Democrats are in need of a universalized language of politics that can transcend the hourly flow of events, to frame a larger journey for the party and country. Finding this galvanizing understanding of the politics of the era won’t be a luxury for the party. Rather, it will derive from the emergency American democracy finds itself in today.
It’s essential that the universalized politics offer both a symbol of contemporary American reality as well as way to approach it. Such language won’t offer a veneer of cohesion between many issues competing for the attention of the public and leaders. Instead, it will offer a path in a time when illiberal movements – combined with an illiberal president – have so far, better understood the political possibilities of the moment.
This is not an argument for a one-size-fits-all politics. It’s also not a call to create at a hardened ideology. Rather, universalizing democratic politics is an idea that scales up from the individual, to the community, to the nation, and beyond, to the realm of international relations. And it scales the other way too, from the concerns of the world and nation, back down to the individual.
Democrats have been remarkably forgetful of the need to adjust their communication to the time. Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood it. Taking advantage of the newly popularized radio, the president frequently communicated to the public in the simple language designed to appeal to voters that included many with only high school education. Today, the problem for the Democrats is arguably the opposite: higher education levels and access to endless news detail creates a sense of complexity that is paralyzing for decisive action. The data environment immobilizes.
The Democratic Party must craft and master a long-term message to speak through this.
Part of the challenge stems from the drift of the Democrats, who for years, have conceived of issues, campaigns and constituents in piecemeal items. With each election, the party’s attention then shifts from one constituent group and their perceived core issue to another.
Consequently, the meaning of the party seems to shape-shift so often it’s hard, even for core Democrats, to know what the party stands for. The party suffers from an inability to stitch together the various messages for differing Democrats into a single, meaningful and lasting whole.
In 2018 we’ve reached the limit of ad hoc, poll-driven Democratic politics.
Political life today cries out for unifying understandings of the challenges that surround us, ones that address the splintered nature of the time we’re in. Politics today occur in a cyber-social space utterly at the mercy of manipulation and mania. The economy has created whole strata of jobs that will never, in their current form, lead to prosperity. Partisans, impatient and hostile to liberal values, can now align over borders to make common cause against institutions.
In this chaotic climate, Democrats need to unplug from the daily cycle, to survey this hyper-connected and at the same time hyper-alienating reality. They need to re-conceive their broad political goals independently of political brinksmanship and ‘resistance’.
As political historian Mark Lilla so accurately observes, national politics “will be dominated by whoever best captures Americans’ imaginations about our shared destiny.”
Lilla is correct to say Democrats have lost sight of the need of a shared vision to aspire to. Instead, Democrats and the political class reporting on them, remain strangely mesmerized by identity subgroups and polls, in which society (and importantly, voters) see themselves not as a whole with shared, unifying aspirations, but as a patchwork of demographics with competing interests.
The tribalizing effect of social media worsens this, encouraging people to divide themselves by shared views and backgrounds.
The experience of social media also obliterates the past, as it diminishes the future in the public’s mind. Media critic Douglas Rushkoff says such “presentism” means:
“The pauses between an event and a response to it—the space in which public opinion was once gauged—is gone, and now the feedback is indistinguishable from the initial action.
“…everything is happening so fast that it may as well be simultaneous. One big now. The result for institutions—especially political ones—has been profound. This transformation has dramatically degraded the ability of political operatives to set long-term plans.”
What’s needed for Democrats is an idea or vision that persists once a person finally switched off their computer or phone. One that transcends the hourly, retail debates.
What motivated the political can-do ism of the Left in the 1960s were future visions of the world for society to advance toward. Post-war peace, the aspiration of the United Nations making war obsolete, the New Frontier.
There were concepts forged from a shared mass experience, exhorting voters on to another shared experience.
The Great Society pushed for a more equitable, more perfect America. The causes meant different things to different individuals and segments of society, but they all offered a shared vision. All of this was built around the notion of a vital state.
Today, the urgency for the Democrats is to find the universalizing messages that can knit together the growing list of pressing political problems.
Independent Bernie Sanders delivered an important lesson in this regard with his broadsides in 2016 against “obscene inequality” that could be refracted back into issues as diverse as healthcare, housing, race and education. All issues could be cast as part of a single, big, galvanizing cause of righteousness.
It was Sanders’ call to action that drew in voters, not his cultivation of identity politics which by default look backward in time.
But Sanders’s call was incomplete, as he sought to right a wrong, rather than describe and then build a new self-sustaining future that motivates people.
Democrats must speak across diverse audiences and be able to speak through the overwhelming complexity of the modern world.
Even as Democrats unplug from the news cycle, they don’t have the luxury to act slowly. The Republican Party is in meltdown, and with it, a large part of American’s political system. The very institutions of the American democracy are being hollowed out from inside.
The answer, then, isn’t more tailored language to individual voting blocks, or more attenuated messaging in an era when all messaging has been personalized. Instead, it’s a vision that can make sense of our time, one that can join individuals feeling atomized by society, into a great whole. This can only happen if the leaders of the Democratic Party agree on the big overarching vision of where the country should be in the 21st Century. That involves a return to the universalized politics of party’s forebears.