When Bill Clinton was running for President he used to say, “there is nothing wrong with America that cannot be fixed by what is right with America.” Nearly twenty-five years later, Hillary Clinton slammed Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” slogan by assuring voters “America is already great!” Instead of proving her policies were better for bringing the kind of large scale improvements voters wanted, Clinton (with the help of a few million terrible think pieces) tried to sell the idea of “incremental change.”
But that wild miscalculation is not a critique of Clinton’s political acumen so much as it is indicative of the problem destroying the centrist Democratic Party: the false belief that it can win without embracing more progressive policies. Despite losing over 1,000 seats in the last eight years, the 2016 Presidency, and every significant election since Trump’s victory, mainstream Dems refuse to embrace any idea that requires a significant change in the Neoliberal platform first realized in 1992.
Just review some of the Democratic talking points of the last six months and you’ll notice they all have the same thing in common: not one of them requires the slightest change in status quo. Not even an incremental one. It’s clear the Dems believe if something’s broke then don’t fix it. Of course, the main Democratic focus has been getting to the bottom of Russian meddling. We could spend all day debating the relative significance of the interference. One could cite articles from wildly discredited, conservatives like Louise Mensch finding a commie in every cupboard or, conversely, play controversial hidden footage of CNN produce John Banfield chalking Russian conspiracies up to ratings bait, but what’s the point? It is inexplicable that Team #Resist’s best idea for taking back the White House is conducting investigations that, at best, give us a President Pence. Instead of being a path to future victory, the Russia fixation is designed to explain past loss. Isn’t that exactly what someone who doesn’t want to accept change or blame would do? “I’m not an alcoholic! I never would have run over your dog while drinking and driving if you’d adhered to the town’s leash laws!”
Equally bizarre is the belief from pundits like MSNBC’s Joy Reid or Nobody’s Max Boot that what the Democrats really need is a socially liberal, economically conservative leader who can “make centrism cool!” A hunky salesman like France’s Emmanuel Macron or Canada’s Justin Trudeau who loves unfettered capitalism as much as brightly colored socks.
How morally bankrupt can a party be when their strategy is not convincing voters about the merit of economic policies, but just selling it to them? How hip does a candidate need to be to convince voters that getting rid of the middle class was a good idea? According to all polling, it’s not clear that even Ryan Gosling could make the majority of Americans stop wanting a livable wage or medicare for all. But by their own admission, mainstream Dems’s strategy is merely to find the right spokesperson to sell something most don’t want.
And then there’s Josh Barro, who thinks Democrats just need to solve their hamburger problem. Barro believes the major impediment between Dems and their recent adversary, the voting public, is that Dems are viewed as judgmental cultural elites looking down on people who eat red meat and watch football. There may be some truth to that, but it’s clear why Barro and other centrists are pleased with this quick fix — it requires nothing more progressive of the party. As Barro writes, “The good news about the liberal cultural disconnect . . . is that Democrats don’t have to change any important culture policy positions to fix the disconnect.” Hurray, another idea for fixing the problem without fixing the problem.
Last up on the big ideas for 2020 is the Democratic desire to address gerrymandering. That issue’s really gaining some traction because many have argued the Republicans are much better at improperly drawing districts in their favor. Essentially, gerrymandering is just a more subtle form of voter suppression. A dirty political trick that allows election returns to dictate one outcome when a more representative accounting of the will of the people might have produced a different, more blue, result. No doubt it’s an important issue. But just like a Russian investigation or finding a super-hip centrist, it’s an election strategy requiring no change in the Democratic platform.
Nevertheless, given the rampant nature of GOP-biased Gerrymandering you’d think the Democrats could at least take the moral high ground on that issue, but they fail there as well. There can be no pretense that Democrats care about Gerrymandering because they believe in a more accurate election result when they are simultaneously preaching another strategy to “unapologetically” turn out urban population centers to vote to flip red states to blue. Dan Savage talked about it on Bill Maher much to our delight of our old friend Joy Reed who seconded the opinion in her Twitter feed dedicated to eye-rolling and fist-pumping its way to continued Democratic failure.
Joy’s disciples then took to social media, claiming Bernie Sanders doesn’t care about these issues. First, there’s no truth to that assertion as Sanders has been speaking out against voter suppression since before and during his run for President. But more importantly, as Savage himself makes clear, this strategy is not about moral high ground, and there be no pretext of purity. Savage rightly called it a tactic to cheat as well as Republicans, and that’s all it is. A way to get a victory that isn’t necessarily representative. And while there’s nothing wrong with getting Dems to vote Democratic, when a party’s current strategies amount to: blaming Russia for the loss, finding a way to sell something unwanted, and trying to cheat as well as Republicans, only the willfully blind wouldn’t understand there must be something wrong with the current Party policies.
Call me crazy, but it might start to seem to the voting public that your party actually has no new ideas, nothing different to offer, and no change to promise. Perhaps, finally realizing this political reality, Senator. Chuck Schumer other top Dems have begun messaging a “Better Deal” promising to help workers with forthcoming legislation. It remains to be seen just how substantive this new agenda will be or if it is more a reaction to the backlash from the soullessness of the recent Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee slogans that had nothing to say. Not a promise for single payer, not a dedication to pull back from nearly a decade of constant war, not a livable wage – just a pledge that Democratic Party is better than the worst party in the world.
Those are not the ideas of victory. They are lukewarm anthems to those already on board or about 2% of the population that might have buyer’s remorse. Then again, I’m not sure what else Democrats can say if they refuse to change. But I do know if Dems keep holding the center while the country moves left, there will come a day when the only enthusiastic Democrats will be Republicans.
Gladstone is the author of the Internet Apocalypse Trilogy of novels on Thomas Dunne Books. He has written for publications including Cracked, Slate, and Thrillist.