“Back to normalcy” — Democrat success and its confirmation bias
The Democrats cannot get lost in their search for the best candidate, whoever they might be. An open and honest process is what they need.
“ America’s present need is not heroics, but healing” — Warren Harding, 1920
A century ago, Warren G Harding stormed to victory claiming the forth best popular vote result in presidential history — 60.3%. Harding started the decade of power for the GOP which presided over the ‘roaring 20s’ and, while being wedged between the more dynamic (and generally more interesting) Wilson and FDR, Harding thrashed the opposition by wanting to go ‘back to normalcy’.
Regardless of the grammatical make-up of the phrase, it has stuck in US political lexicon because it offers something much more interesting than the mere semantics. It tapped into a feeling that Americans wanted to return to a better time — a time of healing, not heroics. Evolution not revolution. It is an eminently human reaction, appealing to a potent sense of nostalgia. The potency of which is arguably even more pronounced now that it was a hundred years ago (see: ‘Take Back Control”/”Make American Great Again”).
Fast forward to the end of the 20th century, and the Democrats had more success when they challenged nostalgia. Instead of looking backwards, charismatic leadership was coupled with a forward thinking vision; asking the electorate to change, not stay the same, and promising them it was something they could believe it so long as they trusted the president to deliver, no matter how unknown the future may be. The narrative that the Democratic candidate to contest the presidency has to be of a certain mould, carrying a certain vision, has lasted.
The party therefore looks to return to its own sense of normalcy, much different to the Republicans’ one hundred years ago. A package that allowed them to carry the White House under two, two-term presidents during the 90s and 2000s and set expectations for what it takes of a Democratic candidate to win. Much as it was a century ago, this represents a human reaction to want to drive towards the known and the safe. There is a certain irony to this, as the party increases its diversity, hitting a wide range of ‘firsts’ in last month’s midterms, it takes on a more progressive agenda aimed at once again inspiring the American public to elect their candidate. But the appeal of the ‘known’ is too strong, no matter how well they dress it up as the ‘new’.
Rewind to 2016, for example. The party was on the cusp of electing Bernie Sanders, an undeniably more radical candidate to HRC. Yet they went with Hilary, who, as the first woman to be the presidential candidate for a major party, was the ideal candidate for the Democrats to push an agenda that was deemed new enough but still fit the old mould. She was the safe option. Fitting — as best as they could — into the defined mould that worked for the party previously; Clinton-esque, not just in name only. The Democrats lost, and they cannot afford to lose again.
So, will the Democratic party seek this normalcy once more?
There has been a big and well reported push this year for the Democrats to embrace a new generation of young and progressive candidates. But we have seen this all before. Dressing up rising starts as the ‘new Obama’ and looking for them to directly mirror a narrative that, granted, worked well for Bill and Barrack, but this could prove an ill-fated path for the party. There is absolutely no doubt of the potential and excitement around those emerging in the party, who might, in a couple of election cycles, be the best candidate. Beto, Harris, Booker, Gillum, Abrams, are all offering something that resonates deeply with millions of Americans and appeals to the Democrats’ sense of normalcy.
But, if we think about it, we have seen this before. A charismatic, but fairly unknown rising star with political success in their own state was the story in 1992 and in 2008. It is the Democrats’ normalcy.
Simultaneously there has been a fairly active dismissal of the old guard. Commentators, some sympathetic or even supportive of the party, have written off the likes of Bernie and Biden (and I maybe include Warren in this list, too) before 2019 has even started. Instead, pushing the Democrats to be defined by their typical sense of normalcy; expecting a Beto et al. challenge next year.
Across the world, the trustworthiness of political polling has collapsed, but nonetheless, in an industry entirely obsessed with polling and data, the party cannot afford to ignore Biden’s or Bernie’s positive numbers. There is simply no reason to dismiss these candidates at this stage. The party needs to embrace its selection process and cannot be a victim of its own confirmation bias, seeking the new, but repeating the old.
This, therefore, is a cautionary tale for the Democrats — their normalcy has an expiry date and it could come at a terrible cost. Another defeat and four more years of Donald Trump. This is not an endorsement of the old guard, and it is not a dismissal of the excellent candidates that could end up in the White House.
The party’s blueprint will no doubt emerge throughout 2019 and the party will look to this cycle’s rising star under the impression that will be enough to win, but with the stakes so high, the party needs to pick the best candidate. The candidate has to be able to win a general election and the Democrats needs to open every available avenue in their selection of this person.