Time for Democrats to Reset Their Image

Democrats need to be the party of the people again and not the professional class

Given the upcoming transition to unified Democratic control of government, it would be wise for the party as a whole—and the Biden/Harris administration and congressional leaders, in particular—to acknowledge and take steps to fix its image problem. With Republicans facing their own internal fissures post-Trump, the House majority on the line, and Democrats locked out of many state legislatures, governorships, and Senate seats across the country, the party needs to think clearly about strategies that add voters to its ranks rather than subtract them. 

Unfortunately, to many voters, the Democratic party is the one where you get handed a list of 25 rules at the door about what you can and can’t say; and cliques of people—probably lawyers—whisper and size people up; and you can’t find a beer and you just want to get the hell out before the lecture on “Structural Normativity and Late-Capitalist Hegemony” gets going.

Instead, the Democrats need to be the party where people of all backgrounds get together to ensure that everyone has a job and health care. The party that stands up for American workers and businesses in the world, and that fights the bullies and thugs who prey on the vulnerable and weak. The party that welcomes new people and has their back and doesn’t cast out anyone who looks, talks, or thinks differently. The party that believes in a fair shot for everyone and special privileges for none. 

As many political analysts have argued, the sorting of the two parties has left the Democrats as the party of the professional classes and highly educated while neglecting steps to solidify working class voters of all races. This has advantages in many suburban areas and in more educated states where the party more closely reflects the composition of voters. But in huge swaths of the country—in small towns and less populated, more rural areas primarily—this professional class image and approach simply doesn’t work. And as the 2020 election shows, it also isn’t working with many base Democratic voters and in more traditional Hispanic or Asian communities either. Democrats need to compete in a wider variety of locations as a pure matter of electoral politics and governance strategy. There's no getting around the Senate or the Electoral College and the geographic imbalance that determines many state legislative elections. To pull this off, they will need an open, inviting, and focused public image and program that appeals to a wide array of voters. 

With a new Biden administration taking office, it is time for a reset. What needs to be done? This is not an exhaustive list but here are a few ideas to help get the Democratic brand back on track as the party of the people, not the elites.  

Make jobs and health care the overwhelming priority. The primary purpose of any political party, particularly one called the Democratic Party, is to deliver tangible results that improve people’s lives. If Republicans want to stay blinkered in a fog of Trump-like identity politics, let them. The Democrats should instead focus on organizing themselves as the primary political vehicle for economic advancement for everyone.  

And above all this means ensuring a good job and health care for every American.  

Other priorities can be added in here, such as climate change or racial equality that seek to create new jobs and bring in all our people. But the primary goal articulated to the public should be good jobs and health care for everyone.

Compete everywhere and seek every vote. A party cannot add to its ranks if it writes off entire sections of the country. The notion that Democrats can or should just mobilize their own existing voters in places where they are already doing well is a recipe for stagnation and decline. Instead, Democrats need to build on their base by reaching out to more people in more places.

For example, Joe Biden succeeded in Pennsylvania this past cycle by making small widespread gains across the entire state—in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh suburbs and in counties like Lackawanna and Luzerne. Similar patterns were seen in Georgia and Arizona. More of this approach will be necessary to grow and sustain Democratic majorities in places where they are weak. Democrats must expand their numbers and win in more places if they want to successfully advance their policies and turn back the rump faction of Trump Republicans.  

Drop the academic jargon and culture wars. If voters don’t know what the heck you are talking about, or think you’re judging them for a lack of enlightenment, they probably won’t sign-up for your party slate or priorities. Instead, Democrats need plain language that highlights their commitment to the well-being of all people with more jobs, better schools, and safer and cleaner neighborhoods. 

Be normal and reflect basic values—family, community, decency, honesty, fairness, stewardship, helping others.

Treat all people equally and give them a voice. The slicing and dicing of people by race, gender, ethnicity, and religion is a recipe for sectarian divisions in politics—which is a bad development for Democrats and bad for the country overall. Racial and gender equality are core components of the Democratic Party brand. But instead of using confusing and divisive language that sorts people rather than unites them, Democrats should remember their foundations in the liberal values of FDR and the universalism of historic campaigns for freedom and rights everywhere. All people are equal before the law and in the eyes of God. And everyone deserves a fair shot in America, free from discrimination and with a helping hand so they can make the most of their lives. 

If in two years or four years, people think of the Biden Democrats as the party that delivered on jobs, beat back the pandemic, protected more people, provided more opportunity, and stood up for the country in the global arena, the party will win more legislative seats and convince more Americans that it is actually fighting on their behalf—representing their interests and advancing the common good.