Resolving the Democrats’ Dilemma

When it comes to thinking about the 2020 presidential election, a dominant theme among both commentators and candidates is the “Democrats’ Dilemma”: an alleged contradiction between the party’s ideological interests and its electoral ambitions. Energized by a new crop of progressive lawmakers, the Dems are leaning left on issues ranging from “tax the rich” and “Medicare for all” to “welcome the asylum-seekers.” But, the key to defeating Trump is winning back the (mostly white) working people who defected to the Republicans in 2016, many of whom lean right on certain issues advocated by progressives. The dilemma, if it is one, is that Democrats need to find a candidate and program capable of mobilizing progressive energies and bringing out young and minority constituents, while also appealing to more conservative voters in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan and Wisconsin, all of which went for Trump in 2016.

But wait a minute. If one focuses on economic policies, is there a contradiction between the progressive agenda and winning back the voters who defected to Trump? Not really! Polls and interviews show a very high level of support among working people for proposals to tax the rich, increase the minimum wage, strengthen unions, regulate or break up big companies, and provide some form of universal health care. On the part of most Americans, there is little fear of what Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders call “structural change”; in fact, the problem with the progressive agenda may be that it is not radical enough to solve the problems of stagnating wages and job insecurity . I will return to this point in a moment.

For now, it seems clear that, when it comes to vindicating the class interests of working people in industrial and de-industrialized states, there is no “Democratic Dilemma.” The real dilemma arises from the fact that many of these same workers are culturally conservative, which means that, even if they now understand that the Trump regime is a creature of the super-rich, they may be tempted in 2020 to vote against their class interests. This is why Trump has gone after “the Squad” with such vicious glee. If he can get white voters in de-industrialized states to identify the Democrats as a congeries of non-white, non-American, and non-straight identity groups, he may be able to hold onto the “base” that gave him the Presidency in 2016.

Is this strategy racist? Certainly! But that label is only the beginning of an analysis, not its end point. Conservatism in the Age of Trump is also nativist (ranking American citizens above all other peoples), anti-bureaucratic, anti-intellectual, sexually traditionalist, attuned to evangelical Christianity, militaristic but neo-isolationist in foreign policy, and conspiracy-minded in its political thinking. This is not a new story; in 1964, the historian Richard Hofstadter described it in a famous essay on “The Paranoid Style In American Politics.” But the Trump administration has added a new feature: an aggressive economic and cultural nationalism that overcomes the conservatives’ traditional hostility to Big Government, and that empowers the President to lead, not only as commander-in-chief, but also as negotiator-in-chief and the personification of the American Nation.

The Democrats’ Dilemma, then, turns out to have two dimensions: the charismatic quality of Donald Trump’s leadership, and the cultural conservatism of many American workers and middle class people. Each of these problems suggests possible solutions.

The problem of charisma. Marianne Williamson may not be as serious a presidential candidate as some Democrats currently on the stump, but she understands something that few others do: the emotional connection between Trump and his “base.” Most Democrats seem to have disqualified themselves from understanding this. Not only do they hate Trump too intensely to appreciate his leadership style, but also the mental landscape they inhabit is filled with reasonings: policy ideas, causal analyses, data used as evidence for arguments, counter-arguments, and so on. What does not get air time in that noisy, crowded mental space is emotion – in particular, the peculiar emotion involved in identifying one’s own hopes, dreams, frustrations, and forms of self-expression with those of a “great” person.

Once upon a time a man named Max Weber taught us that there are three basic kinds of political leaders and relationships. One kind is traditional – everyone behaves toward the leader as custom demands, and things change very slowly. Another is rational-legal. Everyone follows the rules and argues a lot about how to interpret them. Things can change fairly quickly but usually don’t. The third is charismatic. People follow the leader because of the kind of person he or she is. They see in the leader either an image of who they are or who they would like to be. Feeling dissed, disappointed, overmatched, and resentful, they look for and find a champion.

We’ve had charismatic leaders before in the United States, but not many. The last one before Trump was Franklin Roosevelt (or perhaps, John F. Kennedy). The spirit of the Democratic Party has for a long time been rational-legal; virtually everybody in a position of responsibility thinks and acts like a lawyer. Trump is now cashing in on the general revulsion against lawyers, policy wonks, administrators with gravitas, time-serving politicians, and anyone who claims to have an objective “expert” opinion on a controversial issue. He has not yet achieved Steve Bannon’s stated ambition for him of becoming the “right-wing Roosevelt,” but he has clearly changed the emotional valence of American politics.

How do Democrats cope with this dilemma? The easy answer is to nominate someone charismatic for President. The problem is trickier than it might seem, however, since “charisma” does not mean being able to give a good speech, pose for an attractive People photo, or light up the crowd at the National Convention. It refers to a relationship between leaders and followers (or voters) that the latter find deeply moving and liberating.

Trump discovered that he inspired this sort of relationship over the course of a long campaign and a post-campaign year, and it probably simplified things for him to be addressing a fairly homogenous (mainly white) constituency. The Democrats are just getting started on the road to charismatic leadership, and they have a more diverse crowd to appeal to. This in itself gives no cause for despair: it’s in the nature of charisma to discover commonalities in an apparently heterogeneous public. What we do not know yet is whether the party itself can free itself sufficiently from inherited modes of thought and inhibitions to rediscover its charismatic mojo.

Can Democratic leaders personify the thirst for social justice that drives so many diverse groups to explore new political formations and ideas? Can they stand up to the authorities-that-be and strive to embody a new type of popular authority that speaks its own language? Can they avoid being sucked back into the old liberal orthodoxy combining reforms for favored interest groups with a blank check for the military-industrial-intelligence complex? Stay tuned and we will find out!

The problem of cultural conservatism. The key here is to recognize that Trumpian conservatism is far more closely linked to mass economic discontent, and more inclined to use government to attempt to solve working people’s problems, than were previous right-wing movements. The administration’s Achilles heel is its hopeless love affair with the one percent, which opens the door wide to Democratic proposals to actually solve the problems causing stagnation and misery among large sectors of the population. Cutting the link between economic and cultural grievances will not end cultural conservatism, but it has a good chance of lowering the level of frustration and anger on the Right.

The Democrats’ problem here is closely related to the issue of charisma. Many of their current proposals seem pallid and unconvincing. How much difference will raising the minimum wage really make? When will rich people’s wealth and income actually begin to be taxed? To convince people that proposed reforms are serious and will actually work, one needs more than a clever policy paper or statement of principles.

The first requirement is drama. “If the drug companies do not act in the public interest, we will nationalize them!” operates on the same dramatic level as Trump’s threats against factories that move to Mexico. Or how about, “America needs more immigrants – not fewer of them – but the only way this can work without hurting lower-wage workers is through economic planning! Democratic planning will end the controversy over immigration.” A related requirement is to associate policy with personality, in particular, with a demonstration of strong willpower. “We will accomplish these results” (again taking a leaf from Trump’s book), not “this policy will accomplish these results.”

The second way to deal with cultural conservatives is to listen to them, talk with them, take them seriously, think about the needs they are expressing, and discover if you can find a common language with which to continue the conversation. We on the Left need to think about how to substitute analysis for labels and empathy for self-righteous disapproval. One of my favorite colleagues used to have a big sign hanging in his office reading, “I COULD BE WRONG.” I’m having one made for my office, too.

So much for the Democrats’ Dilemma. I think that it disappears if we follow three pieces of advice.

(1) Offer dramatic, progressive solutions to working people’s real problems. Be more radical, not less.

(2) Cultivate charismatic relationships. People want to be active followers of inspiring leaders.

(3) Listen and talk to the “enemy.” We could be wrong.