Matt Taibbi On How The Democrats Need A New Message

Matt Taibbi used the victory by Greg Gianforte in Montana to review what is wrong with the Democratic Party. If this was just a loss in Montana it could easily be ignored as a case of people in a deep red state voting for party regardless of how awful the candidate was. The real message is how often the Democrats have lost:

The electoral results last November have been repeated enough that most people in politics know them by heart. Republicans now control 68 state legislative chambers, while Democrats only control 31. Republicans flipped three more governors’ seats last year and now control an incredible 33 of those offices. Since 2008, when Barack Obama first took office, Republicans have gained somewhere around 900 to 1,000 seats overall.

There are a lot of reasons for this. But there’s no way to spin some of these numbers in a way that doesn’t speak to the awesome unpopularity of the blue party. A recent series of Gallup polls is the most frightening example.

Unsurprisingly, the disintegrating Trump bears a historically low approval rating. But polls also show that the Democratic Party has lost five percentage points in its own approval rating dating back to November, when it was at 45 percent.

The Democrats are now hovering around 40 percent, just a hair over the Trump-tarnished Republicans, at 39 percent. Similar surveys have shown that despite the near daily barrage of news stories pegging the president as a bumbling incompetent in the employ of a hostile foreign power, Trump, incredibly, would still beat Hillary Clinton in a rematch today, and perhaps even by a larger margin than before.

Tabbi next ran through a long list of excuses the Democrats give for losing and correctly dismissed them:

The unspoken subtext of a lot of the Democrats’ excuse-making is their growing belief that the situation is hopeless – and not just because of fixable institutional factors like gerrymandering, but because we simply have a bad/irredeemable electorate that can never be reached.

This is why the “basket of deplorables” comment last summer was so devastating. That the line would become a sarcastic rallying cry for Trumpites was inevitable. (Of course it birthed a political merchandising supernova.) To many Democrats, the reaction proved the truth of Clinton’s statement. As in: we’re not going to get the overwhelming majority of these yeehaw-ing “deplorable” votes anyway, so why not call them by their names?

But the “deplorables” comment didn’t just further alienate already lost Republican votes. It spoke to an internal sickness within the Democratic Party, which had surrendered to a negativistic vision of a hopelessly divided country.

Things are so polarized now that, as Georgia State professor Jennifer McCoy put it on NPR this spring, each side views the other not as fellow citizens with whom they happen to disagree, but as a “threatening enemy to be vanquished.”

The “deplorables” comment formalized this idea that Democrats had given up on a huge chunk of the population, and now sought only to defeat and subdue their enemies.

Many will want to point out here that the Republicans are far worse on this score. No politician has been more divisive than Trump, who explicitly campaigned on blaming basically everyone but middle American white people for the world’s problems.

This is true. But just because the Republicans win using deeply cynical and divisive strategies doesn’t mean it’s the right or smart thing to do.

After further discussion, Taibbi got to his main argument that Democrats have no message other than to attack Republicans:

They’re continuing, if not worsening, last year’s mistake of running almost exclusively on Trump/Republican negatives. The Correct the Record types who police the Internet on the party’s behalf are relentless on that score, seeming to spend most of their time denouncing people for their wrong opinions or party disloyalty. They don’t seem to have anything to say to voters in flyover country, except to point out that they’re (at best) dupes for falling for Republican rhetoric.

But “Republicans are bad” isn’t a message or a plan, which is why the Democrats have managed the near impossible: losing ground overall during the singular catastrophe of the Trump presidency.

The party doesn’t see that the largest group of potential swing voters out there doesn’t need to be talked out of voting Republican. It needs to be talked out of not voting at all. The recent polls bear this out, showing that the people who have been turned off to the Democrats in recent months now say that in a do-over, they would vote for third parties or not at all.

This is a far more realistic look at politics than we saw from Hillary Clinton last week when she called third party voters crazy, as she repeated her long list of excuses for losing. Personally I think it would have been far crazier to vote for a corrupt warmonger like Clinton or a xenophobic racist like Trump than to vote based upon principle for a third party.

Clinton is the most obvious example of a politician running with no message, beyond her gender and claims that it is her turn. This was most clearly seen at the end of the race, when she finally realized her mistake of not campaigning in states like Michigan where she was vulnerable. When Clinton finally realized at the last minute that she was in trouble, both candidates started advertising heavily. Trump’s ads contained promises of jobs while Clinton’s ads attacked Trump’s character without giving any good reasons to vote for her. Even if Trump’s promises lacked substance, it should come as no surprise that his message was more effective.

Clinton’s entire candidacy highlighted how the Democrats have no message and stand for nothing these days. Many people voted for the Democrats because of opposition to the policies of George W. Bush. Now the Democrats were running a candidate who backed all the worst features of the Bush agenda, especially support for military interventionism and a hostility towards government transparency. In 2007 Clinton attacked members of the Bush administration saying, “Our Constitution is being shredded” over their support for the surveillance state and use of private email. Now we had Hillary Clinton spending over a year lying about her own violations of policy written to promote transparency and mocking freedom of speech. Wikileaks even revealed how little difference there was on economic views between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush.

Democrats have been repeatedly losing by running as a Republican-lite party and refusing to stand for anything. Democratic rules since the loss by George McGovern have been rigged to support a more conservative candidate, and in 2016 the Democrats further intervened to clear the field for Clinton. The irony is that rules initially written with the intent of providing winning candidates gave them a candidate so bad that she could not even beat Donald Trump, and were used to prevent the nomination of a surprise candidate who showed he could win. Democrats failed to understand how the world has changed since 1972, and that the old left/right linear political spectrum no longer applies. At least Bernicrats now have some victories on the local level which are showing that a Democrat with a message does have a chance of beating Republicans.

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  1. 1
    Gretchen Pemberton says:

    Thank you. You are the only journalist I trust, Matt Taibbi. 

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