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Democrats Need More Than An Anti-Trump Message To Win The Midterms

In this Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018, photo, Texas Democratic Congressman Beto O'Rourke, right, listens to a question during a town hall meeting in Alice, Texas. O’Rourke is forsaking a safe seat in Congress and a rising-star career for the longest of odds in an attempt to unseat Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. (Eric Gay/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
In this Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018, photo, Texas Democratic Congressman Beto O'Rourke, right, listens to a question during a town hall meeting in Alice, Texas. O’Rourke is forsaking a safe seat in Congress and a rising-star career for the longest of odds in an attempt to unseat Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. (Eric Gay/AP)

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As we head into the turn for the 2018 midterm elections, the stakes are clear. Amid all the acrimony and scandal and noise, the Trump administration has managed to accelerate income inequality and poverty, decimate environmental regulations, and impose immigration policies that separate young children from their parents.

What’s more, as recent primaries have shown, Republicans opposed to the president have utterly capitulated. The Grand Old Party is now, officially, the Party of Trump.

Given his historically low approval ratings and his truth-mangling oratory, Trump makes for a big target, and many liberals would love to see their congressional candidates revile him.

That’s a huge mistake.

It’s not that Trump doesn’t deserve contempt — it’s that he thrives on it. When he becomes the central issue in a campaign, his base rallies around him, Republicans tend to vote the party line, and the majority of voters turn off to the whole process.

The aim of every Democratic candidate in these midterms should be a relentless focus on policy at the local level.

This, in a nutshell, is how Trump won the presidency, along with an assist from Comrade Putin and our antiquated Electoral College. After all, the number of Americans who simply didn’t show up at the polls tallied 104 million, nearly twice as many as voted for him.

For Democratic candidates to thrive in the midterms, they will need to follow the example of Conor Lamb, who won his election in a Pennsylvania district by tending to the needs of his constituents and ignoring the White House. Beto O'Rourke, the Texas senatorial candidate running against Ted Cruz, is hewing to the same strategy.

Rather than focusing on Trumpworld, or the upheavals of Washington, O’Rourke is focused on local issues, such as drawing attention to the treatment of immigrant children who are being warehoused like criminals along the border.

President Trump speaks to reporters at the White House, Friday, June 15, 2018, in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP)
President Trump speaks to reporters at the White House, Friday, June 15, 2018, in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Focusing strictly on the policy issues that affect constituents, and eschewing attack politics, sounds old-fashioned, especially in a media environment driven by rancor and scandal, an environment in which one profane outburst against the president by a famous actor can distract the national news media from the fact that children are being torn from their parents and incarcerated in detention facilities with propagandistic murals of the president that come straight from Stalin’s Russia.

But the plain fact is that the GOP’s policies — from its coddling of CEOs to its kowtowing to the gun lobby to its corporate-sponsored trashing of the environment — are all deeply unpopular. They are a party dedicated to populism in rhetoric and plutocracy in substance.

Candidates should be shining a light on that reality, on breaking what Teddy Roosevelt called, more than a century ago, the corrupt alliance between big business and government.

In so doing, they need not mention Trump at all. Why bother? In the end, he’s just a garish front man for an old con, the bait-and-switch intended to distract voters from a politics of economic uplift by peddling racial resentment.

... shaming people never converts them to your way of thinking. It only redoubles their hatred, and reduces politics to a blood sport.

I understand how tempting it can be to attack the president and his supporters. But doing so isn’t an electoral strategy — it’s a form of liberal catharsis, one that does more harm than good. Because shaming people never converts them to your way of thinking. It only redoubles their hatred, and reduces politics to a blood sport. If Trump’s ascent has taught us nothing else, it should have taught us this.

The aim of every Democratic candidate in these midterms should be a relentless focus on policy at the local level. The goal should be to inspire voters by articulating how they hope to solve their problems.

Because the real enemy of our democracy isn’t a politician, or some benighted set of voters. It’s a culture of apathy that takes root in the soil of civic faithlessness. The best way to restore that faith is to put forward a positive vision, one that relies on common sense as an antidote to corruption, cruelty and corporate influence.

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Related:

Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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