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You Can't Shame People Into Defending Democracy
It Will Not Work
A new round of negative polls for President Joe Biden has produced a predictable round of worrying from Democrats/liberals. We’ve seen this a million times before and we will see it a million times again — Democrats are maddeningly fragile voters and I think the reaction says more about them than about Biden (Democrats regularly freaked out about polling under President Barack Obama, a far more skilled politician than Biden).
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What I would like to address is the annoying attitude accompanying this poll and a recent poll of Arab Americans showing discontent with Biden over his position on the Israel-Hamas war. The kneejerk response I have seen far too frequently amounts to “What are you going to do, abandon Biden and elect a fascist?”
This attitude demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding about what motivates millions of voters, arguably a majority of the voters outside of the bases of either party.
Liberals too often assume that everyone is motivated for the same reasons they are. The assumption is that voters have studied the issues at hand, gamed out the repercussions of their vote or non-vote, and are acting accordingly. This is a rational way to approach voting and it is the reason so many of us regularly turn out to vote. We don’t want the right’s agenda to be advanced and we want anything varying from a center-left to extremely progressive agenda to be enacted by Democrats. Reasonable. Logical.
Yet, as history and particularly recent history shows us, voters are weirdos. They don’t tally up issues and positions and consider repercussions. Especially among Democratic-leaning voters they vote in erratic patterns and not in a consistent 2-4 year pattern. Man of the same voters who turned out in droves for Obama in 2008 and Biden in 2020 didn’t feel a similar urgency to turn out for Sec. Hillary Clinton in 2016 or for Democratic candidates in the 2010 midterms.
But don’t they understand? Democracy is on the line! Trump incited an armed attack on the U.S. Capitol and has made it clear a second presidential term would be even more racist and fascist than his disastrous four years.
This argument doesn’t motivate them. It stinks. This argument should be the easiest motivator in the world. It’s a big motivator for you and I and people who think like us, but it isn’t true for a lot of people. They don’t see the current political fortunes of the Republican and Democratic parties as fundamental boons and threats to their daily lives so the drive isn’t there.
No amount of attempting to shame voters about this is likely to produce a result. The universe of people who are open to this message probably made up their minds back on January 6 2021 and it has hit its ceiling or is very near the ceiling in the best case scenario. Very few voters are going to be compelled to come off the sidelines based on this message in the next twelve months, I doubt enough to tip the scales of the election in one direction or another.
So, what is it that motivates these other voters? Liberals can be angry at them and stamp their collective feet until the cows come home, but ultimately they still need to find a way to get this group of people out to vote if there is to be any hope for the future.
These people need a combination of policy and message. They need it to be clearly communicated to them that progressive solutions for what ails their lives are being put into action by Democrats, being proposed by Democrats, and possibly most importantly, being blocked by Republicans and the conservative movement.
It requires the steady recitation in black and white of this idea over and over again. That thing you like — the bridge getting fixed, unemployment cut in half since 2021 - was done by Democrats. That thing you’d like — assault weapons being banned, abortion rights being protected — is part of the Democratic agenda. And the things you absolutely loathe — abortion bans, mass shootings, cuts to Social Security and Medicare — are the things Republicans are vehemently behind.
The simplicity of this equation means that feel-good nuance, a constant refrain of the Democratic Party establishment, has to be thrown out. It’s near-impossible to argue that Republicans are a threat to democracy and Social Security if Democratic leaders like President Biden, Leader Hakeem Jeffries, and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (among so many others) are constantly calling for things like “bipartisanship” and going on and on and on about how the problem isn’t Republicans but “MAGA Republicans.” To the disinterested voter who is already prone to tuning out politics, these distinctions largely fade into white noise. Once you’ve argued that some of the Republicans are okay, pushing the idea that the party also embodies a threat to democracy ends up sounding like cynical politics and a reason not to bother voting.
The too-cute Democratic nuance also works as a turnoff to the party’s core cadre of voters, who turn out to vote in droves only to hear their own president regularly throwing out a bone to “bipartisan” concepts like cutting the deficit (that nobody cares about) or “border security” or whatever buzzword that Democratic consultants happen to be picking up in their focus group of the moment.
Somewhat disinterested voters, “meh” voters, are also looped into politics by momentum. Voting for Obama in 2008 wasn’t just a regular vote, it was a chance to be part of a popular movement. The same was arguably true of voting for Biden in 2020. If core Democratic voters are being catered to with actions and rhetoric attuned to what they care about, then that visible group emotion will spill over to people who aren’t tuned in to MSNBC 24-7 and using #resist hashtags. I think those people are far more susceptible to an emotional wave than microtargeting designed to peel off a few Trump voters who appear open to flipping.
We saw some of this in 2022, when many of the Democratic voters who fall off following a presidential election year ended up turning out to vote against conservatives for killing the federal right to an abortion. Many of the women who turned the “red wave” into a red trickle that has led to a weak Republican majority are not intense Democratic voters but got caught up in a tide of anti-conservative sentiment. Democrats shouldn’t let that wave ebb away with another quixotic quest to appeal to Ohio/Florida/Georgia/Etc. “soft” Republicans.
Give the people red meat in concrete results and in rhetoric, don’t stop feeding it to them even when election season is over, and for God’s sake stop believing that lecturing and shaming them into doing their civic duty is going to be the one neat trick to get them off the sidelines.
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