The Pragmatic Left: Dos and Don’ts for Winning Elections


Editor’s Note: In this recurring column, Joey Lyons will explore strategies to help Democrats win elections. 

The United States experienced an unprecedented summer. It endured a record-setting heatwave, a tumultuous Supreme Court nomination, a presidential scandal involving a foreign power, convictions of several people associated with Trump’s campaign and signs of administrative unrest brewing in the White House.

At Middlebury and across the country, people are witnessing the country’s institutional decline and contemplating what it means for the future. In the Trump era, what is the state of our democracy? Where do we go from here?

I’m friends with both Republicans and Democrats. Their political conversations, mirroring the rise of tribalism in our country, have become more tense over the years. The stark partisan divide encourages silences. Discourse between the right and left, even amongst family, is rare and, more often than not, unpleasant.

There is a reason why people avoid bipartisan conversation. A large segment of the population has developed an allergic reaction to the left–to the way we talk, to the way we campaign and to the issues we stress. As a Democrat who wants Democrats to win elections, I am interested in how we can span the ideological gap while maintaining our values.

President Donald Trump’s 2016 electoral victory provoked a visceral reaction from the left. Bracing themselves for four years of Trump, stunned Democrats grappled with their failure to win elections. The debate over the shortcomings of the Democratic Party and the rise of Trumpism divided liberal commentators. 

Expressing the fears of many Democrats, CNN analyst Van Jones advanced the “whitelash thesis” in the early morning after Trump’s win. “This was a whitelash against a changing country,” Jones said. “It was whitelash against a black president in part. And that’s the part where the pain comes.” Given the white supremacist rhetoric that resonated from the Trump campaign, Democrats readily embraced Jones’ impassioned conclusion. 

However, some liberals rejected the whitelash thesis, pointing to demographic voting patterns in the national exit polls. Huffpost’s Ian Reifowitz noted that “Trump did a slim 1 percent better among whites than Mitt Romney did four years ago.” While Reifowitz conceded that Trump’s racism attracted some white voters, he believed the slight improvement indicated that the bigotry dissuaded an almost equal amount of whites from voting Republican. 

Racial animus alone cannot explain Trump’s election. While there are plenty of racists in America, and Trump courted them with vigor, Clinton lost in 2016 because she failed to carry Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. All of these states voted to make Obama the first African-American president in 2008 and returned him to the White House in 2012. It seems impossible that these states suddenly became racist in 2016 when they were progressive enough to elect Obama in the prior two elections. The Clinton campaign’s failure to concentrate on the economic issues that affect the vast majority of Americans doomed Clinton’s efforts to win the presidency. She neglected the flyover zone and that is where the Democrats lost the election. In order to secure an electoral victory in 2020, Democrats must find a balance between appealing to certain identity groups and putting forth solutions to economic issues like wage stagnation that affect most Americans, including the white working class. 

On local and state levels, Democrats should emphasize identity politics in regions where such an emphasis appeals to voters. The victories of Ayanna Pressley, Kara Eastman, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the 2018 midterm elections have shown that emphasizing identity issues on the campaign trail can be a powerful mobilizer for political action. Progressives energize the party by providing voices for social movements and championing the rights of minority groups. However, the politics of identity do not resonate nationwide. Democrats cannot allow the progressive Blue Wave to dictate our national platform. 

We can only govern if we win. We cannot help anyone if we do not hold power. To achieve electoral success, we must tap into a large segment of the population by advancing a unifying message and highlighting policies that benefit the majority of Americans. As New York Times columnist Mark Lilla writes, avoiding “narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away” will allow the left to motivate and, eventually, reclaim voters. A focus on policies that have universal appeal, such as protections for unions, expansion of the earned income tax credit, and Medicare for All, is key for Democratic success. By championing domestic programs that benefit everyone, post-identity liberalism will help Democrats on the campaign trail win elections. Once in office, we can work to assist marginalized groups. 

Joey Lyons is a member of the Middlebury College class of 2021.