What’s the Matter with Democrats?

by Jonah Goldberg

The Democrats have unveiled their new slogan: a “Better Deal.”

We are in the minority in both houses of Congress; we cannot promise anyone that this Congress will begin passing our priorities tomorrow. But we have to start raising our voices to present our vision for the country’s future. We will seek the support of any Republicans willing to work with us, but more important, we must start rallying the American people to support our ideas.

In the last two elections, Democrats, including in the Senate, failed to articulate a strong, bold economic program for the middle class and those working hard to get there. We also failed to communicate our values to show that we were on the side of working people, not the special interests. We will not repeat the same mistake. This is the start of a new vision for the party, one strongly supported by House and Senate Democrats.

Our better deal is not about expanding the government, or moving our party in one direction or another along the political spectrum. Nor is it about tearing down government agencies that work, that effectively protect consumers and promote the health and well-being of the country. It’s about reorienting government to work on behalf of people and families.

When it’s time to columnize on it, I’ll look at the specific policies they’re pushing more closely. But two thoughts immediately come to mind. First, it is just amazing how the New Deal remains an organizing principle and cargo cult for Democrats almost a century later. I mean, the word “Deal” is hardly subtle.

Second, focusing on economics alone may make sense for internal party reasons and for external marketing ones. After all, you can always get Democrats to agree on more government activism and intervention. What you can’t do is get them to agree on cultural issues. And that’s a big problem for them. The Democrats have a brand problem. Schumer says that they’re going to focus on the concerns of working families. No doubt many of those concerns are economic. But as anyone who has kids can tell you, these are not the only concerns parents bring to politics. The Thomas Frank school says that voters who care about social issues don’t understand their own interests. This has always struck me as nonsense. The voters’ real interests are defined by what they think is important. So that includes everything from race and abortion to guns and gay rights to free speech.

The Democratic party’s base literally and figuratively — coastal elites, liberal Millennials, various ethnic and sexual minorities, environmentalists, feminists, etc. — is full of people who define politics about more than kitchen table economics. You can claim that, say, abortion is solely an economic issue. You can even believe it. But you can’t argue that the Handmaid’s Tale cosplay crowd sees it that way.

Chuck Schumer probably has the discipline to stay on message, but I sincerely doubt the rest of the party does. Bill Clinton understood that he could only focus on his “Putting People First” platform after he reassured voters that he wasn’t going to kowtow to the party’s left flank. That’s why he threw Sister Souljah under the bus, campaigned on welfare reform, and took time off from the campaign trail to oversee the execution of a mentally retarded man.

Politics have changed a lot since then and so have the demographics of the country and the Democratic party. But it’s hard to think of the Democratic politician out there who has either the courage or the cynicism to similarly stand up to the left-wing base and the media outlets that run interference for them. Virtue signaling is too central to both parties these days to think that you can skate by just talking about college tuition and apprenticeships for very long.

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