Before the presidential election, Democrats were crowing about the inevitable landslide that was to come. A blue wave was building that would sweep away Donald Trump and the Republican Senate, allowing the left to usher in a new age of reform equaling the New Deal.
Then reality struck. Not only did the GOP pick up 12 House seats, but the Senate is set to remain in their control as well. Incoming President Joe Biden will have to deal with a divided government, as Mitch McConnell will serve as an effective block on whatever progressive change Democrats had planned.
This dreadful outcome has left many liberals reeling, and searching for villains to blame. Centrists point fingers at socialists, socialists attack the establishment, all the while Republicans gloat over their newfound success, and plot to retake the White House in 2024.
If the left is to have any chance of becoming a major force in politics again, there are a raft of concerns that need to be addressed. One of the most important is we must adjust our style of politics. Currently, Democratic campaigns center around a hyper-focus on people’s suffering.
Liberals nobly want to wield state power as a way of making life easier for folks, so they spend much of their time describing plans to deal with the burdens of the people. Anyone who has listened to a speech from Sen. Bernie Sanders understands the usual rhetorical notes. Americans are a suffering, exploited bunch, beset by rapacious corporations, stagnant wages, as well as inadequate health care, housing and education. Survival itself has become a struggle.
So, Sanders and his cohorts say, we need a crusade against the billionaire class as a means of redistributing wealth, expanding opportunity and setting the oppressed free.
The problem with this frame — though it contains a great deal of truth — is that people don’t want to be defined by their suffering.
They don’t want to be seen as merely tragic cogs in a vast, tyrannical machine. Ironically, that message robs them of their humanity as much as anything they are currently dealing with economically. Americans are a proud bunch, who, regardless of what life has done to them, take great satisfaction in the lives and achievements they’ve managed to garner.
While they want to see a fairer existence for their families, progressives like Sanders speak only to their misery, not their dignity and self-esteem. As a result, the working class has not allied itself en masse with the left, as progressives predicted it would. We see, time and time again, a substantial portion fall into the arms of Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans.
This happens because the right, while not being as passionate about using the government to heal individual wounds, does offer the kind of positive, uplifting message that ordinary Americans can feel good about supporting. In the conservative narrative, the single mother working two jobs to send her children to college isn’t the sad victim of the capitalist patriarchy, she’s a modern heroine, as important to the future of the republic as the pioneer women were to the nation’s founding.
The young millennial who had to choose a state school instead of a fancy private college, to save money, hasn’t been robbed of his potential by exorbitant tuition costs. Rather, the right says, he’s a smart future leader — just as good as the eggheads who can afford the Ivy League — who simply made the prudent choice of protecting his financial future.
These stories inspire people and make them believe they’ve had meaningful lives. Too often Democrats offer narratives that, while having a basis in academic fact, make voters feel ashamed. And how many of us are going to vote for a political party that generates those emotions?
This isn’t to say that we forget about people’s pain. Of course every progressive must run campaigns that feature the suffering of the masses front and center. At the same time, however, no human life is defined by its scars. While we offer solutions to the problems facing Americans, we must also offer eloquence about how marvelous the American people already are.
We should speak to the extraordinary ways families are managing to thrive despite the pressures of an ever more difficult economy.
And from that fundamental premise, we can inspire further by describing how even greater our country can become, if millions are freed of the unnecessary burdens they carry. While Americans are already creating and innovating in awe-inspiring ways, under a progressive government, they can go from running to truly reaching the stars.
Joshua Heath is a Santa Clarita resident. “Democratic Voices” appears Tuesdays and rotates among local Democrats.