Donald Trump’s victory has given both sides of the aisle cause for reflection. Up until the killing of a protester this past weekend, I was seeing a particular theme coming up with regularity. It applies to both sides. The question is, given the surprise of Trump’s victory, how must the parties adapt to this “new” political landscape?
For the right, most of the articles followed immediately after the election. The theme was that the politics of Trump had some significant departures from the politics of the Republican Party. What those difference were probably depend on your perspective (are we talking conservatives, “establishment” Republicans, activists, or what?). But, just to pick an example, Donald Trump’s appeal to economic isolationists seemed at odds with both Republicans and Democrats and (at least initially) aligned only with Bernie Sanders and maybe the likes of Ted Cruz. So should the Republican party shift away from its traditional free trade position to Trump’s protectionism? Would this gain votes or lose votes?
In some ways, it is the same argument that takes place election cycle after election cycle in the Republican party. Different factions, from libertarians, to Christian Conservatives, to “neo-cons”, etc. etc., fight for their positions in the party agenda. The new wild card is the whether Trump has drawn traditional Democrat voters (or perhaps just non-voters) to the Republican side, and whether Republicans should adapt so to keep them. The discussion was most intense right after the election, and has dwindled as the press cycle focuses more on the Donald day-to-day.
For the left, though, the chorus has been growing. Initially the shock that Trump actually won was too great to allow for introspection. The blame came next, and wasn’t very constructive. But recently I’ve seen a lot written about what lessons the Democrats need to learn, and how they need to adapt. The more thoughtful (and lengthy) articles I’ve read (a recent one here, if you can see past the Wall St. Journal paywall) are by center-left Democrats. However, even the party activists are saying roughly the same thing. Which is…
What the Democrats are learning is that they failed to speak to their main-stream supporters in their efforts to push farther to the left. The advice, the goal, is to refine their message to explain to the traditional working class why they need to support Democrats. The article above talks about an inspirational message – one that unites us around our common citizenship and the quest for a better society.
But what the article doesn’t say – what I’m not sure any of the articles say – is anything about changing their policy. In fact, the recent evidence actually suggests the opposite. When party activists talked about trying to open the party to pro-Life Democrats, the response was fast and furious. So, the party needs to change the tone of their message to convince, for example, the pro-life but otherwise left-leaning voter to come back, but what they will not do is soften their actions to obtain the result that these lost lambs would like to see.
It’s not said directly, but the implication is that, having lost an election (presumably on the basis of the policies they espoused), how do they repackage and sell themselves so that they can win power to, in fact, enact those same policies?
The fact is, I have no idea whether the actual policies, and behavior of the party faithful when in control, is a factor in winning and losing elections. Maybe, indeed, it is all messaging. To me is seems dishonest to get the sale by simply describing your (unwanted) product in different ways until the buyer gets fooled. To me, assuming that you’re doing everything right but people just don’t understand what you’re saying is elitist hubris that is bound to backfire on you.
But I’m probably wrong. I didn’t think Trump could win, either.