Opinion: The Materialist Party

Donald Trump and the other populists around the world have transformed politics in three gigantic ways. First, they told a different narrative. Their central story is that the good, decent people of the heartland are being threatened by immigrants, foreigners and other outsiders while corrupt elites do nothing.

Second, Trump and the other populists have overturned the traditional moral standards for how leaders are supposed to behave. He’s challenged basic norms of honesty, decency, compassion and moral conduct. He unabashedly exploits rifts in American society.

Third, they have ushered in a new conversation. In the 20th century the big debate was big government versus small government. Now, as many have noticed, the core debate is open versus closed. Do you favor basic openness, diversity and pluralism, or do you favor closed ethnic nationalism?

Along the way Trump has challenged America’s basic identity as a nation of immigrants. He’s challenged the American-led postwar international order.

In short, Trump and the other populists have transformed the GOP and thrown down a cultural, moral and ideological gauntlet.

This election is the Democrats’ first opportunity to push back against a thoroughly Trumpified Republican Party. It is a remarkable opportunity to realign the electorate, since polls continually show the percentage of the country that buys Trump’s ethnic nationalism is in the low 40s.

So how, at this crucial moment in history, have the Democrats responded?

“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.

The Wesleyan Media Project recently surveyed the political landscape and came out with a report called “2018: The Health Care Election.” It found that a majority of recent pro-Democratic political ads featured health care. Sixty-one percent of recent pro-Democratic ads in U.S. House races have been on health care.

Democratic candidates like Sen. Claire McCaskill are hammering home the same point in debates. Republicans tried to take away coverage for pre-existing conditions.

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. 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.

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. Instead of drawing disaffected voters away from the GOP, they seem to be pushing Republicans back to Trump.

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.

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