Democrats may be unable to avoid a bloodbath in 2022. But if they are to hold the line and set themselves up smartly for 2024, they need some course corrections.
Past performance offers no guarantee of future results, and off-year elections don’t always foreshadow what will happen in next cycle.
But the 2021 elections in America point to some basic guideposts for Democrats looking to the future.
DO: Put forward an optimistic message that addresses concerns in voters’ lives.
Voters need to hear a story, a meaningful narrative that connects with their day-to-day lives. The Democrats didn’t have a clear argument in 2021 – and they better have a good one in 2022. The economy, higher prices on some goods, and COVID-19 were top of mind for voters, and there was a story to tell people, especially working-class people, but it just wasn’t present in many Democratic campaigns.
Voters in America are anxious about their quality of life such as housing and issues like crime – something they have in common with voters in many other countries, as John Halpin points out. When it comes to having a clear message on these things that matter to people – if you snooze, you lose.
DON’T: Just criticize Donald Trump and his politics.
Donald Trump may own the institutional GOP but he will not be on the ballot in 2022. Attempts to make 2021 about Trump clearly failed in Virginia. So anti-Trumpism won’t work with the broader electorate, especially if Republicans can successfully position themselves in relation to the unpopular former president. Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin smartly triangulated in a way that didn’t alienate Trump's voters and allowed plausible deniability with other voters who dislike Trump but were upset about things like schools and the economy.
The main reason anti-Trumpism alone won’t work is simple: Joe Biden and the Democrats will be on the ballot in 2022, and they must find a way to convince voters that they are delivering on their core concerns - jobs, health care, quality of life - rather than just simply opposing someone else.
Democrats also have cultural and party baggage that complicates a purely negative campaign strategy. If Republicans nominate Trump again in 2024, it's a different story. But for now: more vision, less grievance and out-of-touch politics.
DO: Get things done when you have the power to do so.
The best way to motivate voters is to show them you are getting things done – and after coming strong out of the gate, President Joe Biden and the Democrats stumbled in the summer and early fall by making the ideal the enemy of the good and not dealing with their divisions more effectively. This summer, polls found majority support for the social safety net spending measure and even stronger support for the infrastructure bill, but Biden and the Democrats lost precious time this fall, and that added to the negative impression at the same time that the unforced error of the Afghanistan debacle was taking place. Two months later, it looks like Congress may be ready to finally act on these measures, but the delays came with a political cost.
DON’T: Waste time squabbling over the heads of most Americans.
President Joe Biden’s first six months in office saw significant successes – a stronger response on the pandemic than his predecessor’s and a popular stimulus package that helped people get back up on their feet. Then he allowed his agenda to invest in America’s infrastructure and social safety net to get hijacked by Washington dysfunction and division within his own party. He made the unwise move of allowing his plan to be held hostage, when he could’ve taken some wins before leaving for his second overseas trip.
DO: Work to unify the country and build broader coalitions.
This is easier said than done given the state of affairs in the GOP. For sure, unity is easier said than done with the GOP using the Mitch McConnell playbook of obstructionism. But longer term, Democrats should keep an eye on ways to broaden the tent to include not just with independents but with those Republicans who have rejected Trumpism. That’s a long-term project, for sure, but it offers a clearer pathway than the base mobilization fallacy that still dominates thinking in some Democratic circles, despite its repeated failure in the presidential primary contest and down ballot races in 2020.
DON’T: Splinter support with ideas and language that lack broad appeal.
Remember the slogan “defund the police?” Those ideas didn’t play well at the ballot box on Tuesday. An elite echo chamber on the left has invested in an “us versus them” identity politics in reaction to the ugly identity politics coming from the right. A better pathway to political success and power is one that lays out a vision of citizenship based on equal dignity and rights for all people, as John Halpin argues in describing the rise of neo-universalists.
Cultural leftism puts a ceiling on Democratic support, as Ruy Teixeira pointed out earlier this fall. Taking Abraham Lincoln’s name off schools doesn’t make much sense to most Americans. After the Democratic losses this past Tuesday around the country, Democratic consultant James Carville summed it up: "They're expressing a language that people just don't use, and there's backlash and a frustration at that."
Do: Link foreign policy with domestic issues in ways that voters understand.
The fact that President Biden was overseas on the eve of this election at international summits in Europe while his big economic package still stalled on Capitol Hill probably wasn’t a good signal to send ordinary voters who wanted to see things get done in Washington. But the trip actually produced some tangible gains for voters, as Peter Juul pointed out – but the Biden team needs to actually communicate that to the American public in ways that they can understand.
Don’t: Get distracted by fringe voices in foreign policy who advocate positions that lack popular support.
The sharp decline in Biden’s ratings this summer and fall, especially among independents, was due to a number of factors including the economy and the pandemic, but his botched withdrawal from Afghanistan did some significant damage to the brand he tried to build as being steady and competent on foreign affairs. There are various elite groups in U.S. foreign policy who are out of sync with what most Americans want in foreign policy, and the “restraint” camp is one of the noisier voices that actually lack much public support. Biden should stay focused on the national security issues that matter to most Americans like China and protecting Americans from threats like cybersecurity and terrorism – and showing how foreign policy can bolster American prosperity at home.
Do: Express pride in America and its history.
Some of the greatest periods of progress and forward movement in America’s history, like Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and national rebuilding projects under Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, came from leaders who spoke with an optimistic vision about the country and inspired large numbers of Americans to collective action. The country needs more leaders who speak for an inclusive nationalist spirit.
Don’t: Ignore America’s faults and flaws.
The case for a new, open-minded patriotism shouldn’t stick its head in the sand and ignore the problems. It needs to be grounded in the many shortcomings that are right in front of our noses and also learn lessons from past mistakes.
Successful political leaders and movements learn from their mistakes and adapt. The 2021 elections offer some important signs about where Democrats need to go if they want to have any hope for an enduring impact on the country’s path.