An overarching, simple message that the Democrats can win on
In the lead up to the 2018 midterms, I attended a talk at a London-based British university where an American professor was chairing a panel discussion and presentation on the upcoming elections. The talk itself was very interesting — not least because author of Image Bite Politics, and expert in political non-verbal communication presented some of his latest research on the Trump/Clinton debates during the 2016 election. A niche, but growing field of research I knew nothing about before the presentation.
It was when the floor opened up to questions and answers that things got very interesting, though. In her closing remarks, the American professor — a self confessed and lifelong Democrat who talked openly about her time protesting against the Vietnam War and against Nixon, and campaigning for Clinton and for Obama — revealed something profound.
In both 1980 and 1984 she had voted for Reagan. Despite her otherwise unblemished Democrat voting record.
The reason why she did this reveals a secret on how to win (and keep) the Presidency. This die-hard Democrat voted against her party twice in a row for one very simply and brutally effective reason.
“Just one more thing before we wrap up, if you don’t mind’, the professor said candidly.
“I am revealing my age here, and I know it’s not strictly an answer to a question, but I think it’s an important point…”
“I voted for Reagan in the 80s because he made me happy and proud to be an American”.
That is is. That simply, effective messaging cut through identity, ideology, partisan affiliation, and previous voting behaviour. Rewind nearly forty years and the professor I heard speak would have been a young, idealistic, politically active, female voter. She would cast her ballot in favour of the old, white, Christian conservative man because, put simply, he made her happy to be American.
On reflection I doubt the professor’s words were designed to be that profound at the time, and I am certain that political scholars and pollsters would berate me for daring to be so reductionist. But it struck a chord. The ability to make a voter happy and proud of their county is devastatingly powerful.
The midterms have come and gone, and in my mind anyway, there is still some debate about how successful they were for the Democrats, and if they were successful, then what drove that? Nonetheless, the attention is firmly fixed on the primary race.
The professor’s remarks offer the Democrats one powerful message that can define their primary campaign and lead them into the general. It will be a difficult one to commit to though; Trump plays low, he plays dirty, and he plays personal. His entire, unpredictable, convention-busting machine will go after the Democrat candidate with all its got. It will be tempting for the Democrats to give up on this message in the face of Trump’s negativity, but it’s one that has the potential to rise above the pettiness and nastiness and inspire those crucial votes needed to push them over the line.
I don’t mean wishy-washy bleeding heart liberal either. I don’t mean that we’re all happy and can hold hands running in the green grass while ignoring the enormity of the problems the county faces. Obama, whatever you think of him, nailed this idea. His message of hope and change cast in the optics of him being America’s first black president inspired so many to be happy and proud of their county. All the while him and his team were working in overdrive behind the scenes on the dirty work that is inevitable in politics. The crux of that was though, that he never let it interfere with him message. The rest just fell into place.
What’s that phrase about arguing with an idiot?
Never argue with one, they will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.
Trump’s four years, unbelievably, will have no doubt made some voters proud and happy to be American, but his message is far from optimistic. It is nostalgic, pessimistic, looking backwards. It is insular. It is protectionist. It is narrow minded and short sighted. As well as life and liberty, each citizen is granted the unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. There is nothing within the Trump machine that makes me believe his administration takes that right seriously.
It might be fashionable at the moment, but it is fundamentally not human. We don’t seek leaders who castigate our neighbours, nor do we seek leaders who look inwards; who close their eyes tight shut and pray time reverses 50 years. But at the same time, we don’t seek leaders who ignore genuine concern, who talk down to us and belittle our worries about globalisation, about international markets, about jobs disappearing, and yes, about immigration.
The Democrat candidate, whoever it is, must first and foremost drive to make the voters happy and proud to be American. It can supplement their identity and ideology but must not get lost in temporary party political zeitgeist.
If the Democrats are serious about making Trump a one-term president and assigning him to political history, then they cannot play him at his own game.
Democrat candidate: Aspire to be greater, happier, and prouder of the county you want to lead. And bring the American people with you.
To para-phrase; let’s Make American Feel Great Again.