With Democrats nearly fading to obscurity after the 2016 elections — Republicans gained control of all three branches of the federal government, control 34 of 50 governor’s mansions, and 66 of 99 state legislative bodies — I think Democrats are mistaken to oppose everything the new regime proposes.
And it’s even more true of partisan liberal organizations and liberal citizens than it is of the Democratic Party.
As a group, we seem to have forgotten that the biggest beneficiary of any debate is the audience.
The flowchart pictured above-right (see larger) refers only to the two opponents in a debate/discussion. It indicates that the discussion isn’t worth having if the other party won’t agree to certain ground rules, or if the other party says nothing will change his or her position. This is only true if the discussion is private.
But in a public debate — which is really all politics is — it doesn’t matter whether the opponent agrees to certain ground rules or whether the opponent might possibly change his/her mind. Because it’s the audience that you’re trying to influence.
In the U.S., more of us identify as Independent than as either Republican or Democrat. Independents lean right or left, and often switch sides on national elections, depending on who has swayed them. Neither Republicans nor Democrats usually hold a majority of voters.
Watching the rhetoric from the DNC and other left-leaning political organizations since Donald Trump’s victory in the Electoral College, I’ve noticed a severe case of preaching to the choir. Similarly, an awful lot of rank-and-file liberals aren’t helping the cause either.
It’s one thing to commiserate; it’s cathartic and many of us needed it. It’s quite another to design ongoing messaging that further alienates the indecisive middle — because those are the ones you’ll depend on in 2018 and 2020.
I’ve seen calls for Democrats in the Senate to obstruct “just like the Republicans did” on every issue, every nomination, every GOP-sponsored bill. This won’t be helpful, long term. One reason many voters identify as independents is because they can’t stand the partisan bickering or the “party-over-country” attitude that both sides often display. We independents are far more impressed when politicians break with their party to do the right thing than when they toe the party line.
(Caveat: Obviously I’m generalizing here. Many independents are very conservative and others are very progressive. Some are conspiracy theorists, nut jobs, and pro- or anti- nearly every issue. A lot of independents are simply uninformed. But the fact remains that nearly every national election is won by the side that sways more non-partisan voters.)
Also, purely from a strategic point of view, it’s pointless and wasteful to fight every battle. The Trump administration and the GOP majorities in Congress have moved swiftly and triumphantly since Trump’s inauguration, both with legislation and confirmation hearings. Almost all of them are bad, yes, but not all of them are worth fighting endlessly. The phrase “pick your battles” comes to mind. Also: “Is this the hill you want to die on?”
I was impressed with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) when she decided to vote “yes” on Ben Carson’s nomination as Secretary of Housing And Urban Development. Despite facing a massive backlash from the left, Warren noted: “Yes, he is not the nominee I wanted. But ‘the nominee I wanted’ is not the test.” She carefully explained her reasoning for discontinuing her opposition and decided to move on.
We need more of this from our Democratic senators. It’s not “giving up”; it’s reasonable compromise in order to move on with more important business. There are nominees to oppose endlessly, including the aforementioned Betsy DeVos, Scott Pruitt, and others. There are house bills that need to be filibustered until they die, but we should choose carefully.
Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, isn’t one that should be opposed, at least not purely because he’s a Trump nominee. In fact, he’s probably the best SCOTUS nominee we could have expected from a Trump administration. I actually feared we’d get someone like Michelle Bachmann or Chuck Norris — someone that would cause a public uproar lasting weeks while the administration committed worse deeds quietly in the background. Instead, we got a relatively solid, non-controversial jurist. As surprising as that is, I say let it pass. No, he won’t be good for all our progressive causes — certainly not for reproductive rights or separation of church and state — but we can expect him to be reasonable and independent.
Because — again — this isn’t about convincing your base; they’re already convinced. And it’s not about winning over Republicans — 95% of them are lost to you anyway. This is about winning the middle, the independents, the undecideds. This is about the audience.
The best way forward is not to adopt the 2009-16 GOP playbook of ubiquitous obstruction, government shutdowns, and taking your ball and going home. That’ll only make you look as silly and as immature as they are. The best way forward is maintaining composure; using reason to consider each nominee, executive order, and law; and above all to remember the audience.