Democratic strategies and responses continue to fall short when and where it matters most

October 29, 2018

Recent events have been fraught with violence and hatred against our fellow human beings. These immoral acts have been carried out by people who devoutly ascribe to an ideology that demonizes whole groups of people who don't fit into their worldview. This ideology is largely represented by, and reinforced by Donald Trump and the current Republican Party. 


The extremist authoritarian ideology dominating our public discourse and media coverage is literally changing people's cognitive understanding of our world, and how they behave in it. And the words being used by Donald Trump to demonize people undoubtedly have served to fan the flames of fear - and increase the likelihood of more violence. Words can have a deep, unconscious impact on people.


In spite of the fact that authoritarian, hierarchical views are currently dominant, Democrats have a golden opportunity to create a new, more powerful moral narrative (based on their powerful unconscious value of empathy) to actually start bringing people together. But people who create strategy for Democrats are failing miserably in addressing this need. Instead, they remain focused only on short term electoral and  political gains. So while Democrats could very well see some electoral gains in November, they will continue to lose in a much more important arena - the battle for the moral identity of our nation.


There is growing distrust of our political system, political parties, and our government - and Democrats bear much of the responsibility for this breakdown of trust. Why? Because the Republican Party has ensconced itself in a known and well-researched moral belief system (evoked by all their issues and positions) that consistently reaches people at an emotional, unconscious, and influential level. Meanwhile, Democrats continue to jump from issue to issue and rely on an outdated view of reason (as they have for decades) that tacitly ignores the best science (cognitive and psychological) - and fails to connect with the largely unconscious, emotional values that could help build connections and actually bring people together


These ideas and strategies are nothing new. I (and many others) have been communicating and educating about the science for years. Even this past April, I posted a blog which provided a set of better strategies based on the science of thought. If you need more background information on the science (cognitive/psychology), I strongly suggest going to the "Resources" tab on my website. Since then, there have been many other observations and sage advice consistent with the science from some unexpected places. And while they don't speak to the science, they are writing from having the sense that something important is missing. Here are some of the most poignant:


"The Democratic Party went AWOL in 2016 - and is still missing" (Cas Mudde, The Guardian, 9/20/18)

"In a July 2017 Washington Post-ABC News poll a majority of Americans (52%) said the Democratic party “just stands against Trump”, while just a minority (37%) believed the party “stands for something”. I seriously doubt these numbers will have changed much since then. As Democratic leaders limit their interventions to anti-Russia and anti-Trump platitudes, they might rally their partisan core, but they lose the bigger base – including millennials. Now, before you start shouting “fake news” or “uninformed voters”, do you really know what the Democratic party stands for? I don’t."


Mudde goes on to to outline three necessary reforms Democrats ought to focus on. First, non-partisan election protections and fair redistricting reforms. Secondly, and in the same vein, non-partisan and aggressive campaign finance reform. Finally, reforms to create a more just system of justice. Of course, these reforms have a common foundation in the progressive value of empathy - caring for others in a democracy, by protecting and powering everyone through a government of, by, and for the people. In this context, it is not the three issues that are important - it's the unifying ideas of democracy based on empathy that can bring people together around a positive vision. The issues are secondary, and are only meaningful to people's lives in the context of empathy. 


"The Materialist Party: Democrats Fail to Take on Trumpism" (David Brooks, The New York Times, 10/22/18)

"In normal times, there’s good reason to run on this issue (healthcare). Millions of families are plagued by inadequate insurance coverage...But the Democratic campaign is inadequate to the current moment. It offers no counternarrative to Trump, little moral case against his behavior, no unifying argument against ethnic nationalism. In politics you can’t beat something with nothing. Democrats missed the Trumpian upsurge because while society was dividing into cultural tribes, they spent 2008 through 2016 focusing on health care. Now that the upsurge has happened, they are still pinioned to health care. Worse, the Democratic strategy simply revives the old 1980-2008 playbook. It’s Democratic spending promises versus Republican tax cuts. This familiar, orthodox argument pushes left and right back into their normal categories. It destroys any possibility of a realignment."


Brooks really grasps the urgency and moral necessity of a better, more unifying strategy on the part of Democrats. What is astounding is that this profound insight into Democratic strategy comes from an historically conservative observer. More profound still is that Democratic strategists are either failing or ignoring to heed these insights.


"Domestic Terrorism, Plain and Simple" (Thomas Mockaitis, PhD, Professor of History, DePaul University, International Security Blog 10/26/18)

"Research on far-right extremist groups has taken me to some very dark places on the web where I have found a disturbing pattern. Extremists groups echo the president’s vitriolic rhetoric, and his vituperative tweets reinforce their hate-filled ideology. This toxic synergy was bound to inspire terrorism sooner or later. Bigotry has moved from the periphery to the center of political discourse.

In the divisive environment he helped create, the president’s insistence that he does not condone violence against those he excoriates rings hollow. He sounds rather like King Henry II denying that he wanted Archbishop Thomas Becket murdered when he yelled in a drunken rage, “Will no one rid me of this insolent priest?”

Words have tremendous power for good and ill. A leader must choose them wisely. Demonize your political opponents long enough and someone will try to kill them. Treat them with the same respect you desire, and political discourse becomes civil."


Dr. Mockaitis' academic research has led him to important insights - and his correlating observations regarding language are critically important.  They echo the analysis published by Dr. George Lakoff and Gil Duran in June of this year, warning that Trump has "turned words into weapons." Any good cognitive scientist or psychologist will know that the continued application of those "weaponized words" could lead to the violence we have seen play out over the last 72 hours.


As I and others have observed for years, the Democratic strategy and approach might be good enough to get a few electoral wins in the short term. But our nation and society are in moral crisis. A great deal more is necessary to unite us in eliminating fear and hate than currently exists in Democratic and progressive discourse. The standard polling and focus group-driven, issue-by-issue positions based on an outdated view of reason are no longer sufficient to the task. 


Fortunately, we know what will be effective to counter ideology based on authoritarian and hierarchical values so dominant today. Decades of research and science are able to inform how to evoke a powerful, positive, hopeful worldview based on values of empathy, love, and caring for others. Moving forward, this cognitive strategy needs to be at the center of everything progressives and Democrats do and say. The very moral basis of our nation and world depend on it.