted to achieve.
Another thing we learned in middle school was that America was founded in part on a tax revolt. Perhaps the seminal event in our collective history is the Boston Tea Party. It was a protest against unfair taxes, taxes made even more unfair because colonists lacked representation in British Parliament.
So it should come as no surprise to anyone that a political party which has (until recently) sold itself as the party of less government and lower taxes has consistently been able not just to win elections, but to do so even as a minority party whose policies have been shown to hurt more than they help.
Partisan messaging before Trump
That was the GOP brand in a nutshell: less government and lower taxes. And it worked, because fleeing oppressive government is part of who we are, and getting out of our tax bill is why we had a revolution in the first place.
That’s not just history. It’s America’s founding myth.
What do the Democrats stand for? The answer isn’t clear, and hasn’t been for decades. Helping people? Opportunity? (What kind and how?) Shared responsibility? (Vague, and again - how? By paying higher taxes?). Recently, the message seems to be equal outcomes, or equity.
Even worse, this jumble tends to manifest itself horribly in Democratic campaign messaging. Democrats may have poll-tested a successful kitchen-table issue in 2018 to squeeze out election wins in moderate Congressional districts, but that’s no way to take a party into the future, and it’s certainly not going to change the underlying dynamic, scrapping for wins in gerrymandered districts against an entrenched Republican minority. More often than not, and especially in Presidential elections, Democratic message boils down to this: you should pay more money to help other people you don’t know.
What Democrats need is to seize the core language of the American myth. Now, Trump has handed them the opportunity to do just that.
Trump’s Pivot, Democrats’ opportunity
Donald Trump didn’t win by moving to the right, or to the center. He won by pivoting.
In a nice (for him) accident of political jujitsu, Trump grabbed some historically Democratic talking points (e.g., protecting entitlements, getting out of endless wars), stoked class division, anti-elitist sentiment, and yes some misogynistic and racist substrate, and managed to convince a large swatch of electorally distributed Midwestern white men that he was on their side.
In so doing, however, Trump relinquished most of what the GOP had stood for since the Reagan revolution.
As Trump first hijacked, then subsumed, then asserted complete dominance over the Republican party, the conservative movement in America, and thus the GOP, has relinquished all interest in talking about ideas, values, or core American principles. The GOP is no longer the party of less government and lower taxes.
In the age of Trump, the GOP (and many Republican voters along with them) have taken to defending whichever policy whim Donald Trump expresses next. Trump is many things - corporatist, protectionist, disposed toward anti-intervention, flighty, easily-swayed, inherently devoid of principled stands or a coherent worldview. He is even occasionally even correct in his instincts, although he is above all else self-interested. But one thing he certainly is not is an exemplar for the philosophy of limited government.
This presents an opportunity. Sadly, it’s one that Democrats continue to squander, or even fail to recognize.
Democrats are currently fighting a battle over just how far to the left they should swing, and they in turn are missing a historic opportunity to seize the ground that Trump, and the entire Republican party, have given up.
Democrats need to pivot, like Trump pivoted. Not move left or center, but circle.
The future of Democratic messaging
Right now you are likely thinking one of two things.
First, perhaps you think this proposal is way outside any kind of mainstream Democratic thinking. And in that you would be right. Democrats have never talked this way, and that’s part of the problem.
For decades, Democrats have been a party of coalitions promising to improve the lives of various interest groups (unions, minorities, the poor) in measurable, meaningful ways. That is all well and good, but there is a larger story to tell, and if Democrats would only tell it, they might just find themselves winning elections they never expected to win.
We can continue to be pushed into identity politics on both sides. We can subsume all political debates into questions of tribal loyalty. Or, Democrats could grasp to the one thing strong enough so that at least there is a hope overcoming a politics of tribalism: a shared national myth.
Second, Democrats who read this may be thinking how their beloved policy position could possibly be squared with a philosophy and language that until now has been the purview of conservative Republicans.
I assure you: nearly all of them can be.
This newsletter will be an exploration of how to reframe Democratic policies in terms that fit squarely within the American story as described above. And for those policies which don’t fit, Democrats should be urged to take a long, hard think about whether they want to start winning elections again.
Healthcare, guns, civil rights, justice reform, voting rights, and the biggest global crisis of them all - the climate - can be reframed within the language of American myth, and should be. For more to come on how, I urge you to sign up for updates. I’ll be writing once a week on how to reframe policy in terms that make sense in the context of our shared national identity and history. Because that identity isn’t changing any time soon.
It takes centuries of epochal events to rewrite the founding myths of proud nations. And though America has experienced a Civil War, a Great Depression, two great wars, and perhaps more than its share of civic and economic upheaval, we have yet to alter the underlying DNA of the American myth.
We are still a country skeptical of government and taxes, and weary of leaders who would make themselves into Kings. We believe in our Constitution, which is to say we believe in our original law, not the whims of individuals. And in the final analysis, we are a people who prefer to be more or less left to our own devices.
Now, if only the Democrats would own that. Because the Republicans sure don’t anymore.