“The top three issues this year are health care, health care and health care,” J.B. Poersch, of the Democratic-aligned Senate Majority PAC, told CNN.
In normal times, there’s good reason to run on this issue. Millions of families are plagued by inadequate insurance coverage. If you’re trying to win a swing voter in Arizona, it’s a bread-and-butter issue that has appeal.
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.
We’ve learned a few things about the Democratic Party. First, it’s still fundamentally a materialist party. The Trumpian challenge is primarily a moral and cultural challenge. But the Democrats are mostly comfortable talking about how to use federal spending to extend benefits. Some Democrats want to spend a lot more (Medicare for all, free college education), and some want to spend less, but their basic instinct is that national problems can be addressed with more federal money.
Second, we’ve learned that when Democrats do raise a moral argument, it tends to be of the social justice warrior variety. The core argument in this mode is that the oppressive structures of society marginalize women, minorities and members of the LGBTQ communities.
It turns out that if your basic logic is that distinct identity groups are under threat from an oppressive society, it’s very hard to then turn around and defend that society from authoritarian attack, or to articulate any notion of what even unites that society. It’s a messaging vulnerability that Democrats have imposed upon themselves.
Democrats still seem likely to win the House, because Trump is so effective at driving away voters. But Democrats are blowing the political opportunity of a lifetime. They seem to be getting little traction in red states and now may end up losing ground in the Senate.
It has now become evident that Republicans are better at politicizing cultural issues and Democrats are better at offering economic benefits to those who are struggling. If you think voting behavior is primarily motivated by material appeals, the Democratic strategy is fine. But if you think it’s motivated by cultural identity, a desire for respect, a sense of what’s right, loyalty to a common story, the Democratic strategy leaves a lot to be desired.
These days, culture is more important than economics.
Writes for The New York Times.