It's On Us-- What Else Is New?

"Exactly What Won't You Understand?" by Nancy Ohanian

-by Danny Goldberg

With polls showing Biden’s approval rating lower than ever, a Trumpist take-over of both houses of Congress and state governments in swing states in November seems increasingly likely.

Yes, some external factors could change the current dreadful momentum. Inflation could peak and start to turn around; the Republicans could (and probably will) nominate extremist candidates that will scare off voters who are unenthusiastic about Democrats; and if the Supreme Court actually overturns Roe v Wade, there could be an upsurge of outrage that would remedy the current enthusiasm gap that favors Republicans. But to have any chance of actually reversing the current zeitgeist, Democrats will need to equal or better their turnout in 2018 and 2020 and that includes voters under the age of thirty who voted for Biden by a 25 point margin in 2020 and who, polls show, are profoundly disappointed by the results thus far.

Spoiler alert: Biden, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, Jaime Harrison and the national campaigns that they control, or influence are not going to have a message that resonates with young people or other progressives who voted for Biden in 2020 but who are dubious about the value of voting for Democrats in the midterms.

As I’ve previously written, the 2020 Biden campaign (with significant help from Bernie Sanders and his surrogates) was able to thread the moderate/progressive needle which is why the total of votes cast for the Green and Libertarian parties declined from 5.7% in 2016 to 1.7%. But in 2020 the Democrats had the perverse luxury of running against Donald Trump himself whose heinous philosophy was ubiquitous. (For details on the centrality of younger voters in Biden’s 2020 victory and their current mood, check out Elena Schneider’s recent piece in Politico.

Whether it’s for cultural reasons, generational myopia (a lot of today’s campaign powerbrokers came of age during Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign) fear of big donors, or worry about appearing disloyal loyal to the administration, mainstream Democratic campaign managers will ignore or downplay issues and attitudes that could inspire maximum turnout from of the Sanders wing of the party.

For the record, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the most articulate progressive on the topic of reaching young people, has never suggested that Democratic campaigns ignore moderate voters. As she explained in a recent interview in New York Magazine, she advocates campaigns that appeal to both moderates and progressives. But there is no evidence that mainstream Democratic leaders will take her advice. Quite the opposite. So, it’s on us.

The official Democratic campaigns will try to reassure the “moderates” that Democrats don’t want to “defund the police,” do want to reduce illegal immigration at the border, parrot statistics about employment and the legislation that got passed etc. They will also focus on one subject where all non-Trumpists agree--to try to make the election a referendum on whether or not to further empower the likes of Marjorie Taylor Green, Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz. But hating on Republican crazies without Trump himself on the ballot won’t be enough to get the kind of turnout necessary to win.

Democratic message mavens are unlikely to focus on issues most important to the swing voters on the left such a wealth tax on billionaires, a dramatic reduction of fossil fuel dependency, elimination of student debt, significant grants to states and localities to create more affordable housing etc. Even if the officially sanctioned messages do pay lip service to some these issues, the tone of national Democrats, ever fearful of alienating “moderates,” will use vague weaselly language that fails to inspire the most alienated, cynical cohort of voters who showed up for Biden in 2020.

If progressives want to do something about this problem, they will have to create messaging in 2022 that is separate from and not controlled by the Democratic establishment. If a critical mass of progressives can collaborate and start planning for it now there is a shot that we can save Democratic leaders from themselves.

To be clear-- this does not mean sitting out the primaries. To the extent of their ability to do so, progressives should support all of the Blue America candidates and defeat as many conservative and corporate Dems in primaries as we can. But planning for an alternative progressive Democrat message for the general election needs to start as soon as possible on a separate track.

It won’t be easy to cut through the rest of the midterms clutter. Only a temporary coalition of leaders and groups who usually pursue separate progressive agendas has a chance of helping the Dems avoid a mid-term disaster. But if there could actually be something approaching a consensus on the left about such a campaign strategy, (and a leader of it,) the fundraising base that fueled Sanders and the wide range of celebrities who helped create intensity for Biden would respond with resources sufficient to transmit and repeat a progressive, message in hundreds of voices the zillions of times necessary to move the needle.

Voter research that includes progressives as well as moderates will reveal plenty of sweet spots that won’t sabotage Dems in swing districts, but which will convince enough demoralized Bernie supporters that its worth voting for a Democrat again. More than 90% of elected Democrats support a higher minimum wage, voting rights, cancellation of student debt, lower prescription drug prices etc.

But to be effective, progressive messengers (unlike mainstream Democrats and the pundits who echo them) need to be able to acknowledge Biden’s mistakes from the point of view of the swing voters on the left-- the depravity of increasing the defense budget, the weakness of Merrick Garland’s Justice Department in countering modern American fascism, the President’s refusal thus far to eliminate student debt and issue other executive orders that would convince reluctant voters that its worth the effort to show up one more time.

To have credibility with lefty millennials it will also be necessary to acknowledge that the Democratic leadership was naïve to trust Joe Manchin to keep his word about supporting lower prescription drug prices and other parts of Build Back Better after he had promised to do so once he got what he wanted in the infrastructure bill. Only messengers who cop to that debacle can convince reluctant lefties that the only moral choice in the 2022 election is to vote for Democrats anyway.

And to have any chance of success, a separately funded and managed national progressive message in 2022 will need a national spokesperson who can be effective in the mass media and who is willing to occasionally irritate current party leaders while they are doing it. If they are successful, such a figure will be well positioned to replace one of them within a few years-- if not sooner. How about it, Pramila Jayapal?