There is a flood of commentary pointing the finger at the Democratic Party, exhorting the party to “find its identity” and craft a message to win back angry white voters, the primary target of the trump campaign. And while those recommendations have merit, there are a few other constituencies needing to be recovered, if the party is to regain one, two or all three government elected offices, House, Senate and White House.
Contempt for trump, while also warranted, has proven to be a failed strategy for winning elections. If you doubt that, just ask Ms Clinton. There are a few ironies to the current flat-lining in the polls of the US Democratic Party.
One is the fact that former president Bill Clinton gave a speech in Atlanta in 2015, long before the 2016 presidential campaign, urging the party to address its attention to the white working class who feel abandoned by the global economy. Compounding this irony is the well-known and recognized fact that his wife is a policy wonk who has a prescription for whatever issue she glimpses wherever it is situated. As self-appointed uber-parent for all the ills of the contemporary political culture in the United States (just open any of her books and the prescriptions fall out like moths from an attic trunk), Ms Clinton has spent her life developing proposals, as if she fully believed that a storage warehouse of policy prescriptions would serve her over-weening ambition. Another irony, however, is that such a compendium of proposals mean nothing if the author/candidate cannot gain adequate “likeability” ratings in the polls.
In fact, so ironic, and also probably so tragic, is the obvious truism that, likeability will take a higher priority over policy, in a popular vote, regardless of whether that vote is for grade nine class rep., student council president, mayor, premier or president. Somehow, there appears to be a Siamese-twinning of likeability of a candidate for political office and ‘trust’. Most people seem to have trouble trusting someone whom they dislike, and the higher the dislike numbers, the higher the numbers on lack of trust-worthiness. (Recall then candidate Obama’s comment in 2008, “You’re likeable enough Hillary!”) So, was Ms Clinton’s obvious contempt for her presidential opponent one of, or the most significant factor, in pushing her likeability (and trust-worthiness) down the scale on the public opinion polls?
Another obvious irony, however, contributing to Ms Clinton’s electoral failure in November 2016 is that her target voters do (did) not approve of character assassination from their prospective president, while the trump voters in general demonstrated their preference for his brutal character assassination of her. This is not only a divide over policy between “Republicans and Democrats; it is a deep divide over what has consistently been an American reputation for honourable “character” attitudes and behaviour toward political opponents especially at the presidential level. Based not only on diplomatic protocol, the tradition treating an opponent with professional, if detached, respect, was a path to winning respect in turn from the voters. The tradition has long roots in the courtroom as well as in the negotiating room where treaties and accords are hammered out. How Obama or John Kerry felt, personally, about the many leaders with whom they interacted never tarnished the public reports of the negotiations.
So, while trump takes not only the language and the contempt for history and tradition over the cliff, the Democrats are left with a hollow, long-term public image and persona that leaves blacks, white working class, and youth legitimately wanting, expecting and deserving more from the Democratic Party leadership.
There is likely some sociological theory (and evidence) for the notion that anyone following immediately after such a likeable president as Obama would have had shoes of likeability too large to fill. Nevertheless, Hillary, although reputedly brilliant, was never able to relax enough to convey a warmth of human contact in a campaign riddled with verbal grenades. Perhaps she feared appearing too soft and thereby falling into the outdated stereotype of female. Her opponent made much of her physical weariness, especially after she fainted in public.
Michael Moore, speaking on “The Last Word” with Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC last night, reminded his audience that eight million voters who voted for Obama voted for trump. Moore is targeting those voters in a variety of venues, including a one-man Broadway show, “Terms of my Surrender”, a scripted and still adaptable satire, ridiculing and attempting to bring down the president. A policy and practice of back-room business deals, as the solution to the American industrial and economic hollowing, as “promised” by trump, ought to be a target so “swiss-cheese-like” that the Democrats ought to be able to offer more, better and more deliverable solutions.
And, fighting over whether or not to keep Nancy Pelosi as Minority Leader in the House of Representatives is not part of the flight-plan back to respectability and political power. Also, the total numbers of dollars amassed as election fodder is not going to lead the Democrats out of the wilderness. These are both distractions, as was the triumphing of identity politics, part of which strategy has led to a rabbit-hole fight between radical feminists and the LGBTQ community.*
Recovering a legitimate and deep consciousness of the current zeitgeist, through active listening and disciplined intellectual analysis, not knee-jerk opportunistic reactionary decisions, (for example, “not to go to Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio” when the polls screamed that command, near the end of the campaign) is a minimum requirement for a party seeking to regain the public’s respect and confidence.
Blacks, the primary victims of a ‘white’ law enforcement apparatus, are more than tired of being the 72-point headlines in city dailies, because they have been shot for “threatening” a police officer with a can of soda or a bag of skittles. They are also suffering from the legitimate desperation and loss of hope in the face of voter restriction laws from Republican-controlled state legislatures and governors, with little prospect of reversal from the current Supreme Court. (And if one or two more current justices retire any time soon, trump will have the opportunity to load the court with right-wing ideologues for decades.)
Democrats have to acknowledge the clear and obvious weaknesses in the ACA (Affordable Care Act) and propose reasonable options, from the highest spires with the loudest megaphones. (Of course, based on a half-century of the Canadian Health Act, we would urge a single-payer plan!) Democrats also have to start to extricate themselves, as individual politicians funded by Wall Street if they ever hope to earn the legitimate authority to pummel the Republicans over their corporate funding, unleashed by the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court. For this purpose, public financing of elections seems so obvious an answer that, perhaps it is too close to the nose of Democratic lawmakers to get their attention. (Paradoxically, at least some Republican Senators even support the idea, think McCain!)
And then there is immigration, and a path to citizenship for those who have earned that right through their historic record of honourable activity, including paying taxes, educating their children and filling holes where U.S. workers refuse to participate. Amnesty, a dirty word to some mean-spirited Republicans, seems worthy of serious consideration.
Worthy of serious consideration too is eliminating retroactively all interest payments on student debt, if not providing another amnesty of half of those debts. That investment would go far to unleashing millions of young people from their debt, permit them to start new businesses, start their families and move out of their parents’ homes. Bernie Sanders’ proposal of free college tuition for all whose academic record merits it, at state universities would help to generate interest, if not passion, among the young. Increases like $54 billion to the Pentagon Budget, coming from the White House provide a glowing and platinum opportunity to counter such nonsense with both education and health care funding of substantial amounts. The American people have had enough of Republican wars. (I know Obama extricated the nation from Iraq and then funnelled thousands more military personnel into Afghanistan, an idea with which we did not agree.)
And then, for Democrats, there is the still-hanging question of a candidate who can communicate with people, through gravitas, likeability and integrity. I am starting to appreciate people like Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota more and more, every time she speaks. Of course, Elizabeth Warren has “fire in her belly” and would lend a unique voice to the Democratic campaign for the White House. Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo will likely give the prospect serious thought. California Governor Pat Brown, although a little long in the tooth, would stir the political pot, just as he is doing in confronting the White House on issues like the environment, sanctuary cities, and a firm and positive attitude, based on knowing where he wants to lead his state.
While there seems to be a fairly substantial “bench” from which to draw, each candidate will have to face the mountainous task of bringing the party together on a policy platform that speaks to the broadest range of voter. In order to do that, the segmented identity politics will have to recede into the background, and the quality of the presentation will have to rise to the level of the Obama oratory as he displayed it at the 2004 Party Convention. So, perhaps, just maybe, there is another “sleeper” out there polishing both the skills and the bridge-building necessary to take what will be the largest and most risky “plunge” from the highest diving board into a pool infested with political sharks.
But then, who ever said that the Oval Office belonged to the faint of heart or the faint of integrity, until November 2016?
*There is a need for some reasonable compromises about which bathrooms transgender individuals use; however, if the evidence that is being touted by some, that transgender individuals, originally male, now female, are permitted into women’s bathrooms endanger women in those rooms is based on evidence, it would seem that the transgender community has to recognize their part in developing policy and practices that keep everyone safe. We are unlikely to redesign public facilities for a third or a fourth category of people.