Opinion: A novel way for Democrats to fight the culture wars in the 2022 elections
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The Washington Post – March 7, 2022
By Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent
As they face the possibility of a midterm election calamity, Democrats are engaged in a debate about whether to focus their message on “kitchen-table issues” to win independent voters, or to make a strong attack on Republican culture-war demagoguery, which could energize their own voters to turn out.
The group’s core argument is that Republicans have successfully created a mind-set of scarcity and status threat among voters, which makes the coalition that elected Joe Biden prone to fracturing. By keeping up a drumbeat that things are terrible with insufficient Democratic pushback, Republicans have made such divisive appeals more potent.
Democrats needs to challenge this frontally and aggressively, the group concludes from its research, which includes extensive polling, focus-grouping and message-testing.
Two key conclusions help explain this. First, voters are largely unaware of the Biden administration’s successes, such as the surprisingly robust economic recovery and the well-executed vaccine rollout.
Second, voters tend not to blame Republicans for trying to hold back the recovery by opposing federal economic rescue efforts and sabotaging measures to fight the pandemic, or for dividing the country with fraught culture-war appeals.
Especially on the jobs front, Republicans really have enjoyed a propagandistic triumph. President Biden’s first year in office saw the creation of over 6 million jobs, more than any other year in American history. Yet Americans are more likely to think jobs have been lost in the past year than gained.
This messaging tries to rectify that. The first element emphasizes the fact that Democrats are doing some big things on the pandemic and the economy, and making progress on both.
The second element ties in with Republican extremism. But it doesn’t merely highlight that extremism in a vacuum. Instead, the goal is to contrast Republican anti-vax, anti-democracy mania — and efforts to divide voters along racial lines with attacks on things such as critical race theory — with constructive Democratic efforts to address big and complex problems.
“We need to lean into the concrete, positive accomplishments that Biden and Democrats have done,” Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, a co-founder of Way to Win, told us. Ancona noted that tying GOP pro-insurrectionism to anti-mask and anti-vax sentiment both makes GOP extremism matter to voters and creates a sharp contrast with those Democratic accomplishments.
“Every story has a hero and a villain,” Ancona said. “You have to paint Republicans as the villain. Connecting the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol with how extreme they are on covid is a powerful combination.”
And who is the hero of the story? The group recommends Democrats explicitly name the coalition that beat Trump in 2020 — by saying, for example, that White, Black, Latino and Asian voters came together against him, and should do so again in 2022.
The idea here is to defuse culture-war attacks designed to wedge into Democrats along racial lines by highlighting the fact that they came together against a common foe in the past and can do so again.
“The voter is the hero of the story,” Ancona told us, suggesting messaging along these lines: “We all came together across all our differences before. We can do it again.” After all, everyone says they hate our current divisive politics; this tells them whom to blame, and how to overcome it.
What’s more, one can legitimately ask whether any message Democrats come up with right now will make much of a difference. The most important factors are likely to be the state of the pandemic and the state of the economy, perhaps with a foreign crisis or two thrown in. If we get another covid-19 wave and inflation doesn’t ease, almost nothing Democrats can do will forestall defeat.