I just finished reading a depressing Politico article entitled, “Progressives bare teeth after election debacle.” I hope there is more reflection from both moderates and progressives than the article suggests. Honestly, I don’t think the resolution is all that complicated.
First, most people want to feel safe in their communities, have health care when they need it, and have the opportunity for economic advancement for themselves and their children. Wanting those things is not very divisive along political lines nor by race, class, or gender.
Second, most people do not engage on the details of public policy. As they regularly assert in focus groups, that is what elected officials are for; to figure out how to get there. Voters are more likely to trust someone who articulates the goals and connects the policies to them than someone who argues the details of a particular policy or spending level. While there are differences between Democratic progressives and moderates on policy, most voters really don’t engage with those. There is considerable evidence, for example, that community engagement does more for public safety than face recognition technology, but most people care less about that debate than they do about feeling safe in their neighborhood. That does not mean letting Republicans get away with promising they will do things they have in actuality long opposed, but this election was clearly more about us than about them, a lesson Ciattarelli (I had to Google the spelling) taught us.
Third, then we arrive at the third rail of race. Moderates need to really get it that several hundred years of systematic discrimination on voting rights, housing, employment, education, public safety, and almost everything else is a real, clear, present and day-to-day problem for those who have been and still are subjected to it. It is completely unreasonable to expect continued fealty from people of color, who are indeed the base of the party, unless you really do something – do something does not mean lip service – to address the problems. It seems awfully late in the game to be arguing whether the federal government needs to protect the right to vote. In 1890, the House passed the Lodge bill and then it was filibustered in the Senate. Are we really still there?
Just as the issue of race is central for those who have been discriminated against, most white people do not care about it. Most white people are not active white supremacists; they do not define themselves as such and believe they are for fairness as long as they remain safe in their communities, have health care when they need it, and the opportunity for economic advancement for themselves and their children. Because they are not engaged with issues of race, they also do not understand the problem for those who are.
Many progressives – particularly it seems white progressives – want the white people who do not understand racial discrimination to get it. Now, there is ample evidence already in both the status quo and in American history that discrimination exists. If someone doesn’t get it, it is because they are not paying attention. They believe it doesn’t impact them and they don’t care much (and there are more than a few active white supremacists but they are not our audience). The reasons most white people don’t care and the long term remedies may be important, but you are unlikely to get those who don’t care to do so in the context of an electoral campaign.
Stokely Carmichael said, “If a white man wants to lynch me, that’s his problem. If he’s got the power to lynch me, that’s my problem. Racism is not a question of attitude; it’s a question of power.” Elections are not a teaching moment. They are the occasions on which voters decide which candidate or which party will further their goals for themselves: like safety in their communities, health care when they need it, and opportunities for economic advancement for themselves and their children.
So why was this such a tough election for Democrats? Two reasons in my view: 1. We are in power but do not appear to be getting enough done on matters people care about: crime is up, COVID remains, education is down, and the economy is faltering. 2. We appear distracted by policy dialogue most people don’t care about. We appear to either deny the problems or argue what to many seems peripheral to them.
When things are bad it’s always easier to be a challenger. Some of the bad is beyond our control. But not all of it. Do stuff. Quit bickering. Most people don’t care about a lot of what you are bickering about. The bickering says to them you don’t care about what they want. Restoring democracy matters to me, but your capacity to do that will depend more on what you do than on what you say.