Liberals Have the Cultural Momentum. Now They Need to Win Elections.

Turning their capital into electoral victory is critical to offering up a substantive resistance towards Donald Trump.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the Meet the Press studio. Citation: New York magazine

Why don’t Democrats win more elections?

This question has animated the Democratic Party over the past two decades. Republicans have run the House of Representatives for about 20 out of the past 24 years, and the Senate for almost 15 out of the past 24 years. Going back further, Republicans have won six out of the past ten presidential elections. Republicans also currently control 31 state legislatures and 33 governorships. Democrats have continually attempted to remake their party in order to combat against these trends. Their party leaders have embraced more liberal programs, brought new minorities into their fold, and implemented microtargeting technology on a massive scale. These efforts have only stemmed the bleeding, making electoral losses closer than they would have otherwise been. And every failure makes future victory more difficult, as Republican administrations implement gerrymandered districts and voter ID laws that will inevitably suppress Democratic turnout.

What is the reason for these failures? And what can the Democratic Party do about them?

The failure of Democrats to win elections, like any complex question stretched across thousands of miles and millions of people, has no simple solution. Some see the Democratic Party itself as the root of the problem, advocating for changes in superdelegates and in party leadership. Others stress the importance of policy and messaging failures. Pundits arguing for more emphasis on identity politics are matched by others who argue Democrats should focus more on bread and butter issues, ignoring the cultural divides that Republicans can so easily exploit. The problem with debates over policy and messaging is that the issues under consideration are so deeply intertwined with different Democratic constituencies that there is no blanket messaging rule for every Democrat. Democrats in the Bronx have to speak to a more diverse audience, while Democrats in a heavily white Iowa district have to focus more on economic issues. Even presidential candidates have to hedge their messaging, since the arguments that work in Michigan do not work as well in Nevada. And the candidates who do marry arguments for diversity with economically liberal platforms can still be doomed by outside forces, as the Hillary Clinton and Michael Dukakis campaigns so clearly illustrate.

In addition to these analyses, there is another, more fundamental strategy that Democrats and their supporters can implement: using their existing cultural capital to change the electorate’s view of elections. Democrats, either wittingly or unwittingly, have done a masterful job securing their cultural ideas in the universities and mainstream culture. Cultural leaders throughout the country profess liberal positions on race, immigration, gender identity, and government involvement in the economy. Liberal academics outnumber their conservative peers between 5–1 and 30-to-1 in some disciplines. Not surprisingly, their ideas have dominated fields such as sociology and history, with award-winning books and articles almost universally reflecting a liberal point of view. For every electoral loss that liberals and Democrats have faced, they have gained another musician who hates the Trump presidency or another comedian who spends an hour-long television show roasting Republicans.

Democrats can use this cultural power more effectively than they already have to shift the nation’s focus squarely upon elections and electoral candidates. Comedians and cultural leaders must do more to make sure every individual running for Congress on the Democratic ticket gains some level of exposure. Candidates should receive the same profiles in liberal media and the university as activists. They should be able to secure speaking engagements at liberal bookstores, think tanks, and university student unions. Political analysts and academia should move away from their focus on activism and social groups and towards a renewed interest in politicians and political movements. Instead of the common portrait of an electoral candidate as craven and untrustworthy, scholarly studies and cultural leaders should portray candidates as the virtuous bulwark against the Trump presidency and the racism, sexism, and xenophobia that the academic world hates so much about the administration.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the recent Democratic primary victor, is an example of the trend I am suggesting. She has been the subject of dozens of thinkpieces and has appeared on both political media (Meet the Press) and comedy programs (The Late Show). Her cultural fame has grown so much that she even wins write-in primaries outside of her district. But not every candidate can match Ocasio-Cortez’s charisma, her bold political program, or her ability to upset a major congressional leader. The singers, actors, and filmmakers who comprise the liberal cultural world should use their power to elevate less exciting but still important candidates. They could highlight Debbie Mucarsel-Powell in Florida or Elissa Slotkin in Michigan, two nationally low-profile Democrats whose races could determine control of the House. If cultural leaders contribute to the success of these candidates, the long-term trends of low Democratic turnout and subsequent defeat may finally start to improve.

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