Last night I attended a forum where four panelists, all Democratic candidates for state or national office, provided insight into what went wrong and how to fix it. The short answer: lots of things. The long answer: lots more things.
The original subject of this forum was to focus on “rural” voters and how to reach them, what their interests were, their thought processes. Of course, one of the first comments was “What’s rural?” My home of Bloomington has about 80,000 people including students at the university. To someone from New York our town is like we should have farmers riding tractors down the dirt roads. To locals though, we are the big city metropolis while nearly every other southern Indiana town between here, Terre Haute, Columbus, and Evansville is “rural”.
As I listened to the conversation in which the audience was allowed to contribute and ask questions, it became apparent that the very thought of “Bloomington vs the world” might be part of the problem. There is often a sense of superiority among the Democrats in Bloomington in comparison to the surrounding community. Leaders here, from elected party officials to party leadership, trend on the arrogant know-it-all side, and see Bloomington as the Indiana version of Berkeley (to paraphrase: I know Berkeley, I’ve been to Berkeley…Berkeley is a cool place….Bloomington, you are no Berkeley). Bloomington has a reputation of being a blue island in the red sea that is the rest of Indiana, but nowhere to the level seen on the coasts. Without the university, Bloomington would be every other town in southern Indiana. Local Democratic party elites tend to come across that they view the surrounding area like the movie Deliverance, while the surrounding area views the Bloomington officeholders like the second coming of Marx. The initial conversation had a feeling of “how do we get the redneck hicks to not hate our guts?”, but once the realization came that “we really can’t”, the conversation turned.
Why can’t the Democrats convert the rural masses? Several reasons. One, the church (collectively most Christian denominations) have basically become conservative recruitment centers. It’s like a right-wing business. You speak the words that get you the money. Those TV preachers have to pay the mortgages on those multi-million dollar mansions after all. Two, the rise of Fox News and other shameless news outlets (I’m looking at you Breitbart). It is not difficult to single out a Fox News viewer. They have tells like bad poker players. Say the word “Benghazi” and you can see their faces twist into a knot you didn’t think was anatomically possible. Third is the rise of the internet. It is not difficult to find the most depraved, psychotic stuff imaginable online. It passes for conservative news. And that’s the real news to our current president, while everything else is “fake news”. The fake news label being spewed is yet another tell of a Fox News viewer.
So, Democrats will never convert the rural, church-going, Fox News-viewing, Brietbart-reading masses that exist in most of rural Indiana and the rest of the Midwest. So then what? Excite the base. 100% turnout among registered Democratic voters would mean landslides in nearly every election. But how do you excite a base that is too lazy to look up from their smartphones to see their house is on fire?
Hillary was not popular among young people and progressives. Look at the crowds that turned out for Bernie Sanders. Progressives. Young people. This is the core base of Democratic voters now that Democrats must attract to the polls. Fact. Who came out to vote for Obama in 2008 that did not turn out in 2016 for Hillary? Young people. Progressives. Those who saw something different in their candidate. Something exciting. Sanders voters still believe their candidate would have won not only the primary but the general election had the Democratic Party not nominated someone they deemed “the anointed one”. He is viewed by that very base as the change candidate in a change, anti-establishment election. When Hillary wrapped up the nomination, there was little to no effort to reach out to the Sanders primary voters of the party. Those voters were lost, and despite the fact that enough voters turned out nationwide to give Hillary the overall vote win, it killed the Democratic Party from top to bottom nationwide.
If Democrats hope to win, whether it is locally or nationally, they can’t run Republican-light candidates. We elected a Catholic (the horror!) president in 1960 because he was young, popular, and offered a new direction for our country. We would have elected his brother in 1968 for the same reason. In 1976, we elected a peanut farmer as president on the anger against the establishment. In 1992 we elected a charismatic, late night TV sax-playing southern governor. In 2008 we elected a charismatic black man with only a few years political experience. Since FDR, the Democrats who have lost the presidential election all had one thing in common: they were uninspiring party insiders. They did not excite the base. Trump won in 2016 in spite of his party leadership precisely because he excited his base of voters, who then turned out for him in droves while the Democratic party base in those states stayed home, resulting in the lowest turnout in most of those states in years.
Democrats must learn the lesson that appealing to moderates and independents is less important than appealing to your own base. That base is now Socialist Democrat progressives and young people. Republicans have learned that lesson. If Democrats hope to win in 2018 and 2020, they need to find candidates at all levels of government that bring something new and exciting to the table, or we may be facing eight years of President Trump. God help us all.