On February 3, 2020, the Iowa caucuses will be held, the first step in finding the Democrat who will challenge Donald Trump for the presidency. As of April, 2019, 21 Democrats have declared their intention to vie for the spot. While their strategies, positions on the issues, and resumes differ vastly, each Democratic candidates faces the same conundrum – how do we disavow Trump, and simultaneously win over the people who elected him?
It’s a vexing question. Even the decision to use Trump’s name in speeches is the subject of much debate on primary campaigns across the country. Trump’s populist approach to politics has criticized political elites and venerated white, blue collar workers, the voting bloc he used to win the 2016 election. How can the democratic party win back these voters, without resorting to populist rhetoric themselves?
1.Don’t shy away from debate – welcome it.
In order to maintain or reestablish American liberal democratic values, Muller argues that populists must be engaged in democratic debate, and that the issues they raise must be taken seriously, even if the manner in which they frame these issues is critically flawed .
Whether or not the candidate thinks an issue warrants debate is, frankly, irrelevant – if a large chunk of the American people think something is an issue, it needs to be addressed. Ignoring the problem will mean that the only solution voters have, is the one offered by Trump.
2. The issues that Trump brings up strike a chord with the population. Use it.
On the right and the left, many acknowledge that some (though certainly not all) of the issues Trump and his supporters voice are indeed critical issues for our country. Americans are losing jobs, but it’s not because of immigrants – it’s because of robots. The 2016 election gave us a clear snapshot of what issues are driving the American public – use these issues, and turn them around. Provide productive solutions. Populists may be critically flawed in the manner in which they frame these issues , but that doesn’t change the fact that the issues exist. Reframe the problems in a productive context, one in which solutions can be found and policies can be made.
3. Acknowledge the populations who feel forgotten.
The rise of populism can be helpful in raising awareness of parts of the population that are neglected, and forces those who seek to destroy it to acknowledge and attempt to remedy the ways in which the current standards of representation are failing . In the case of Trump, by appealing to the non-college educated white voting bloc, he has brought attention to a population who have felt left behind by the Democratic party.
The Democratic party is much, much more heterogeneous than the Republican party. There are many identities and groups that seek to be represented in the party, and the Democratic nominee will have the challenge of trying to bring all of these disparate groups of people, who face different social and economic challenges, together under one ticket. As a party, trying to represent the interests of everyone from young Hispanic women growing up in Los Angeles to recently unemployed middle-aged white men in Michigan is incredibly difficult. Acknowledge the issues that each group has, but also acknowledge the issues the entire party can rally around: healthcare, education, criminal justice reform, jobs, the list goes on. We share more issues than we think – don’t let the party be divided by rhetoric.
4. Don’t forget about the Electoral College.
This should go without saying, but winning the popular vote doesn’t matter. Twice now, Democrats have won the popular vote and lost the White House. You can scream and cry about how unfair that is all day if you want, but the fact is that the 2020 election will again be decided by the Electoral College. That means winning back Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida, or a bevy of other swing states that went red in 2016. You can’t do that without at least trying to appeal to Trump voters, or it will just be a repeat of 2016.
5. Don’t give up on democracy, but don’t underestimate the power of populism.
In 2018, the Blue Wave swept through Congress, returning the House to Democratic control. It was a win for Democrats, and a loss for Trump, and it came about purely through democracy. Change is possible within the confines of our institutions, as long as the people are convinced it’s the change they want.
Populist rhetoric is powerful, and because populist leaders claim to represent the people, all of them, their actions aren’t scrutinized in the same way by their followers . Constantly during the 2016 election, there were moments where the Democrats thought Trump had completely lost the race – the Access Hollywood tape, in particular, comes to mind. Nevertheless, he prevailed. Assuming that his missteps and continued rhetoric over the past four years will be enough to take him out in 2020 will lead to another democratic loss, and four more years of democratic backsliding. Don’t underestimate the appeal of populist rhetoric. Müller, Jan-Werner. What Is Populism? Penguin Random House, 2017.