What Went Wrong for the Democrats? No narrative. No unity. No perceived change.
This is not a political blog. But what with campaign season, and the election happening this week, I want to take advantage of the fact that politics allows us to observe the use and effectiveness of communication and persuasion skills in the political arena. When persuasion intersects with politics, its about what ideas and policies the politicians are selling and what part of what they are selling that we are buying. More importantly, it’s about where they want to take us and how much they want to take us for.
It should be obvious to even the most casual observer that the Democrats have failed to earn the trust of America during Obama’s time in office, even though they were in charge of Congress. What stopped them? They lay the blame on a host of factors. Some say it’s the Republicans, who contributed mightily to the many problems facing Obama and Congress at the beginning of the current administration, then spent the last two years focused almost exclusively on opposition and polarization. While they continue to do an awful job of serving our country, it’s true that they have done an excellent job of tagging the President and the Democrats with the problems of the country and lack of progress during Obama’s first two years, using the methods of persuasive communication. But the Democrats have done an equally excellent job of helping them to obstruct meaningful change.
Their house is in serious disarray. Democrats continue to accommodate Republican sentiment when clearly the Republicans have no intent to reciprocate. Did the Ds line up behind the President during the past two years on anything that the President asked for? No, or just barely. How often did they jump ship and back the Republicans on blocking change? How many of them defected during critical votes? Too many, too often. Like a herd of cats, it seems to be a game of ‘every man (or woman) for himself,’ and Americans can feel the leadership vacuum. The bottom line: Democrats have left just about everyone who looked to them for real change scratching their heads. And the fact that American voters have given the Republicans power again speaks to this growing frustration in the electorate.
The behavior of the Democrats is understandable, because politics is local, not national, and each Congressperson must answer to their own constituency. And, in the face of an unprecedented amount of uncertainty, nobody wants to be blamed for a change that works out badly. But instead of providing a consistent comparative likable or authoritative narrative that tells the American people what’s going on, why they’re doing what they do, and why it matters, they just keep reacting to what others say about them, make conflicting claims, or they say nothing at all. In effect, the Democrats have behaved weakly when boldness was called for, and they have behaved badly when supporting each other and the President was necessary. The result: They have earned almost no respect.
Now, what of President Barack Obama’s role in this? I give him credit for getting much done during some of the most difficult years we’ve faced as a nation. He’s right when he says that his administration stopped an economic disaster, and indeed they’ve slowly begun turning things around. My business has certainly improved. But here’s where I think he has failed us.
We are not persuaded that he’s got this under control, that he’s in charge, and that he has a plan that’s working. He has failed to take into account that relationships are all about perception, and so has not managed our perceptions. When I get up in front of an audience to speak, I see people noticeably relax as soon as they see and hear that I’m a pro, that I know what I’m doing, and that I’ve got them covered. But Obama hasn’t gotten us to relax. He has not led his party or this country in a way that we can feel it, see it and believe it. As my father describes it, it’s as if he is sitting somewhere on high, above the fray, letting us all work these things out rather than engaging with us.
The result is that it feels like, looks like and otherwise seems like he’s just managing the mess, when bold change was promised. In the name of bipartisanship, he has missed too many windows of opportunity, and squandered his political capital while pandering to same corrupt and corrosive influences that got us in the mess in the first place. In his administration there is still too little accountability, too many familiar faces, too much of the same old same old. I certainly thought and expected he would lead better, because as a campaigner, he was state of the art. This campaign season seems to have got his interest of late, and the things he’s been saying over the last three weeks he could have and should have been saying all along.
Years ago a friend of mine gave me some helpful words to live by. He said “Never fall in love with a politician, they always break your heart.” I would add to it that you needn’t get too excited, frustrated or fearful about elections either. The system is so tightly strung together that it’s very hard for anybody to do anything of real consequence. It would take a great deal of new energy, focus and commitment to truly make a big difference.
But change happens in stages and small steps. And the President and his party have only had two years to turn the tide. I don’t see how the Republicans and Tea Partiers have a thing to offer us right now except more obstruction, distraction and division. All that nonsense about taking us down a road to socialism is a red herring. I didn’t buy it, and neither should you.
If your Dem was one of the obstructionist and politically cowardly kind that ran away from the President, away from change, and away from responsibility, then I wouldn’t be surprised if voters voted them out of the way. If your Republican was one of the obstructionist and irresponsible kind, I wouldn’t be surprised if the voters rewarded them with another term. After all, they created an effective narrative, found every opportunity to promote it, and met no actual defense against it.
Now the election is over. I hope I’m wrong about this, but I think we’re likely to see more gridlock, more problems in the economy shifted to future generations, more finger pointing and less responsibility from our government. Whether you voted Red, or Blue, or tea party white, your vote was your voice in the ‘we the people’ chorus. Voting is how we keep our ship of state on course, and course correct when needed. And the voters have spoken. The message is, “Hey, wake up, people are hurting and scared, and real change is needed and needed soon, starting with our leadership.” If Obama and the Democrats want to be voted back in the next election cycle, then it’s time to let the persuasion begin.