The Democrats Need a New Message

After another demoralizing loss to a monstrous candidate, Democrats need a reboot

Democrat Rob Quist was beat by Greg Gianforte in Thursday's special election in Montana. Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty

The story of Greg Gianforte, a fiend who just wiped out a Democrat in a congressional race about ten minutes after being charged with assaulting a reporter, is déjà vu all over again.

How low do you have to sink to lose an election in this country? Republicans have been trying to answer that question for years. But they've been unable to find out, because Democrats somehow keep failing to beat them.

There is now a sizable list of election results involving Republican candidates who survived seemingly unsurvivable scandals to win higher office.

The lesson in almost all of these instances seems to be that enormous numbers of voters would rather elect an openly corrupt or mentally deranged Republican than vote for a Democrat. But nobody in the Democratic Party seems terribly worried about this.

Gianforte is a loon with a questionable mustache who body-slammed Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs for asking a question about the Republican health care bill. He's the villain du jour, but far from the worst exemplar of the genre.

New Yorkers might remember a similar congressional race from a few years ago involving a Staten Island nutjob named Michael Grimm. The aptly named Grimm won an election against a heavily funded Democrat despite being under a 20-count federal corruption indictment. Grimm had threatened on camera to throw a TV reporter "off a fucking balcony" and "break [him] in half … like a boy." He still beat the Democrat by 13 points.

The standard-bearer for unelectable candidates who were elected anyway will likely always be Donald Trump. Trump was caught admitting to sexual assault on tape and openly insulted almost every conceivable demographic, from Mexicans to menstruating women to POWs to the disabled; he even pulled out a half-baked open-mic-night version of a Chinese accent. And still won.

Gianforte, Trump and Grimm are not exceptions. They're the rule in modern America, which in recent years has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to vote for just about anybody not currently under indictment for serial murder, so long as that person is not a Democrat.

The list of winners includes Tennessee congressman Scott Desjarlais, a would-be "family values" advocate. Desjarlais, a self-styled pious abortion opponent, was busted sleeping with his patients and even urging a mistress to get an abortion. He still won his last race in Bible country by 30 points.

The electoral results last November have been repeated enough that most people in politics know them by heart. Republicans now control 68 state legislative chambers, while Democrats only control 31. Republicans flipped three more governors' seats last year and now control an incredible 33 of those offices. Since 2008, when Barack Obama first took office, Republicans have gained somewhere around 900 to 1,000 seats overall.

There are a lot of reasons for this. But there's no way to spin some of these numbers in a way that doesn't speak to the awesome unpopularity of the blue party. A recent series of Gallup polls is the most frightening example.

Unsurprisingly, the disintegrating Trump bears a historically low approval rating. But polls also show that the Democratic Party has lost five percentage points in its own approval rating dating back to November, when it was at 45 percent.

The Democrats are now hovering around 40 percent, just a hair over the Trump-tarnished Republicans, at 39 percent. Similar surveys have shown that despite the near daily barrage of news stories pegging the president as a bumbling incompetent in the employ of a hostile foreign power, Trump, incredibly, would still beat Hillary Clinton in a rematch today, and perhaps even by a larger margin than before.

If you look in the press for explanations for news items like this, you will find a lot of them. Democrats may have some difficulty winning elections, but they've become quite adept at explaining their losses.

According to legend, Democrats lose because of media bias, because of racism, because of gerrymandering, because of James Comey and because of Russia (an amazing 59 percent of Democrats still believe Russians hacked vote totals).

Third-party candidates are said to be another implacable obstacle to Democratic success, as is unhelpful dissension within the Democrats' own ranks. There have even been whispers that last year's presidential loss was Obama's fault, because he didn't campaign hard enough for Clinton.

The early spin on the Gianforte election is that the Democrats never had a chance in Montana because of corporate cash, as outside groups are said to have "drowned" opponent Rob Quist in PAC money. There are corresponding complaints that national Democrats didn't do enough to back Quist.

A lot of these things are true. America is obviously a deeply racist and paranoid country. Gerrymandering is a serious problem. Unscrupulous, truth-averse right-wing media has indeed spent decades bending the brains of huge pluralities of voters, particularly the elderly. And Republicans have often, but not always, had fundraising advantages in key races.

But the explanations themselves speak to a larger problem. The unspoken subtext of a lot of the Democrats' excuse-making is their growing belief that the situation is hopeless – and not just because of fixable institutional factors like gerrymandering, but because we simply have a bad/irredeemable electorate that can never be reached.

This is why the "basket of deplorables" comment last summer was so devastating. That the line would become a sarcastic rallying cry for Trumpites was inevitable. (Of course it birthed a political merchandising supernova.) To many Democrats, the reaction proved the truth of Clinton's statement. As in: we're not going to get the overwhelming majority of these yeehaw-ing "deplorable" votes anyway, so why not call them by their names?

But the "deplorables" comment didn't just further alienate already lost Republican votes. It spoke to an internal sickness within the Democratic Party, which had surrendered to a negativistic vision of a hopelessly divided country.

Things are so polarized now that, as Georgia State professor Jennifer McCoy put it on NPR this spring, each side views the other not as fellow citizens with whom they happen to disagree, but as a "threatening enemy to be vanquished."

The "deplorables" comment formalized this idea that Democrats had given up on a huge chunk of the population, and now sought only to defeat and subdue their enemies.

Many will want to point out here that the Republicans are far worse on this score. No politician has been more divisive than Trump, who explicitly campaigned on blaming basically everyone but middle American white people for the world's problems.

This is true. But just because the Republicans win using deeply cynical and divisive strategies doesn't mean it's the right or smart thing to do.

Barack Obama, for all his faults, never gave in to that mindset. He continually insisted that the Democrats needed to find a way to reach lost voters. Even in the infamous "guns and religion" episode, this was so. Obama then was talking about the challenge the Democrats faced in finding ways to reconnect with people who felt ignored and had fled to "antipathy toward people who aren't like them" as a consequence.

Even as he himself was the subject of vicious and racist rhetoric, Obama stumped in the reddest of red districts. In his post-mortem on the Trump-Clinton race, he made a point of mentioning this – that in Iowa he had gone to every small town and fish fry and VFW hall, and "there were some counties where I might have lost, but maybe I lost by 20 points instead of 50 points."

Most people took his comments to be a dig at Clinton's strategic shortcomings – she didn't campaign much in many of the key states she lost – but it was actually more profound than that. Obama was trying to point out that people respond when you demonstrate that you don't believe they're unredeemable.

You can't just dismiss people as lost, even bad or misguided people. Unless every great thinker from Christ to Tolstoy to Gandhi to Dr. King is wrong, it's especially those people you have to keep believing in, and trying to reach.

The Democrats have forgotten this. While it may not be the case with Quist, who seems to have run a decent campaign, the Democrats in general have lost the ability (and the inclination) to reach out to the entire population.

They're continuing, if not worsening, last year's mistake of running almost exclusively on Trump/Republican negatives. The Correct the Record types who police the Internet on the party's behalf are relentless on that score, seeming to spend most of their time denouncing people for their wrong opinions or party disloyalty. They don't seem to have anything to say to voters in flyover country, except to point out that they're (at best) dupes for falling for Republican rhetoric.

But "Republicans are bad" isn't a message or a plan, which is why the Democrats have managed the near impossible: losing ground overall during the singular catastrophe of the Trump presidency.

The party doesn't see that the largest group of potential swing voters out there doesn't need to be talked out of voting Republican. It needs to be talked out of not voting at all. The recent polls bear this out, showing that the people who have been turned off to the Democrats in recent months now say that in a do-over, they would vote for third parties or not at all.

People need a reason to be excited by politics, and not just disgusted with the other side. Until the Democrats figure that out, these improbable losses will keep piling up.