The Messaging Woes of the Democratic Party

By Dhruv S. Kannan

The year was 2016. Having beat back Bernie Sanders, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was the Democratic Party’s nominee for president in 2016, assuaging the Washington establishment’s fears of another Dukakis-like policy wonk. The establishment reasoned that the popularity of Obama-era policy combined with a seemingly unelectable opponent. 

This reasoning held true until the evening of September 9th, 2016, when Clinton described Trump’s body of support as a “basket of deplorables”. 

In many ways, this was Clinton’s tank photo. The GOP’s PR machine successfully painted her as an out-of-touch, divisive figure intent on enriching the coastal elite at the expense of the so-called backbone of America: blue-collar workers. This wasn’t helped by the fact that she decided to eschew campaigning in low-income areas in favor of more wealthy areas. Combined with an entirely avoidable email scandal (where Clinton used a private server to send official email communications), Donald Trump defied Clinton’s 71.4% chance of victory and clinched the presidency.

To many conservatives, Trump’s presidency was ideal. Gas prices were down, food was cheap, and foreign despots cowered before the revitalized America. Gone was the era of Obama-era spending, tan suits, and perceived pandering to minorities. 

Which was why the immense and uncompromising backlash by the left caught the GOP by surprise. In a sudden break from the past, the Democrats not only criticized Trump’s policies but also cast aspersions on his ability to govern, labeling him senile. While this was present in the first year of his presidency, attacks began to ramp up only after the 2018 midterm elections, which saw the election of several far-left candidates (collectively known as “The Squad”). They helped contribute to the Democratic messaging strategy of moral absolutism, where voting Democrat was portrayed as the 

This predictably alienated swing voters and gave the President moral high ground, which he capitalized upon, labeling the Democrats as stubborn extremists determined to derail his administration and win cheap political points at any cost. This was massively effective, with public support for the Democrats eroding significantly between 2018 and 2020.

The 2020 presidential election, while an acrimonious mud-slinging contest similar to many other elections, was unparalleled in its assault on the democratic foundations of the country. The President’s amplification of the “Big Lie” and orchestration of acoup d’etat on January 6, 2021 single-handedly lent credence to the Democratic Party’s absolutist rhetoric, swinging voters away from an increasingly out-of-touch and extreme right. 

Currently, the Biden administration continues to tap into said rhetoric, with an inflammatory speech in Pittsburgh being the most notable example. While independents (and more moderate Republicans) may have been swayed after the insurrection on January 6th, the far right continue to view this as the diatribe of an illegitimate President. Unless President Biden can find a balance between bowing to the far right and declaring them persona non grata, the Founders’ vision of “a more perfect Union” will be lost to us forever. If he will find one, though, remains to be seen.

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