In the New York Times, David Brooks accuses the Democrats’ midterm campaign of failing to rise to the occasion to meet the threat of Trumpism. “Trump and the other populists have transformed the G.O.P. and thrown down a cultural, moral and ideological gauntlet,” Brooks writes. “So how, at this crucial moment in history, have the Democrats responded?” They’ve run on “health care, health care, health care,” according to a Democratic strategist.
Brooks argues that the moment calls for something bigger than kitchen-table politics—a full-throated, cohesive ideological answer to Trump. He may be right, but he’s probably one election cycle too early.
On the ground in swing districts, the Democratic message has been dominated by health care. That’s because for many middle-class voters, one of the major consequences of Trump’s power felt in their lives has been the unrelenting threat to the Affordable Care Act, the Medicaid expansion, and protections for friends and loved ones with preexisting conditions.
This is fundamentally a question of strategy. Democratic candidates see their path to victory running through a straightforward appeal to the tangible issues on voters’ minds. But that, of course, falls far short of the facial challenge to Trumpism that Brooks craves. “[T]he Democratic campaign is inadequate to the current moment,” he asserts. “It offers no counternarrative to Trump, little moral case against his behavior, no unifying argument against ethnic nationalism. In politics you can’t beat something with nothing.”
It’s true, Democrats do need a competing narrative to counter Trump. The most successful political campaigns and movements tell a story about American history and voters’ place within it, giving people agency to shape that story. Boiled down to its essentials, Trump’s narrative is as follows: America used to be great; now it’s not (because of bad elites and dangerous immigrants and minorities); I can make it great again. It’s a narrative grounded in the comfort and familiarity of nostalgia.
The Democratic answer to Trump’s backward-looking narrative must be a forward-looking one. Where Trump sees American greatness achieved and lost, progressives see American greatness as a project—one that each generation can come closer and closer to achieving. The founding American promise—of equality, of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—is a utopian aspiration for a society where individual dignity is freed of the shackles and hierarchies of the Old World. That means shedding the inherited castes that have afflicted most other societies on Earth to ensure that regardless of one’s race, religion, sex, or sexuality; regardless of whether you were born into wealth or into poverty; regardless of whether you were blessed with good health or had the misfortune of illness—that all people can live lives of dignity and author their own fate.
This American story is one of progress in fits and starts toward achieving that promise. It’s the step-by-step march toward shedding those shackles; toward granting the dignity of freedom and equality to all. Progressives ask voters to join in helping achieve our country, to take the next step forward in our history toward dignity and liberation for all, so that all Americans are truly free to pursue their own happiness.
Where Trump’s narrative is one of loss and nostalgia, the progressive narrative must be one of hope and promise. If Trump’s narrative is embodied in “America First,” the progressive narrative can be described as “A More Perfect Union.” The progressive iteration takes our founding ideals seriously, and reads a social democratic tradition into the long struggle to meet those ideals. That’s the tradition of FDR and Lyndon Johnson – of the New Deal and the Great Society wielding the power of government to realize greater, more meaningful liberty for more people.
Perhaps Democrats are missing an opportunity to counter Trump’s narrative, as Brooks says. But the focus on health care alludes to the progressive narrative: protections for the sick and those with pre-existing conditions are among the most recent major achievements in the cause of human dignity, and the source of great political struggle and backlash. Republicans have insisted on trying to roll back these gains root and branch. It only makes sense that Democrats would mobilize voters around protecting their hard-fought dignity in response.
The emphasis on health care ought to lead to a smooth segue to a broader progressive narrative about achieving the core American promise of dignity for all. My sense, unlike Brooks, is that can wait until 2020, when a single Democratic messenger will face Trump head-on. The question, of course, will soon become who should be the one to deliver that narrative.