Democrats have alienated voters they need most

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Regardless of the outcome of this week‘s midterm elections — whether it’s a red wave or a red ripple — one thing is already clear: Democrats ran a pitifully poor campaign. They face a Republican party that lacks a platform, an obviously flawed slate of candidates, and an obviously unfit leader. Democrats should expect landslide victories. As things stand, their best hope is to limit their losses.

Not only did they fail to connect with the persuasive core of the electorate, they didn’t really try. The party has settled on a doomsday, fundamentalist narrative that delights its true believers and repulses the ordinary voter.

President Joe Biden’s most important task was to detach his party from this alienating conception of the country’s challenges. Instead, he became its main spokesperson. It compounded the party’s struggles by merging the president’s flaws as a politician with an implausibly alarmist worldview. His weak and meandering speech last week summed it up: Vote for Democrats – not for better government but to save democracy.

I agree with Biden that American democracy is being tested. Donald Trump is an alarming aberration, and Republican politicians have dishonored themselves by allowing him to capture their party. But I also see Trump as a symptom of what ails America more than a cause, and I blame Democrats as much as Republicans for allowing him.

Democrats’ most obvious failure this year has been to sideline, ignore or simply deny the issues that polls have shown have repeatedly been the most important voters. The economy consistently tops the list. Inflation attacks living standards in the most visible way: voters see it every time they buy groceries, put gas in the car or pay their rent.

Still, according to the president, the economy is “strong as hell”. Specifically, how can people complain about rising prices – or crime, or border security, or their children’s schools – when democracy itself is at stake?

This democratic drift towards catastrophism is not limited to the imminent threat of a dictatorship. The existential threat of climate change must also be addressed. If you ask about the costs and benefits of reducing carbon emissions, let alone the possibilities for adaptation, you are a climate denier. A wholesale transformation of the economy is needed. Then there is the issue of racial justice. American society has been systematically broken since the founding of the country. It must be rebuilt from scratch.

There is room for lively debate on all these issues. Yet each of these positions is hysterical. It is remarkable that any dominant political party – in America of all places – should align themselves with them and expect to command a controlling majority.

For the moment, however, set aside the rights and wrongs of each US indictment. Instead, notice the central contradiction.

How can a party that frames the issues in such fundamentalist terms plausibly argue for democracy, let alone claim to be its saviour? According to the Democrats’ own analysis, democracy itself is an existential threat. This is the country that elected Trump in 2016 and looks set to put semi-fascist mega-MAGAs back in charge of Congress. Polls indicate that Trump could beat Biden in 2024. Democrats know that too few Americans care enough about climate change or racial justice to let those issues drive their votes.

In other words, when Democrats look at the wavering middle of the electorate, they see ignorance and bigotry. And their remedy for that is…democracy?

These uninformed scorned voters may not know much, but they’re probably wondering if it adds up. The Democrats’ political tactics cast further doubt, because Republicans are right when they accuse Democrats of hypocrisy about Democratic principles.

Democrats uphold those standards when it suits them and subvert them when they don’t. According to the Democrats, the elections are not always on the level. (Sometimes they’re just stolen.) A Republican administration faces not just opposition, but #Resistance. A conservative Supreme Court may need to be reconstituted. A broken Senate allows the minority party too much control, so the filibuster should go away (this one could be reviewed this week). A president is within his rights to ignore Congress and spend hundreds of billions on what he deems to be a good cause, like canceling student debt.

Again and again, the norms of the American constitutional order come between the Democrats and what they think is necessary to save the country. When this happens, they continue regardless. Thus, the party’s commitment to democracy – both its purpose and its processes – is exposed as a mere expedient. The idea that democracy is on the ballot has recently been all the party talk with voters. If this fails to influence the middle of the electorate, I will not be surprised.

Ultimately, Democrats face a choice: They can be Democrats or Fundamentalists, but not both. The minimum requirement for a party claiming to defend democracy is a willingness to listen to voters – and fundamentalists don’t listen.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Americans care about democracy, but not enough to save it: Julianna Goldman

• Five reasons abortion may not work for Democrats: Ramesh Ponnuru

• Destroying American democracy is a bipartisan effort: Niall Ferguson

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editorial board member covering the economy. Previously, he was associate editor of The Economist and chief Washington commentator for the Financial Times.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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