By emily Arndt
“I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.” – Will Rogers
If you follow politics, you may have heard this one hundred-year old joke before. Jokes always contain a bit of truth, and the truth Rogers is pointing out is that Democrats struggle to communicate with voters. The once-in-a-lifetime Barack Obamas excluded, Democrats struggle to motivate voters to the polls by explaining their shared values or by speaking about what everyday Americans care about. Talk of policies and politics won’t win back voters.
Democrats need to adopt a new strategy now, or they risk another loss this November. At the least, they risk a win based on being “better than the other guy,” rather than on being the best person for the job.
After Democrats had time to lick their wounds following their dramatic losses of 2016, post-mortems revealed that Democrats had largely ignored the center of the country and the national mood during the election, despite being warned to do otherwise. The losses were a result of the culmination of ignored advice about changing their messaging strategy. It seemed like it was finally time for Democrats to learn their lesson and to stop the punchline of a political joke.
Fast-forward to 2020, and polls show Democrats are doing fairly well with voters across the country. But, there’s a caveat. Polls also show Democrats are doing well with voters, not necessarily because of their love for the candidate, but because of their dislike for Trump. 67% of Biden supporters view their vote as more of a vote against Trump, rather than a vote for Biden.
Due to the wide margins between the two candidates, a Joe Biden victory, at least, seems likely. But based on the poll above, Biden would win because he’s “better than the other guy.” And winning because you’re better than the other guy isn’t winning at all. Not in the long-term. The test for Democrats is not whether they can win, but whether they can win the hearts of the voters.
You often hear Democrats say, “Democratic values are American values.” That appears to be true when looking at polling on hot button issues like gun control, climate change, and abortion, as a majority of Americans support Democratic policies such as universal background checks, climate protections, and a woman’s right to choose. Yet Democrats can’t actually get the majority of their modern progressive policy agenda passed or, in many cases, get elected to try.
One reason is that Democrats communicate on policy terms, not on principles. They need to do a better job talking to Americans about what values their policies represent. Values are what connect people. They’re what people care about when meeting a new friend. Science shows that numbers and policies are absorbed much better when couched in values-based storytelling. Right now, Democrats are listing off the ingredients instead of telling Americans what they’re baking.
In January of 2020, only 34% of Americans viewed the Democratic Party as united, while 65% viewed them as divided. Seeing no cohesive counter-narrative from Democrats, voters are left to piece together the party’s values themselves. Or worse, the other side fills in the narrative. Since Democrats aren’t telling their own story, Republicans are telling it for them. Democrats need to put together a hopeful, united party message that speaks to everyday Americans. Otherwise, they’ll face even more lost elections and more legislative losses in Congress as well.
Another consequence of poor messaging is that Democrats’ progressive bills continue to get stuck in the Republican-controlled Senate after they’ve left the Democratic-controlled House. The ineffective daily communication from leading Democrats continues to be disunified and mostly consists of negative responses to Republicans, instead of talking about the positives of what they’re working on. The only cohesive message is: “Republicans are bad.”
A staggering 87% of Americans say they aren’t happy with the way things are going in America today. Just 17% of people of all political affiliations say they are proud when thinking about the state of the country. This sets the perfect opportunity for Democrats to deliver a positive, values-based, party-wide message to Americans across the country.
Democrats need their own narrative, independent of Donald Trump and what they view as Republican failures. For Democrats, this election shouldn’t just be about voting out Donald Trump. It should be about replacing everything Trump stands for with a message about what America should be, not just what she shouldn’t be.
Right now, Democrats are trying to tell the story of David and Goliath without David. You can’t tell people a story about what’s wrong without telling them what’s right.
Democrats need to give Americans something to hope for by painting the picture of a more hopeful America. They need to show voters their party seeks to preserve the Constitution, to provide freedom for all, and to welcome any American who shares its values. Only then can they win the majority needed to pass the progressive policies most Americans are desperate for.
Riding on Trump’s failures to win in 2020 will not equal victory. Democrats need to wake up and once again connect with people, not percentages or policy proposals.
Otherwise, Will Rogers will still be right, and Democrats can’t really win.