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Donald, Hillary, McCarthy
June 23, 2018
by William P. Meyers

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"The problem with America, he [Joe McCarthy] was saying, was domestic subversion, as tolerated and encouraged by the Democratic party. China had fallen, not because the forces of history were against the old feudal regime, which was collapsing under its own weight. Rather, it was because of Soviet military and political hegemony. If events in the world were not as we wanted them, then something conspiratorial had happened. . . It was a rare free shot in politics. His message was simple: The Democrats are soft on Communism. With that, he changed the nature of American politics." — David Halberstam, The Fifties

Donald Trump won the election of 2016 with a slim margin in the Electoral College, while Hillary Clinton received a majority of the popular vote. How people perceive that victory and that defeat influences how they will run campaigns in 2018 and 2020. On both sides are people, ranging from political professionals to ordinary voters, who subscribe to theories, including conspiracy theories, that are out of touch with reality. Just as Joe McCarthy dominated almost a decade of the Cold War era with his (mostly) false narrative, the next few years may be dominated by a narrative favorable to Republicans if the Democrats don't get their narrative right.

It is human nature to want to blame others for failure, especially since, at least some of the time, others are to blame. Democrats want to blame Russian collusion for Hillary's loss. They want to blame the Electoral College mechanism. Some want to blame Bernie Sanders or Jill Stein. Some want to blame "corrupt" Hillary for denying Bernie the nomination. All of these trends tend to conspiracy narratives.

Donald Trump and the Republicans were surprised to win and don't have to play the blame game this time around. Yet they blame Obama and Democrats whenever they can. Trump himself is well-known for believing in conspiracy theories. He believed that Barack Obama was not born in Hawaii, and that trade agreements amount to conspiracies. He believes high drug prices are caused by conspiracy, but high prices in Trump hotels are right as rain.

Voters are individuals, no two exactly alike. Yet on election day they sort out into just two groups: those who vote for candidate X and those who vote for candidate Y. [And, yes, sometimes those who vote for someone not among the top two candidates]. The trick for a candidate or party is to find some commonality among voters that enables them to capture a majority. In the 1950s for the Republicans the commonality was fear of Communism and Russia. For the Democrats it remained support for the New Deal and the believe that Herbert Hoover and the Republicans had caused the Great Depression and did not care about people.

I don't believe the Democratic Party can rely on voters dislike for Trump to win. It is a start, but it did not work in 2016. With the economy running well, it is not likely to work in 2018 or 2020.

The Democrats need a better slogan than "I'm with Her." Identity politics did not swing enough female Republicans to vote for Hillary. Listening to the news media, even the liberal outlets, I kept hearing that Hillary would be relying on women, Hispanics and Black voters for her victory. Not on her policies, which were good policies.

I believe the Republicans would have lost the Presidency with any candidate but Donald Trump. Simple conservative stands like Tax the Poor, Fill the Prisons, Destroy the Environment, and even No Birth Control or Abortions, while they have their true believers, are not that popular with the electorate in general.

In the 1950s many liberals made sport of Joe McCarthy's rather obvious lack of book learning and what learned people like to call intelligence. But (as Halberstam later wrote), "He had a talent for imagining conspiracy and subversion . . . McCarthy understood the theater of it all, and he was for a brief time a marvelous actor. He knew instinctively how to brush aside the protests of his witnesses, how to humiliate the vulnerable, scared people."

Donald Trump may not like to read, but he is not lazy in the ordinary sense. He may not be Einstein, but he has instincts that make him a superb politician. Underestimating his abilities is a mistake.

It is true that Democrats need black and Hispanic votes, as well as middle class liberal votes. But we also need to win back at least a portion of working class white voters. Keep in mind that many of these voters did vote for Hillary, just not enough. These voters were the core of the New Deal Coalition in the 1930s and 1940s, but have been drifting away from Democratic candidates since the 1970s.

So what appeals to them? Make America Great Again is vague, but it promises a return to the white working class prosperity of the 1950s and 60s. Anti-immigrant rhetoric, and action, promises that the white working class can at least continue to work, even if it is harder to move into the middle class now that middle class females are able to compete for jobs with middle class wages.

Democrats need to hone in on promising dignity and real economic benefits to the working class, without seeming like that means charity aimed at specific ethnic groups like blacks and hispanics. Any policy that helps the working class will help everyone in that class.

This can't be buried in a policy report or platform. It has to be central to campaigns. Of course Democrats are for gender equality, are pro-choice, and against racism. But we need to emphasize that we will create more higher-paying jobs for the working class. Not just by fiat, by raising the minimum wage or raising taxes on the rich. We need a plan that can do it, and that makes workers feel good about their role in American society.

While the plan may be complicated, the slogan need to be simple. Something like "We Love Workers," or even "We Love American Workers" might do. We love you if you work to contribute to American Society, whether you work on a farm, or in a small town, or in a big city, at a factory or in an office or from your home or raising children. Whether you voted Republican or Democrat in the past.

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