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Time for Democrats to Stand Up for “The Democrats”
Someone needs to tell Gavin Newsom that there's no such thing as “The Democratic Party” when it comes to messaging and organizing — just individuals and groups with a responsibility to actually do it.
In a widely circulated interview this week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom asked: “Where the hell are we as a party, to capture the narrative, to capture the imagination of the American people?”
The whole two-minute clip is worth a watch:
Newsom’s question may be right, but his stunning inability to answer it shows how Democrats have gone wrong.
Polling shows that Newsom is one of the 25 most famous Democrats in the entire country. But instead of taking responsibility for his part of the successes and failures of “The Democratic Party”, Newsom is incredulously abstract:
“Well, we have a party. There is something called ‘The Democratic Party’. I’ve read about it. And I've met a few of these people over the years… It’s time to organize, guys.”
Ah yes, that mysterious entity in the sky known to all as “The Democratic Party”. Time for The Democratic Party, Inc. — which must be out there somewhere (Newsom has read about it!) — to get its act together, organize, and save the country from the ravages of the Trumpified GOP.
But Newsom has fallen prey to what we like to call “The Democrats” Fallacy.
You hear a lot about “The Democrats” — there’s a never ending back-and-forth about the need for “The Democrats” to just message better, recruit better candidates, etc.
In the real world, Democrats are a loose coalition of institutions (committees, think tanks, media outlets, organizing and advocacy groups, etc.) and individuals (politicians, activists, voters, etc.). There is no centralized decision-making apparatus to define priorities, make tradeoffs, and allocate resources. This reality means Democrats are simply whoever steps up and does the work of organizing and investing — not a straw man punching bag who can be invoked whenever “The Democrats” just need to suddenly wield total message discipline.
Another iconic San Franciscan with phenomenal hair (well, facial hair) has the proper answer to Newson’s question:
“Somebody needs to do something — it’s just incredibly pathetic that it has to be us.” - Jerry Garcia
Someone should let Governor Newsom in on this little secret. Too many individual leaders and groups within the Democratic coalition spend time bashing “The Democrats” (which, as an impossible entity to control, will never be able to respond). And they spend far too little time owning up to the self-evident fact that Newsom and his colleagues (and all of us who want to see Democrats win) are the party and its messengers — as incredibly pathetic as that may seem.
(Almost) Everyone’s Job is to Say Democrats are in Disarray
This is where the real issue with the Democratic message arises.
Republicans and their propagandists will always yell “Democrats in disarray!” We could achieve utopia and Fox News would still run elder-scaring horror segments. It’s what Republicans do — and it’s what they’re good at. If Democrats are looking for credit, they can never expect to get any from the right.
Don’t expect Democrats to get credit from the far-left either (even if liberal utopia is achieved). There’s a thriving marketplace on the far-left where pejoratives like “Corporate Democrat” reap buckets of clicks and cash. Many far-left leaders criticize the Democrats in much the same way they do the GOP.
In the absence of reliable messengers on the right and far-left, the responsibility falls to mainstream Democrats to tout the party’s accomplishments and make sure Americans know about them. They can’t outsource the job of promoting their achievements to that nonexistent, abstract thing they call “The Democratic Party”. They must take up the mantle as the party’s de facto messengers.
Democrats are “The Democratic Party” Personified
When Governor Newsom rags on “The Democratic Party” and its inadequacies, he’s really just blaming himself and his teammates. If Newsom and other leaders are waiting for the party itself to come out and “capture the imagination of the American people,” they shouldn’t hold their breath.
Republicans continue shouting that Democrats in disarray. They are aided by both the far-left and the prominent mainstream Democrats who explicitly echo that critique.
Think about it: Gavin Newsom is the governor of the largest state in the country (which has the world’s fifth largest economy). This prominent Democrat steps in front of the cameras and regurgitates a media narrative that does nothing but boost the most unproductive form of disarray: one that cannot be addressed in the real world.
That’s no way to win!
Who Defines Democrats?
To understand how “The Democratic Party” can be defined in part by strong leaders and avoid being hijacked there is always one place to return: South Carolina.
At a recent South Carolina Democratic Party event, Whip Jim Clyburn was aided in his longtime stewardship of the party (which we’ve celebrated before) by Vice President Kamala Harris. In stark contrast with Gavin Newsom, they were effusive and fired up about the Democrats’ achievements and offered a compelling call-to-action fit for the moment.
Here’s The State with a breakdown of Harris’ speech:
“Harris’ 22-minute speech, coming four days before the S.C. primaries, touched on issues ranging from broadband investment to gun violence and inflation. The vice president’s main message of the night was clear: Maintain a Democratic majority by voting.
The speech touted Cabinet successes, such as Biden’s diversity promise — which Harris said Biden made right here in South Carolina. She referenced South Carolina federal Judge Michelle Childs, who was on the U.S. Supreme Court short list and could soon be confirmed for an influential D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals seat, and incoming Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, while advocating for equality and diversity.”
We need ambassadors to stand up for the Democrats — from Whip Clyburn and Vice President Harris down to readers of this newsletter. It’s our job as political practitioners and junkies who want to see the Democrats win to give the party a better standing and provide context so people can understand politics better (“Bummed at Biden for not passing x? Here’s where we are, here’s how the Senate works, and here’s why we must to everything we can to prevent a Republican majority.”)
Mainstream Democrats must own the party’s message. There’s no use in giving the last word to the Republicans and the far-left.
It’s time to take a page out of the Jerry Garcia playbook: someone really does need to do something — even if it is pathetic that it has to be us.