Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers returned to training camp in 1961 in a grim mood, having lost the previous season’s championship game. Lombardi kicked off their first team meeting with a strange opening statement.
“Gentlemen,” he said, holding a pigskin in his right hand, “This is a football.” What followed was a lengthy introduction the rules of the game, delivered to some of its most elite and experienced players. That speech set the tone for the rest of camp and the season, an emphasis on the fundamentals of their profession. The team went 13-1 that season and won the championship.
The Great Trump Freakout has fed a spike in interest from voters who regarded themselves as politically engaged, but never really understood the fundamentals of our system. It might be helpful to review some basics.
Never lose sight of the bedrock of success in American politics: Get more of your voters to the polls than your opponent does. You do that through appeals to fear and hope, in that order. Dear fellow allies in the Resistance, this is a football.
There’s been much hand-wringing in anti-Trump circles over the need to reach Trump voters. That’s not how this works, at least not exactly. Beating back the StormTrumpers in the next three elections is not primarily about changing their minds on any topic, not even about their vote for Trump. Winning depends on offering something voters want while animating the enormous army of disillusioned voters who didn’t care enough to show up last time. You won’t win by persuading committed Trumpers. You’ll win by defeating them.
It is a common misconception, rooted an idealized understanding of US civics, that you win an election by persuading voters with appeals to logic, patriotism, and enlightened self-interest. That has never been a reality in the US. No one wins elections in America by making rational arguments from facts that change the minds of a previously hostile or skeptical electorate. Winners in American elections persuade their voters to vote and dissuade their opponent’s voters from doing the same.
Persuasion fails. Motivation wins.
Why does persuasion play such a miniscule role in our politics? The psychology of decision-making offers some explanations. More important however, are some unique qualities of our system that depress turnout. So few Americans vote that persuasion amounts to a costly waste of resources. Winning depends on finding that combination of incentive and fear that will motivate your base to action and depress the enthusiasm of your opponents.
Under the best of conditions persuasion is challenging and rarely works. Pause for a moment and try to remember a time when a rational, fact-based argument from a stranger changed your mind on a deeply held issue. Old enlightenment-era concepts about rationality are deeply flawed. We are not rational creatures. Absent intense training running against our instincts, we do not form our opinions based on a cold assessment of available facts.
Persuasion can work within circles of tribal loyalty. When we receive accurate, dissonant information from a distrusted source, our first instinct is not to reassess our beliefs, but to grow angry and frightened. At an emotional level, data that challenges our model of reality is received as a threat. The more secure someone feels, the more open they are to dissonant ideas.
However, even inside circles of relative comfort, authority tends to carry more weight than rational evidence. Where there is a recognized, trusted authority figure with a clear opinion, arguments against that opinion will carry little weight among those who respect that figure. Decision-making based on the rational evaluation of evidence is not natural or normal for human beings. We can train our brains to operate this way, but it forever runs against our wiring. Even under the most favorable conditions, fact-based persuasion is rarer and more difficult than we would like to believe.
Americans Don’t Vote
Difficult as persuasion is, we might be pressed to attempt it if more Americans voted. Since our turnout levels are among the lowest of any stable democracy, persuasion of opponents is seldom necessary.
A look at turnout statistics for Presidential elections tells a stark tale that gets worse as you dig deeper. While barely over half of Americans participate in Presidential elections, the number is closer to 30-40% for off-year Congressional elections. Good turnout for a primary would be in the 20’s. In the local elections that set the frame for the rest of our system, participation is regularly less than 10%.
When you get a chance to look at precinct level statistics you notice something interesting. While roughly half of eligible Americans participate in Presidential elections, they aren’t consistently the same voters. Mobility, mortality, apathy, and low levels of registration and participation mean that somewhere between a third and half of the Pennsylvania voters who turn out in 2020 won’t have voted there in 2016. The percentage of the overall electorate showing up in two consecutive Presidential elections can run at barely 1/3. Overlap in off-year elections might be less than 1/5. In states regularly won by only 5-8 point margins, that means turnout is everything and there’s little need for outreach to opponents. Only about 1% of Americans participate consistently in politics.
Several reasons explain America’s remarkably low voter engagement. First, our winner-take-all elections curtail choice. In a more authentically democratic system of this size, providing credible representation would probably require 20 or more political parties competing to build coalitions. With only two, voting in general elections becomes a symbolic exercise.
Other factors further depress interest. Ours is a system of legalized bribery, in which no one can dream of running for powerful offices without the approval of wealthy patrons. Few rules bar the wealthy from buying political outcomes. What rules exist are mostly unenforceable. For ordinary people, political competition means deciding which wealthy individuals and corporations best align with their interests and allying with them. In this system, rarely if ever will a candidate represent the interests of the overwhelming bulk of lower income voters.
Our system has always been hostile to democratic engagement. Our founders had no interest in universal suffrage. We hold our most important elections on a work day. We make registration unreasonably burdensome (and becoming more so). Our most powerful legislative body, the Senate, is specifically anti-representative, starkly devaluing the voting influence of Americans in big cities and large states. Making matters worse, both the Senate and the House have evolved arcane rules to suppress legislation lacking the support of leadership. The bulk of the candidate selection process happens in high-touch, in-person settings behind the scenes, long before even a primary occurs. The overwhelming bulk of those who know about these processes and have the resources to participate in them are either from the affluent classes, or are just noisy cranks with too much time on their hands. By the time ordinary working people see a name on a ballot, most potential political outcomes have already been sliced away.
How Do You Drive Turnout: Fear and Hope.
In a climate like this, how do you generate turnout? Two rhetorical tools are the most reliable methods to move people to action: fear and hope. Fear is more powerful than hope, but it is a toxic fuel to be used with care. Winning on purified, high-octane fear can create a climate in which governing is impossible. Temper the fear with a settling dose of hope, and you have the energy to get people off their sofas and the practical benchmarks you’ll need to justify compromises while in office.
What should Democrats do in the next 3 elections? First, offer some hope. Not nuanced, couched, “maybe we can do it” hope, but energetic promises of things that would impact voters’ lives. Identify what your voters most need and offer it to them. For Democrats, that means backing something like the Sanders agenda without reservation, and without counting the cost. Realism helps, but only around the margins. Don’t let realism stand in the way of vision. Ever. Republicans never do.
In her post-election book, Clinton mocked Bernie Sanders for offering “Magic Abs” and promising every American a pony. She lost the General Election to man who made utterly contradictory pony promises to each audience he faced, sometimes making a promise and taking it back again across just a few paragraphs of a rambling speech. Ponies win. Accountants lose.
No one in the Democratic Party should have the slightest qualm about the cost of potential liberal programs. Sanders’ pie-in-the-sky universal free college plan would, by some estimates, have cost a staggering $75bn a year. In the real world, Republicans actually passed a tax cut requiring the government to borrow roughly $200bn a year and give almost all of it to corporations and our wealthiest families. Giving everyone a gift-wrapped pony would have been far cheaper than voting for Trump.
Voters do not care about government debt or fiscal responsibility. They never have. Truth be told, voters don’t care about taxes either. Give them something they want they’ll vote for it. What made the ACA ultimately so unpopular was its meagre scope and limited impact. If Democrats had raised everyone’s taxes 20% and provided real, universal health care for everyone, a year later everyone in both parties would have found themselves defending it.
And as for the thin slice of conservative voters Clinton won in 2016, their potential concerns about the most liberal plans should be ignored. They didn’t change the outcome in ’16, and losing them in ’18, ’20, and ’22 won’t matter. To win, Democrats need to put down the calculator and offer people something they want.
While building meaningful, concrete proposals that will improve voters’ lives, identify what’s frightening about your opponents and describe it in lurid terms. In that regard, Trump is a gift. No US politicians have ever enjoyed such dumb, evil, rancid opponents. It took creativity to paint John McCain or Mitt Romney as scary figures. It will not be difficult to create a climate across most of the country in which Trump voters will feel nervous making any public assertion of support. Hound Trump supporters relentlessly, until they are isolated, unnerved, and demoralized. The worst mistake Clinton made in ’16 was trying to be pragmatic with her promises. Her second worst mistake was hedging her “deplorables” comment. Democrats should have put that on a bumper sticker. That’s what Republicans would do, because it wins.
Republicans often mock Democrats for “buying” votes with favors, but Republicans are the modern masters of bribery and fear. Their fear pitch is basically this – Vote for us, or brown people will rampage through your neighborhood and take all your stuff. Their bribery pitch is just as sick – Vote for us and we’ll strip the republic down to bare pipes and wires, but we’ll give you a small cut of the loot. It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing. And it’s winning.
About Those Racists
What about the racism and sexism of white working class voters? Committed bigots are lost to you. The good news is that they’re a smaller core than they might appear. People are motivated (not persuaded – pleased don’t lose sight of the difference) by a hierarchy of interests. White voters who see white supremacy as their chief concern above all others are rare. White voters who see the “culture war” and the protection of white supremacy as their second or third highest concern are horrifyingly common at all levels of society, from Wall Street to West Virginia and beyond. If no one offers them anything that might address their top concerns, perhaps health care, access to education, or other economic issues, but there is a candidate who centered his entire campaign on their hysterical fear of brown people, well you know what comes next. This is not about changing their minds or influencing their values, but offering something that appeals to their highest priorities.
Lots of voters who aren’t bothered by racism also aren’t particularly invested in it. Offer them something they want and many of them will choose it over a racist agenda.
You Don’t Need Trump Voters to Win
Keep in mind that it isn’t necessary to win the vote of a single 2016 Trump supporter to win future elections. The Obama/Trump voter is a unicorn. They did not influence the outcome of the last election any more than Romney/Clinton voters did. Trump won a slightly smaller percentage of the white vote than Romney. He won fewer votes than Romney overall in Wisconsin while carrying that state.
What tipped the 2016 election was the disillusionment and disengagement of millions of Americans in a demographic bloc that voted for Barack Obama in 2008, when he won the entire Great Lakes region including Indiana. Pause for a moment to digest that crucial fact. In 2008, a black candidate carried North Alabamastan, the home of Mike Pence. What was different about ’08 and ’12? We quickly forgot, but Barack Obama was the Bernie Sanders of the ’08 election. Clinton in ’08 complained relentlessly about Obama’s unrealistic and extreme progressive promises. He was perceived on both sides as the most solidly leftist candidate in our history. While Obama carried Indiana, the centrist Democrat running for Governor lost by 18 points. By 2012, it was clear that Obama would govern from a position slightly to the right of Nixon. All across the country, support for Democrats steadily faded.
By ’16, Obama’s ’08 voting bloc had melted away, including almost 2 million black voters who dropped out of the electorate between ’12 and ’16. The 2016 Election was decided less by white racism then by alienated Democratic voters who felt no reason to care.
And though you won’t reach white working class Trump voters with rational persuasion, you might reach a slice of them by offering tangible benefits. Not welfare programs, but universal programs that benefit everyone, like taxpayer-funded single payer healthcare, universal free college tuition and a steep hike in the minimum wage. They won’t be inspired by the fear part of the pitch, but many may respond to hope. Remember that winning voters is not the only part of the equation. You’re also looking to depress the interest of your opponents. Create the right climate and the few voters willing to cross the aisle might turn out while large numbers of Trump supporters just give up. And you’ll see a wave of new voters who previously drifted away come streaming back. Obama’s ’08 coalition is still out there, ignored and latent.
Abandon the Center – Stop Trying to Win My Vote
Here’s the rub – people like me are going to oppose these extreme liberal plans. I’m not suggesting this agenda because I think it offers our best potential future. I’m suggesting it because I think it might head off our imminent descent into dictatorship. Your temporary allies on the right and center, like me, will become a liability if you keep trying to cater to us. My vote didn’t stop Trump. And as soon as some stability is restored and America offers any credible conservative political outlet free of Nazis, I’ll be off to join them. For Chrissakes, accept my advice and abandon my vote. I am not your future. Rick Wilson and David Frum and Jeff Flake are not your future. This country needs (at least) two healthy national political parties. Today we have none. Your future lies not with me, but with millions of working Americans who haven’t bothered to vote since 2008 because no one is offering them anything worth the effort.
Stop hedging and build an aggressive program of real, tangible benefits. Stop flinching at the cost. Relentlessly marginalize the old-school, Clintonite, DLC centrists in your midst. They are your kryptonite. Identify your enemy in the most specific terms and stir up the fear and resentment necessary to drive your turnout and suppress theirs. Abandon the privileged fantasy that some arcane collection of “democratic norms” protects the republic. That might, arguably, have been true once. Those days are long gone. Most of all, if Democrats want to reclaim the initiative in American politics they have to stop being such a bunch of neurotic, hand-wringing wimps. If Democrats want to run this country again they must develop a pitch more inspiring than “at least we’re not Nazis.”
Ladies and gentlemen, this is a football. Get more of your voters to the polls than your opponent does. Do this by deciding what you believe in and fighting for it as if it matters.