Another year, another good election cycle in the bag for Democrats, and more lessons to be learned from this often ugly era of American politics.
What follows are several takeaways I’ve been noodling on since the dust settled from the midterms. It’s neither a particularly precise list nor an exhaustive examination of the listed. Rather it’s intended to be a jumping off point for reflection, conversation, and perhaps other revelations down the road.
Please, as always, feel free to offer your thoughts below. It’s still a work in progress, and I will be interested to hear what other think.
1. Time to forget the old paradigms
For the past decade at least, many grassroots Democrats have operated under the belief that there are more of us than them, and if we just turn out the base, everything will fall in line. What’s become inordinately clear in the past two cycles is that ticket splitters matter, and they are indeed difference makers in the hardest-fought battleground elections, such as the reelection of Sen. Raphael Warnock in Georgia.
That means that for the foreseeable future, Democrats need to mobilize base voters while also persuading independents, swing voters, and pro-democracy Republicans that we are the only sane choice in many races and they should feel good about voting for Democrats.
2. Democrats are undoubtedly on the winning side of social issues now
Grassroots activists have rightfully groused for years that Washington Democrats should drop the Clinton-era triangulation and press their advantage on reproductive freedom, LGBTQ rights, and gun reforms.
This cycle proved that point of view undeniably true. The issue of abortion singlehandedly upended the midterm landscape and gave Democrats an opening. Without it, Republicans may very well have succeeded in making 2022 a referendum on President Joe Biden’s handling of the economy.
Instead, abortion served as a constant reminder of how extreme the GOP is and their overarching vision for the country under their control. But that didn’t happen on its own. Democrats in battleground states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania drove that message home in ads, stump speeches, debates, and more.
Moving forward, Democrats need to remember that social issues alone may not win them elections, but they certainly offer an opening with suburban voters—particularly female suburban voters—and younger voters.
3. Democrats must knock down the fallacy that Republicans are better on the economy
For the last several decades, Republican presidents have run the country into the ground while ballooning the deficit and Democratic presidents have been tasked with triaging the wreckage and righting the ship.
Yet somehow, American majorities routinely say they trust Republicans over Democrats to handle the economy. We must find a way to cut into the GOP’s lead on that issue, and the facts are on our side.
No, we’re not going to win over Trump’s cultists, but we must give suburban voters a reason to stick with Democrats regardless of whether Republicans ever manage to run sane candidates again.
At the same time, voters under 40 seem inclined to judge the economy and their quality of life by much more than just the stock market and their 401(k). They broadly seem to place more value on community, equality, access to health care, more time off, and less materialistic concerns. In short, younger generations would rather work to live than live to work.
So if we want younger generations to continue backing Democrats at high rates, we need to think more broadly about an economic appeal to them than just “Democrats create jobs, boost the stock market, and shrink the national debt/deficit.”
4. Saving democracy is the work of a generation
When Trump first came on the scene and then stunned the world with his 2016 win, most Democrats along with many independents and even some Republicans viewed him as a one-time glitch. If we could just survive four years, kick him out of office, and restore some measure of sanity, then we could all get back to our lives.
What’s crystal clear now is that there’s no going back. The country is in the process of transformational change, and we must establish new norms and new paradigms. We aren’t just saving our democracy, we’re reforming it—hopefully pushing it forward to that more perfect union.
The outcome isn’t entirely knowable or assured, but what we are embarking on is the work of a generation, not a one-off or a fluke. So we have to find sustainable ways of continuing to contribute to process of transformation over the long haul rather than approaching it in an all-consuming fashion. Safeguarding democracy for the next generation must be woven into the everyday fabric of our lives going forward.
5. We are all part of the solution
Whether we participate by organizing, donating, running, or simply talking to friends and family, we all need to be in the fight. The everyday conversations we have with people about politics, about what’s important to us, and about the future we hope to create are integral to this project. The more we democratize the solution, the better.
I would also encourage everyone to devote more energy to raising up the work of organizers, politicians, journalists, and others they admire. It’s easy to get stuck in the rut of combatting the people we disagree with and, yes, that can bear fruit. But we should be giving at least equal time to elevating the voices of people who inspire us.
Finally, every election cycle for the foreseeable future will have outsized implications for the direction of the country. Still, we have to get past the point of lighting our hair on fire every cycle. Our dedication to the transformational project we are undertaking simply has to become part of our DNA, rather than a catastrophic disruption every cycle.