The Democratic Message Deficit

The usually insightful Greg Sargent praised Pete Buttigieg’s Sunday night appearance on Fox News, possibly only see by people who don’t have HBO subscriptions. But Sargent had some criticism, too.

Buttigieg has been pilloried for going on Fox News in the first place, something Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has done but that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has refused to do. Buttigieg addressed the criticism by saying: “I get where that’s coming from,” and referencing the anti-immigrant rhetoric of some Fox News personalities. He added:

There is a reason why anybody has to think twice and swallow hard before participating in this media ecosystem. But I also believe . . . there are a lot of Americans who my party can’t blame for ignoring our message, because they will never hear it if we don’t go on.

Buttigieg insisted that this is another reason the candidates must spend more time “going into places where Democrats haven’t been seen much. We’ve got to find people where they are — not change our values, but update our vocabulary so that we’re truly connecting with Americans from coast to coast.”

No, that cannot be right, says Greg Sargent. How can it be that Democrats haven’t been reaching out to and speaking to all voters? “One can and should argue for speaking to all voters without adding the notion that other unnamed Democrats don’t actually try to do this,” Sargent says.

Let me deliver this sermon one more time.

No, people in large parts of the United States don’t hear Democratic Party messages very often, if at all. Democrats do show up and speak to these voters, but when they do they use carefully vague Republican Lite rhetoric. For decades they’ve avoided discussing hot-button issues like abortion. They also avoid discussing any new initiatives that might require raising taxes. When they run for office, most of their television ads are designed to reassure voters they really aren’t like those liberals.

I am living in a Missouri county that went more than 70 percent for Donald Trump in 2016. I grew up here; it’s a community that had a lot of union jobs 50 years ago, but no longer. The kind of boldly progressive ideas many of the current Dem presidential candidates are proposing haven’t been spoken out loud here since the 1960s. I am serious. Republican talking points are all anyone ever hears, and the few Democrats who do have a voice in the region — the recently deposed Claire McCaskill is a good example — tend to run for office on how pragmatic and centrist they are. 

The only specific issue I can remember that McCaskill emphasized in her many television ads was reducing presciption drug costs. She didn’t say how she was going to do that, except by “standing up to the pharmaceutical companies.” But  in a state where rural hospitals are shutting down faster than Sears, she did not address the wider issue of health care costs, I assume to avoid being put on the spot to defend Obamacare.

Gun control? Nope. Infrastructure? Nope. Abortion? Nope. Opioids? Nope. It’s true progressive ideas on this issues may not play well in rural areas, but in Kansas City, St. Louis, and more urban areas people are more receptive, and to win a statewide election here a Democrat has to run up a big margin in urban areas.

I know people in this area. It’s true a lot of them have been so saturated with Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, and little else, for so many years they are impervious to any other sort of message. But I also sincerely believe a lot of folks in these parts would be receptive to progressive, New Deal style ideas if they ever heard them. But they don’t. At least, they don’t hear about them from local news or from the states’ politicians of either party.

This is an example of how the Democratic Party’s hyper-cautious run-to-the-center strategy has so eroded the Democratic brand that nobody knows what the party stands for. Or if it stands for anything.

For a guy like Pete Buttigieg to win elections in right-wing Indiana is, IMO, damn impressive. It may be that South Bend is more liberal than the rest of the state; I wouldn’t know.  But when he says things like “there are a lot of Americans who my party can’t blame for ignoring our message, because they will never hear it if we don’t go on” and “We’ve got to find people where they are — not change our values, but update our vocabulary so that we’re truly connecting with Americans from coast to coast,” I know exactly what he’s saying, and I agree entirely.


9 thoughts on “The Democratic Message Deficit

  1. South Bend has a large Jesuit university. So some demographic boost. And municipal government has a very different emphasis than federal.

    The hit pieces on Pete have some effect on me. I’m particularly upset about his view of Israeli actions in Gaza .

    that said I donated after his response to the New Zealand shooting. His rhetoric is top shelf. But I fear he’s captured the same as our last rhetorician president.  His work for consulting companies referenced in the hit pieces bears that out.


  2. I was thrilled to hear Elizabeth Warren's apt phrase "Hate for Profit racket", and her explanation for why she's refusing to play Fox' game. But Pete B has an even better response.

  3. Liz went to Kentucky (last week?) to talk about the opioid crisis. She can't win in KY and she knows it but she did very well with a small largely GOP audience who were/are affected by the drug crisis. They listened and (being more interested in solutions than party politics) they liked what they heard. 

    To Maha's point, the message won't change results in KY – not for years. Going there with the message counts. When Democrats have power, they need to focus on providing answers in these bright red communities. If Dems provide 'socialistic' free health care centers in small towns that have little to no health care, conservatives will go.  Make sure you tell them it's not 'free' – it's paid for by taxes. 

    If the media delivers the message nationally,  that Dems are delivering the message in ALL states, not just blue states,  that will resonate with swing voters in swing states. IMO, the hyper-partisanship bugs voters in the middle. The point is not to become more moderate (as Maha says) but to go to conservative states with the message AND go to red communities with solutions (whether residents are initially supportive or not). Governing for the whole country instead of for your side – what a novel idea?


  4. I think the bigger problem is that the media doesn't give Democrats equal, or rather fair time. The Democratic led House has passed several bills that have died when it went to the Senate. How many of those bills can you name?

    The Sunday news shows… how many Democrats are on any given show versus Republicans? And when they are on, how often are they allowed to discuss the issues?

  5. I don't have much faith in converting a population that started listening to Limbaugh in the eighties  and thirty years of Fox  news. They are brain washed with propaganda. But the Democrats ceded vast swaths  and need to take it back. It will not breathing easy


  6. The media amplifies Trump's every utterance, no matter how stupid or offensive, which puts dems at a disadvantage out the gate on messaging.  The worse thing they could do is what they appear to be doing, which is communicate in the frame of the right, thinking that will somehow inoculate them politically.  Not only does it not inoculate them, but the net effect is they indirectly amplify the republican message.

  7. Politics in rural areas is  landmine warfare.  Rabbit holes are the weapons of the right.  They own and operate the rabbit holes of single issue politics and weaponize them.  The media plays a part in indoctrination of the warriors.  What else is an old failing radio station good for? No, the television caters to whatever area far away with population and the newspaper are sold out and picking only low hanging fruit.

    The depopulation this political warfare produces, however, yields real problems for the Republicans.  The capable children tend to move away and pick up urban values.  The thinning population means less votes and power in the capital.  Cows and chickens do not vote.  Schools and medical facilities are farther and farther away and of poorer and poorer quality.  The old churches are still standing, but many of the followers are classified as at risk of falling at any time.  Capitalism cannot even keep a grocery store open in many areas.  The solution to this problem involves a lot of socialism, community service, and cooperation.  The rabbit hole denizen warriors then become part of the problem not part of this sort of a solution.  Meanwhile their leader wages trade war with China on the backs of their major legal income sources which involve agriculture.  If you need evidence look at the recent graph of John Deere stock. Putting the farmers on the dole has not been adequate corporate welfare it seems.  The depopulation continues and the problems worsen.  Oh yeah, and the farmer welfare came from borrowed money.  It is another problem the Republicans created without a sustainable solution for rural America.

    Well as one of the great people I have met in my life so finely said, "I have to screw my friends, my enemies won't do business with me."  This is the huge Republican problem.  They are very close to screwing rural America to death completely.  But who else will do business with them other than the Russians? 

  8. "Democrats never agree on anything, that's why they're Democrats. If they agreed with each other, they'd be Republicans." – Will Rogers

    The quote is not completely an exaggeration. Political psychology tells us it's an innate quality of people who lean Democratic, democratic, or left to think for themselves. That's why there will never be a leftist noise machine equivalent to Fox News. That and the fact large media corporations are run by CEOs and management who, by their natures, are almost always conservative. Whenever watching MSNBC I'm ready with the 'mute' or 'fast forward' buttons to have my revenge on anyone who spouts ancient and desiccated conventional wisdom about Democrats being careful not to go "too far" to the "radical" left, wherever that might be. Apparently it would be better Democratic candidates stay in the political purgatory of senseless centrism.

    It's a small miracle that, even with their messaging disability, left thinkers have given us Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, more civil rights, equality, and so on. That's because, on the whole, left-thinking people are also better at objectivity and fairness.

    Another bit of convention wisdom that turns my stomach is the "liberal coasts, conservative Midwest" meme. I've lived all over the country including both coasts, but have spent most of it in Indiana. It's just like anywhere else; the city areas are more left and the rural areas more right. South Bend elected an openly gay mayor. There's a clue in that. Lake county, a bedroom community for Chicago, is solid blue.

    Outside of LA, San Francisco, and a few other places, California is not liberal. North of the bay area, south of LA, and in the desert communities it's mostly conservative. On the east coast it's plenty conservative north of NYC or south of Delmarva. I would greatly appreciate the opportunity to smite any hackish talking head or pundit who says otherwise.


  9. People believe what they will believe.  I shared a hospital room with a mean old Alaskan fisherman who had flown down to Seattle for surgery over the weekend.  I could hear him talk with his guests about freeloaders and he had a dimwitted and blaming analysis of the Seattle homelessness crisis.

    The most annoying part was how puffed up he was that he had work insurance, not anything from the government, to pay for his health care, he was paying his own way, he kept making this distinction.

    We were there in a massive humming hospital campus of 5 buildings, with a hundred departments, labs, operating chambers, emergency services, clinics, helipads, resources, masses of sophisticated equipment, record keeping, behavioral health, pharmacies.  A half dozen specialists came to check on him, not counting the nurses, cleaning and meal staff. 

    And he thought his lousy fisherman's insurance paid for all of it, the way a check for $20 pays for a bottle of vodka.  He had just had minimally invasive freaking spinal surgery and was in no pain with full motion, in one day.  He thought he had earned that as well.  Zero respect for the fact that he was part of an ongoing continuum of helpful and dedicated human beings.

    And it was pretty obvious he was jonesing for some Rush.

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