With the 2018 Midterm Elections on the horizon, a group of Citizen Critics editors debated one of the biggest questions underpinning the campaign: how should the Democrats define themselves as a party? Beginning with a focus on the high-profile duel between Beto O’Rourke and Ted Cruz to represent Texas in the US Senate, the chat explores the tensions that define the Democratic coalition. Complicating the simple narrative of “Berniecrats” versus “Establishment” politicians, the Critics discuss the party’s struggles with diversity, voter suppression, and civility in the Trump Era. The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Heather Ashley Hayes is an assistant professor of rhetoric at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington focused on race, violence, and political change. She has taught in public high schools, prisons, and university spaces for more than 17 years. She is the author of Violent Subjects and Rhetorical Cartography in the Age of the Terror Wars (Palgrave MacMillan, 2016).
Mark Hlavacik is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Texas specializing in rhetoric and political culture with an emphasis on the discourse of education policy in the United States. He is the author of Assigning Blame: The Rhetoric of Education Reform (Harvard Education Press, 2016).
Rita Shah is an assistant professor of Criminology at Eastern Michigan University. Her book, The Meaning of Rehabilitation and its Impact on Parole: There and Back Again in California (Routledge, 2017), queries the concept of rehabilitation to determine how, on a legislative and policy level, the term is defined as a goal of correctional systems.
Ryan Skinnell is an assistant professor of rhetoric and writing at San José State University. He studies public discourse in contemporary American politics, and is the author of Conceding Composition: A Crooked History of Composition’s Institutional Fortunes (Utah State University Press, 2016) and editor of Faking the News: What Rhetoric Can Teach Us About Donald J. Trump (Societas, 2018).
Michael Steudeman is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences at Penn State University. His academic publications examine topics of presidential rhetoric and the challenges of crafting a political identity in U.S. politics since the 1960s.
Mark: Let’s start by focusing on a big political race. Here in Texas, the Senate race between Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke is getting the most attention. We have seen much higher than usual turnout for early voting during a midterm year, in part, as a result. The Beto campaign has been very successful at securing public support and seems likely to do better than the last Democrat to run for senate in Texas.
Ryan: “I’ve hugged every voter in all 254 counties.”
Mark: I live in Denton, a large suburb of Dallas-Fort Worth, and there are Beto signs and bumper stickers everywhere. This is not necessarily unique for a state-wide Democrat candidate, though. Back in the 2014 Texas governor’s race, there were a lot of Wendy Davis signs and stickers too. For folks who may not know Davis, she gained national fame holding a 13-hour long filibuster on the floor of the Texas Senate in 2013 in an effort to block Senate Bill 5, a measure which included restrictive abortion regulations. She then ran for governor of Texas in 2014, but lost to Greg Abbott.
Also, like Heather’s congressional district in Washington (Washington’s 5th) and Michael’s in Pennsylvania (Pennsylvania’s 12th), Denton is a college town but also part of a larger, redder, rural congressional district.
Michael: I find Davis and O’Rourke interesting parallels, because both have run statewide in Texas with what seem to be progressive platforms.
Mark: Yes, and no. Beto has drawn attention for some strong statements like his support for NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, but Beto’s issue statements are actually pretty moderate. He is for common sense gun laws like better background checks. His healthcare position is that everyone should be insured, but he is basically agnostic on how to accomplish that. He wants to pass the DREAM Act and stop locking up immigrant families. He and Davis have both adapted their message on issues like guns.
Beto’s campaign identity really has gotten more attention for the style of its appeal rather than the substance of his positions. He has made a big deal of traveling to every county in the state, which is not easy to do. You may have heard that Texas is big. His campaign has used iPhone footage from those visits to create some of his ads. Even his closing argument TV spots have a low-tech feel. They are just a closeup of him talking into the camera made to look as though you are in a Skyping with him. It’s worth pointing out here that his campaign has broken fundraising records. So the cheap-looking ads are a tactic.
Michael: Beto also appears to be sweaty in every advertisement.
Mark: Yeah, the style of the grassroots campaign has been critical for Beto.
Rita: How are Spanish speaking and Hispanic/Latinx voters responding to a white dude running with a Spanish nickname? I know the nickname is one he’s had for a while, but has that been an issue with the larger electorate at all? I follow the National Review and was reading some comments on Facebook because they had an article that called him out for “dishonesty” about his background. The comments were all, “he doesn’t represent me!”
Mark: The nickname has been in the news, but has by no means dominated the race. Cruz has used mocking as a response to Beto. For Cruz, the underlying message in attacking the name change seems to be all about Beto’s character. Take this ad, for example:
Rita: Oh man. I’d heard about that ad, but didn’t think it was real!
Ryan: Wow. That ad is something.
Mark: Beto’s effort to perform civility seems to be earning him more support than many recent statewide Democratic candidates. Although it is not listed on his website as one of his issues, the message that political rhetoric and behavior should be respectful and inclusive comes across in pretty much everything his campaign does. It also provides a pretty clear contrast between him and his opponent. Plenty of Texans support Ted Cruz’s political positions, but far fewer laud his respectfulness or inclusiveness.
Michael: That debate moment—with the “True to form” remark—captured that dynamic perfectly. In that way, the Beto/Cruz race has been a referendum on whether political character matters, or whether that’s been shattered in national politics. It would seem that it does, even if Beto does not win.
Ryan: Andrew Gillum (gubernatorial candidate) has made the same appeal to civility in Florida.
Heather: As a native Texan (born and raised) with parents who have been there about 50 years, I’d note that folks shouldn’t underestimate Beto’s “I’m going to all 254 Texas counties” rhetoric. That stuff is actually really Texas and if you go back, it was a cornerstone of Ann Richard’s successful 1990 gubernatorial campaign when a lot of folks thought Clayton Williams could do no wrong.
It’s a huge deal where I come from that Louis Gohmert (Rep, TX-1) left town and became a Congressperson and literally never comes home or answers constituent emails. Same with Cruz when he left to run for President. And that’s among really conservative people, even if they agree with their messaging and policy positions. Who yes, proudly eat at Whataburger all the time. Speaking of which, this is probably my favorite ad ever:
My parents (both 80 and very deep Republican voters) love that ad. And it is running often in Tyler, my hometown.
Mark: It’s also a PAC ad, which gets into some complicated territory. Beto has made a big deal out of not taking PAC money, but PACs cannot give all that much money to campaigns, their role is offer uncoordinated support, like attack ads. He has still raised an impressive amount. It’s part of the grassroots image Beto has been so good at, with the trips around the state and the cheap-looking ads. So, I think that ad helps, but it does somewhat undermine the campaign’s grassroots and unity themes.
Heather: Well, depending on how you read it—the Whataburger lover is the grassroots guy in that frame, as opposed to the White Castle guy, who in this frame, is the outsider from Canada. Texas meat politics, you know? It’s a bizarre politics of masculinity at work, too. Cruz is not masculine in this frame, even though he’s the Republican backed by Trump. Beto is the more masculine one who eats the triple meat Whataburgers in the race. Cruz just eats those little mini White Castles. So even if it’s PAC money, the message may oddly play within the state where it’s pitched.
Michael: Which have to be wreaking havoc on Beto’s heart.
Heather: I think that plays in Texas.
Michael: All the Whataburger stuff accentuates an approach that seems to be working for Democrats: An intense focus on building a local identity around local policy, versus a Republican party that is increasingly identified with a single national platform and leadership.
Ryan: Dems have prioritized running for nationwide offices for decades. In the meantime, Republicans have loaded up school boards, city councils, and so on. That’s a big part of where their energy has been built over the past 40 years or so. For Democrats, there needs to be a real effort to develop local candidates that can gradually move into state and national politics instead of shooting for the fences every four years.
Rethinking Democratic Divides
Michael: This conversation about Beto highlights how many candidates running defy simple categorization. The typical media narrative about the Democratic Party keeps falling into familiar grooves about the Bernie Wing vs. the Establishment Wing. But as I’ve written elsewhere, constructing a political identity is a complicated process that involves pulling together countless ideological threads. When you’re building a group coalition-based party, there are many other tensions at work that define party conflict. What other sources of tension do you see candidates facing?
Ryan: Roxane Gay just wrote a great op-ed for the New York Times about Democrats’ and progressives’ sense of disenchantment with their leaders. I think that’s one of the driving issues of Democratic politics and will be for a long time to come.
Mark: Another way of thinking about how the Democrats are divided concerns how they approach party polarization. Regardless of their positions, some think that it is a bad thing that Democrats should try to transcend by appealing to all Americans, including those working-class, white midwesterners Hillary lost in 2016, while others think it is time to embrace a more bare-knuckled style of partisanship with knock-down drag-out Supreme Court confirmation battles and other forms of contentious high-drama.
One interesting question, as I see it, is to what extent these competing perspectives on the rhetorical strategy of politics overlap with the Democrats’ evolving policy positions. For example, going all-in on gun reform could be seen as embracing a polarizing style of politics, but stronger background checks is not that divisive a position. Running a vehemently grassroots campaign and refusing all PAC donations might seem to place a candidate like Beto somewhat outside the party structure, but clearly it can be coupled with a very moderate set of positions and appeals to try and win over more moderate Texans.
Heather: Washington may be an interesting case study here. We were a major Bernie Sanders state in 2016 (a caucus state, too, and he got 72.7% of the vote here in those caucuses). The state has gone for the Democratic presidential candidate in every election since 1988. Seattle is considered one of the progressive strongholds in the nation. It has a $15 city minimum wage already and, in 2014, with the help of socialist city council member Kshama Sawant, passed a nearly $5 billion budget with extensive services for the homeless and unprecedented community and job support for communities of color. In much of Washington, generally, many candidates want to push hard for the Dems to move on policy rather than try to “unite” the party under a more centrist message.
That becomes a conundrum when a candidate tries to flip a district that leans red. My district (again, WA-5) has one of the most contentious House races this year: pitting seven term Republican incumbent Cathy McMorris Rodgers against Democratic challenger Lisa Brown. No one thought McMorris Rodgers (chair of the House Republican Conference) was in danger until our August primary vote (we vote by mail in WA) when Brown got 46.8% of the vote to McMorris Rodgers 47.8%, making national news.
Mark: So Brown has moderated her positions, or her style?
Heather: She doesn’t go with the Democratic Party in the state as strongly, and instead tries to adopt the more conservative approach of embracing a unity, big-tent message. She rarely indicts Trump or talks directly about him. She critiques McMorris Rodgers, but mostly for being out of the state or for policy positions that poll well here, such as being against family separation or pro-agriculture. She won’t talk about positions on the state soda tax (Initiative Measure No. 1634), which is up on the ballot, while the state party (including an incumbent governor) is strongly against it. So, I see her moderating both her positions and her style of politics. Her style is incredibly moderate, and her positions are to the right of the state party approach, especially if you look to the West side of the mountains (around Seattle and King county)
For example, Pramila Jayapal (WA-7) is representative of Washington Democratic state politics, as another example of someone who ran in Washington and was not in a red pool like WA-5 (significant rural population, predominantly white) within the blue state.
Mark: So it sounds like Brown proves the rule, that moderating positions and style go hand-in-hand. But the contrast between her and Trump Republicanism must be strong.
Rita: Another important tension involves the representation of nonwhite voters. A candidate I think is interesting is Sri Kulkarni (TX-22), who is campaigning in 16 different languages outside of Houston. His line—that Asian American voters “don’t vote because we don’t bother”—captures what I think is a pretty big tension among Democrats, except I don’t think most Democrats realize it. Asian Americans have been ignored by just about everyone (we’re not even in polls really), but we’re a growing voting bloc and a decent number of us lean left. Democrats ignoring this demographic is kind of a huge mistake, especially when you think about how many of us are running for office. I think this points to a larger tension within the Democratic Party of claiming to care about people of color and not really following through on that support once they have our vote.
Michael: On the local level, a lot of Democratic candidates have been seizing that discontent about absent representation, leading to a surge in minority candidates in some groups. Do you think those candidates are making any headway in altering the party’s national reputation?
Rita: It has the potential to. For instance, there’s a decent number of South Asians running for office this year. Many on the local level, but some on the federal congressional level as well. Part of that is because we’re now old enough to run. (Not being allowed into the country until the 1960s, few of us ran until my generation.) But I think part of that is just recognizing in general that representation matters. If they and other younger, ethnically diverse candidates keep running, I think they could make some real dents on the national level in terms of absent representation and hopefully sooner than expected. But that all presumes the party establishment allows the party to change organically. If they keep pushing establishment candidates, I think you’re going to see a continued absence of representation on the national level.
Michael: Does this break out differently based on different identity categories? For example, there are 50 black women running for Congress this year, a historically large number, which has to help with that reputation among black women… but obviously representation is complicated and multifaceted across many lines of race/class/gender/sexual orientation/etc.
Rita: I’m not sure if it breaks down differently by category. I think the larger point is we need representation in general, and those of us who have gone unrepresented are hungry for it. But we’re also hungry for a party that takes us seriously beyond Election Day turn out and doesn’t just say they care about our issues, but actually leads on our issues. I actually suspect that’s one reason we are seeing so many people of color, and especially Black women, running. We’re tired of being ignored.
Inevitability, Demographic Change, and Voter Suppression
Ryan: I will toss out what I think is a related but much undiscussed problem for Democrats, which is the sense of inevitability. There’s a lot of talk on the Twitter machine about a “Blue Wave.” There’s a lot of talk in progressive and Democratic circles about how Donald Trump simply “can’t” be left unchecked. And in all of these narratives there seems to be at least an undercurrent of justice prevailing on its own.
But one reason Hillary didn’t turn out (some) voters is that people felt like she was a shoe-in. That’s also one reason Obama didn’t do quite as well in 2012 as he did in 2008. So I think the sense—conscious or not—that Democrats are somehow inevitable is a real concern that the party is going to have to grapple with. There’s a lot of momentum in hope and change, even when it’s been out of office and out of vogue for a lot of years.
Rita: Yes! The assumed inevitability played a huge role in Clinton losing in 2016. I know this is probably not represented nationally, but when I lived in Pennsylvania, I overheard several people say they saw the exit polls so didn’t think they needed to vote. It’s so frustrating.
Mark: There is clearly a lot of anxiety about that in the Beto campaign. They have been using email and text messaging relentlessly to make the case, over and over, that Cruz is in the lead, but with just a few more calls or a few more dollars, Beto could win.
Heather: Brown in Washington is making the same case as Beto: just a few more dollars or calls.
Mark: Yeah, it is a classic appeal to try and capitalize on the excitement of a close race right up until the polls close, but the amount of texting and emailing has been notable. The Beto campaign seems to subscribe to a theory of 2016 that something went wrong in the endgame.
Ryan: It’s notable that the “just a few more dollars, we’re so close” message is also the primary message of national groups that send emails—the DNC, ActBlue, and MoveOn. A huge majority of the emails they’re sending out use the same campaign message.
Mark: It will be interesting to see how that gets processed after this election, especially if, for example, Beto loses (as is likely).
Michael: There’s also the question—I’m thinking back to that pre-2008 book, The Emerging Democratic Majority—of demographic inevitability. A lot of people thought that growing populations of nonwhite voters would force everything to slant Democratic in time, and that the party just needs to be patient. Obama’s election reinforced that perception, which I think contributes somewhat to voter apathy among Democrats.
Mark: Well, the inevitability thesis was clearly wrong on the one hand, in that a huge demographic turn to Democrats did has not secured much electoral success, but it seems to have been taken very seriously, on the other hand, as voter suppression is now a common tactic for the Republican Party.
Rita: The theory of the nation “slanting Democratic in time” only works if we don’t have things like voter suppression, gerrymandered districts, and white supremacy built into the system. It’s a pretty over-simplistic view of how a growing non-white majority will impact party politics.
I’ve heard a lot of Dems complaining about things like lower turnout in 2016 among Black voters compared to Obama years without any discussion of the structural issues that arose after 2012, specifically in Shelby County v. Holder. It’s a conflict some Democrats are now facing, but I think it’s a conflict the party as a whole needs to take on head first if it wants to be the party of all people.
Heather: It may be worth thinking about how the Democratic Party in Washington called for mail-in/at home voting as a helpful solution to increase turnout, especially in all minority communities—and it has. While many states are seeing historic restrictions, Washington is seeing an increase in registered voters who vote.
Rita: Some of that theory is driving Proposition 3 on the Michigan ballot, which would allow people to vote absentee without any reason, would extend voter registration to Election day, and would require people to opt out of registration.
Heather: That makes sense. Vote at home (which means, by mail) has increased turnout in Washington by 4%, and more than that in some communities. It’s a proven way to generate turnout. This study from the Center for American Progress is a pretty good one that addresses the issue. I’ve never lived in a state with the option to vote at home until Washington, and it does make a difference. It’s worth looking at a state like Washington in conversation with what’s happening in a state like Georgia right now and asking ourselves how the landscape of voter suppression is rapidly evolving and exploring what tools are available to encourage and sustain turnout.
Rita: The inevitability question is also linked to age. Younger groups, such as Millennials like myself, younger Gen Xers, and Gen Z generally skew more progressive and want the party to move further left. Older groups are keeping the party either center or center right.
Michael: And yet it’s hard to just assume that population will turn out or become politically active, as well. There’s a sense of disillusionment, one associated with being caught right in the 2008 financial crisis and watching the Iraq War unfold.
Rita: Yes. How do you trust involvement in a system that has failed you so badly?
Ryan: There have been a lot of missed opportunities to attract and empower these groups. It’s almost like Democrats should have been running on voter empowerment for the past 50 years. Like, supporting democracy might actually be a useful and winning strategy.
Rita: Your voter empowerment comment is a mic drop statement in my view. If only the Democrats would listen.
Ryan: One other challenge to consider here: If Democrats want to increase voter turnout, representation, and engagement, they also have to figure out how to respect and value (even more) competing discourses. That’s going to always be an issue for coalitional politics, but I think it’s necessary and important if we’re going to maintain democracy.
Heather: We need to interrogate the idea that nonwhite voters will all just naturally vote Democrat or lean left. For example, if Amendment 4 passes in Florida, it will allow 1.4 million individuals with felony convictions to have restored voting rights. I do not think we can or should be certain that whole group would be Democratic voters. I’ve taught in penitentiaries and worked with individuals who are incarcerated a great deal in just the last five years (and for the last twenty, in states like Texas, Washington, and Minnesota). I don’t find nonwhite individuals in prisons to be unified in Democratic support or to be all liberals in political ideology, for many complicated reasons I believe we have an obligation to think about.
Michael: Likewise, this idea that Latino/a voters will align themselves automatically with the Democratic Party is just not bearing out in recent years. And if you look at the historical assimilation of “whiteness” by immigrant groups, it’s by no means a guarantee that these voters will balk at a politics predicated on preserving white privilege. Minority voters are taken-for-granted in ways the Democrats cannot rely on.
Rita: And frankly, it’s annoying as hell that Democrats assume Black and Brown people are just going to magically save everyone. Just because we have the numbers doesn’t mean we’ll have the power. And also, it’s not our job to save everyone, especially if White liberals expect us to do it all.
Ryan: That dynamic played out after Doug Jones was elected in Alabama, and it was really gross to watch. If you think about 2016, it was also at the heart of why a lot of people of color were skeptical of Clinton.
Rita: Heather raises a good point that we can’t assume that a whole group will vote for a specific party, especially as it relates to giving the vote back to those with a felony conviction. But the research done by Manza and Uggen has shown that former prisoners voting would likely have resulted in Al Gore winning Florida (cleanly) in 2000, and several other past races flipping Democrat. There’s a strong likelihood of more Democratic wins if Amendment 4 passes. And when I look at the grassroots activism, especially around campaigns like Larry Krasner’s in Philadelphia, the link to democratic policies is still pretty strong. And there’s some skepticism of Republicans embrace of criminal justice reform. The real test will be how Republican politicians sell their commitment to that reform and how they connect to those in prison and the communities they come from. If they can sell their commitment and follow through, then I think the likelihood of Democratic wins goes down. I’m just not convinced Republicans can make that sell when they currently have a hard time connecting to the communities most impacted by mass incarceration (not that Democrats have a good history on this either).
Heather: There is good data from 2006 on that, and I think newer data may be needed before we can assume that same Democratic break holds. The popular culture focus on criminal justice reform and the implication of both parties’ role in perpetuating the current system may have affected that trend, I suspect. For example, since 2006, the issue of mass incarceration has penetrated through the boundary of party politics. We have seen it in national popular culture through documentaries like Ava DuVernay’s 13th. Michelle Alexander’s New York Times bestseller The New Jim Crow spent more than 175 weeks on the bestseller list I think in part because the appeal of the work is the way it reveals the problem of the carceral state to be one that both political parties in this country are deeply responsible for.
I teach this topic, in prisons, with incarcerated people, and my sense has been over the last decade that incarcerated individuals are not trusting of either political party in this country until they see a firm plan to dismantle the system that was created to entrap them inside the walls and bars they live within. That is the key to winning their vote, and it is not party specific. It’s absolutely parallel to Rita’s important comment about Black and Brown voters and assumptions that Democrats make about their supposed dependability in elections. Democrats played a serious role in creating the system that incarcerates one in four Black men in this country (and that number is yielded from conservative data that assumes carceral rates will continue to fall slightly as they have since 2010). Until the party offers serious, and specific, ways they will address this problem, I don’t think we should expect they automatically get the vote of communities affected by incarceration.
Where are Dems Going? Where Should They Go?
Michael: After the 2016 elections, the op-ed commentators of the world advocated at least three different options for the Democratic Party to focus going forward:
A) Find ways to address (white) economic anxieties in rural and rust belt regions that broke for Trump;
B) Embrace a progressive racial/ethnic/cultural/gender politics that aligns itself with movements like Black Lives Matter; or
C) Attempt to revive the Obama coalition, weaving a national tapestry with a more traditional liberal rhetoric.
Which of these options do Democrats seem to have most closely followed? And which do you think they should have followed?
Rita: As far as which one they are following, I have no idea. Nationally, the party identity is a freaking mess and people are doing all three.
Heather: I think that Dems have adopted different strategies depending on where they are running. As for me, I think they should have done that—yes. By that I mean, all three approaches are important.
The message needs to be both about why the current politics of the Republican Party (and its de facto leader, President Trump) are bad politics creating bad outcomes for the country and for democracy. But I think the reason someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Dem candidate, NY-14) or Beto (or Andrew Gillum in the Florida governor’s race or Stacey Abrams in the Georgia governor’s race) get national attention is because they are also doing something else in their narratives. They are offering a vision for making the country better, for improving the lives of the people they would represent, and for empowering the people that they are trying to persuade to vote for them. That still matters in a democracy. Whether they win or not, that approach is critical if anyone, from any party, is going to have a message that resonates with voters.
Rita: As far as what they should be following, I’d argue for a mix of B and C. A can be merged with C in my view. I don’t like the rhetoric of “white economic anxiety” because that anxiety is often tied far too closely to fear of people of color “stealing” jobs when they should be focusing on larger structural problems. For example, they should focus on shifts in product demand, outsourcing, stagnant wages from wealthy corporations, and the impact of climate change on everything.
So you can address traditional white voters by focusing on building a larger coalition. But they are going nowhere without also looking at more progressive, intersectional policies and issues. That includes supporting movements like Black Lives Matter, building coalitions among people of color and LGBTQ communities, being white allies in legit ways (not just saying they’re white allies), and so on.
And taking a stance on voter suppression would be a huge way of accomplishing a lot of both B and C.
Heather: Ditto on what Rita said on coalition building, for sure. Absolutely.
Ryan: That’s part of why I think the localism angle is so important. Because it potentially shifts the stasis of the argument.
Rita: That’s the hope, and it’s a good idea. One of the big critiques of the Green party is they don’t start local. If they did, you could build a name, a base, etc. and move the movement nationally. I think a lot of Democrats are trying to do that now, but they also have the challenge of already being a national party.
Michael: There seems to be this assumption embedded in A that racism and nativism aren’t root causes, but are the effects of deeper economic issues—and that if we can address those, the problems of racism etc. will lose their appeal. This strikes me as profoundly naive, though.
Ryan: Ta-Nehisi Coates has done some amazing work to answer that (incorrect) assertion.
Heather: I do think there is significant risk, in all three paths if done alone, in segmenting a narrative that is exclusionary. And that’s not a democratic (small d) strategy. Obama’s not on a ballot anymore, even if some folks wish he was. White working class folks are hurting in parts of the country but so are people of color in other parts (and sometimes both are hurting in the same places, but in very different ways). Coalitional politics in a democracy can be powerful (I think Rita is making that point, too, here) and should be the goal of any politician who hopes to be fortunate enough to represent the people of their district or state in any significant way.
Dems will have to get better at talking about why the Republican policies and narratives are bad narratives and policies, however. They need specifics and they need to offer another vision of how their policies and narratives are better. I do firmly believe that.
Mark: One powerful way of making this appeal is to contrast efforts to pass policies against the political dysfunction. An appeal like: “You can’t have these policies, if you don’t have a healthy politics, and you can’t have a healthy politics with Trump in the White House.”
Michael: This is something our contributor Patricia Roberts-Miller writes about in her book Demagoguery and Democracy: the importance of keeping the conversation focused on the stasis of policy, rather than getting subsumed into the stasis of us-versus-them.
Rita: Part of why I think B and C is a good combination is because it gives Democrats a chance to attack the narrative of, “Yes, being a poor white person sucks, but at least you’re not black” that have been part of conservative appeals since before the Civil War. If they can shift the narrative to “Look, we’ve all got our issues and a lot of our issues are the same. Black versus white isn’t the problem; it’s the system that is the problem,” then you can address that audience without bringing in the racist assumptions that go into the economic anxiety language.
Heather: Here’s a good example of this, I think. Beto was on Pod Save America (the TV show) and gave an answer about health care in Texas last week (go to 7:35 in this clip to see what I’m referring to). He was talking about maternal mortality rates in Texas. He gave clear statistics about Texas being last in that area for all women—and how the crisis is especially deadly for women of color in the state (three times so). He linked it back to the closing of a quarter of family planning clinics in the state and ultimately, to why “guaranteed, high quality universal health care” is, and should be, a major goal everywhere, especially in Texas.
This seems to be something that could be a strategy. Health care as an issue for Democrats polls well, and embedded in the answer is a coalition politics that also centers the local and gestures to the national.
Mark: Yes. And part of the charge could be about how Cruz helps perpetuate a kind of politics that will never address that issue.
Heather: It’s a general “template,” so to speak, that seems to traverse the three areas Michael offered in his question. Take a national issue that party candidates can also localize. Make it one that people across the country deeply care about and one that all people relate to, in different ways.
Ryan: The other day, Rachel Maddow noted that most Democrats are not running against Trump. They’re running on health care. Despite the national news, I’m not sure I buy that the Dems are only an anti-Trump party with no vision/platform of their own.
Heather: It helps that health care is an issue that Trump and Republicans have so specifically focused on, in an opposite way from Dems. Democrats can set themselves apart without even talking about Trump specifically. It’s enthymematic—you can assume the audience knows what you’re alluding to. You don’t have to talk about Trump when you talk health care, but you are talking about Trump when you talk health care. Trump and the Republican party have pushed against universal health care efforts vociferously and the party has voted 54 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act. It’s a clear dividing line between the parties and one that doesn’t require even saying the opposing party’s name to facilitate your narrative, as Beto demonstrates above. You can check a lot of boxes: you’re “civil,” you’re running on an issue that’s massively popular, and it’s coalitional. It also happens to be something that would greatly affect the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in this country, for the better.
Ryan: Those kinds of policy enthymemes are how a party like the Dems hold together a very broad coalition.
Michael: It seems like this type of approach is how someone like Andrew Gillum (Florida gubernatorial candidate) threads that needle of being very direct on certain policy issues while still managing to appeal to civility. One can do the latter without sacrificing bold political convictions. That’s something Obama never figured out how to reconcile when he made his transcendent appeals to bipartisanship.
How (or Whether) to Talk About Civility
Mark: Let’s always remember civility is an issue, even though it is rarely listed as one by the politicians themselves.
Michael: It’s a peculiar issue, though. Because it’s also a frame for how we talk about every other issue. While it stands alone in its own right, and it is reified or undermined by certain kinds of policy.
Mark: Imagine a broad appeal, like: “Washington is broken and we need it to work again, to return to the respectful and serious political culture that was once the envy of the world—not just because it is morally better, and not just because it was once a true source of American greatness, but because we need our leaders to work together to solve the real problems that face us every day—to ensure that necessities like healthcare, childcare, and a college education are affordable, to secure our borders humanely and our elections zealously, to make our economy and our justice system fair for everyone. Some politicians like to complain about how hard our divisive politics is on them, how its hurts their feelings, how it treats them unfairly, but real victims of this political dysfunction are the American people, who have been willing to try anything, elect anyone, because they know they deserve better.”
Civility, or repairing the state of politics, can be positioned as a key to unlocking other issues for a very broad swath of voters.
Heather: The appeal you offered is a great one. The problem is, I also think Trump takes those appeals out, pretty efficiently. Trump’s brand and best positioning is when someone raises fairness, or dysfunction, or the tenor of discussion, directly. He seems to rhetorically work best in that space.
Mark: Trump does definitely also offer his own theory of a “broken Washington.”
Heather: And his base loves that, and it gets them very motivated to vote. I think they deeply believe he has been, and is being, treated unfairly whether he is or not. So, appeals to fairness tend to become what I call in my recent piece “games of discursive tug of war.” Dems get off message and voters get exhausted by the push and pull. I think it doubles down on the very problem that perhaps Democrats want to solve. Which is why I wonder how in this election, Dems might stay away from that, instead talking about Trump and Republicans without talking about them. I think Trump has been very effective at winning messaging about fairness, in interesting ways.
Michael: One insightful appeal is embedded in Mark’s “they’re willing to try anything, elect anyone” phrasing. This is something I’ve been thinking about. People’s egos get bound up in the people they vote for. Democrats need to provide a language by which people can abandon those ego commitments while resolving the cognitive dissonance that would create. People need a story they can tell about why they voted for Trump, one that doesn’t entail them being duped or having had their animus activated.
Mark: One explanation is that he was the change candidate of 2016, so voting for Trump was not so much a vote for Trump or his worst tendencies, so much as a vote for change, a vote to “make Washington work again.”
Heather: I think for Trump voters, he was also the “hope” candidate of 2016. He really motivated/motivates a group of people who believe they have/had been forgotten by the democratic process in this country. That is a powerful force, still in effect. Time magazine did a whole piece on this, in 2018.
Mark: Let me explain what my appeal is trying to get at. One of the few things that’s holding the American electorate together right now is a distaste for current state of politics. Through its take-no-prisoners approach to political rhetoric, Trump’s Republican Party all but concedes a very convincing narrative to the Democrats that the present dysfunction in the political life of the nation, whatever its cause, is being perpetuated and worsened by the party currently in power. I think a convincing stand against divisive politics can be effective, so long as it is coupled with a—even pretty minimal—vision of how to improve the country.
Heather: On this point, I think I just disagree. I think the take-no-prisoners strongman approach to political rhetoric, from Trump, concedes nothing. We see this once the Democrats try to step in and use a narrative in which they claim his tone makes the political life of the nation worse. I don’t think we’ve seen that narrative work yet, for the Democrats. There are many examples when it should have, in theory. It didn’t work when Trump attacked alleged sexual assault victim of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Christine Blasey-Ford, and Dems critiqued his behavior (many voting against his nominee). It didn’t work when Trump mocked a disabled reporter for his disability and Dems critiqued him. It didn’t work when Trump kicked Univision reporter Jorge Ramos out of the White House press room (an unprecedented attack directed at a reporter of color, and unprecedented attack on the media in the US), and Dems critiqued him to absolutely no impact.
Their appeal to the better angels of ending Trump’s divisive politics is not working. It just seems, at best, to get lost in more discursive tug-of-war games while Trump moves on, creating more weaponized rhetoric and policies to go along. (This week, discussions have moved to gutting the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of birthright citizenship, arguably one of the most aggressive approaches from Trump in the immigration debate.) In short, I think his bullying take-no-prisoners approach is one that has largely been successful because he links it with a particular American-ness and winning, he uses threat appeals, and when the other side calls for civility he either calls them weak (and liars) or he claims he’s been treated unfairly (and he wins that argument with voters, it seems, not infrequently). Dems have not yet shown themselves effective at piercing that discourse such that they succeed in dismantling it. Perhaps the midterms will prove me wrong; in so many ways, I hope Mark is right and I am wrong here!
Rita: I like the frame of civility as being about how we talk about everyday issues. Unfortunately, that’s not how I’m seeing it being invoked. Most people invoking civility seem to be doing so as a way to tell those protesting to sit down and be quiet, because protesting isn’t civil. And I hate that critique. Everyone who has ever protested or fought for change has been critiqued for not being civil enough, but civility and niceness doesn’t change the system. It just reifies existing structures. We don’t have the conversations we need to have (like addressing structural racism, sexism, etc.), because it’s not “polite” and because calling people (or even systems) out on those behaviors is considered uncivil. (Robin DiAngelo’s new book does a great job of breaking this down when it comes to conversations about race.) But having those conversations, polite or not, is precisely what needs to happen if we’re going to actually change the systems so that they are more likely to address things like equitable access to health care, education, and the other things mentioned by Mark.