The hangover from Tuesday's election will take a while to start wearing off, but reality is already setting in for Democrats all over the region. It was a big loss by any measure.
What happened? I'm not sure, but based on what I've seen over the years and in this election those on the left side of the ideological ledger better learn something from this setback.
Success in contemporary American politics is based on having principles, stating them simply and clearly over and over again, recruiting candidates who have an unalloyed belief in those principles, and doing politics in an emotionally intelligent way. That last thing — having an emotional connection —is the one that makes the difference between victory and defeat. The Democrats have lost contact with the angst being experienced by every group in the country.
I spent my formative years in the Reagan presidency, and I'll admit I miss Reagan's grandfatherly certainty. But Reagan didn't start out that way. In fact had someone gone into hibernation in 1964 after Reagan's speech at the 1964 Republican Convention and woken up in 1981, they would be as shocked as we would be if we woke up in 2013 to find Christine O'Donnell as president. He was a cheesy actor turned politician — right-wing politician. But he made no effort to hide his extreme views. It was those views that people rallied around. And that's the point.
I know it hurts to talk about Reagan right now. But all you liberals out there would agree that whether we like it or not, much of our economy bears the stamp of the Reagan era. So here's what the left has to do.
Pick some principles and don’t compromise. Lefties are a peculiar type. Educated in the principles of social science and bathed in the glow of the enlightenment we love facts. Fine. Pick some principles that relate to the outcome you want first, and then put some facts underneath them. Then forget about the facts. You know them and it doesn’t matter whether anyone else does or not. True, we on the left also tend to believe that reasonable people can come to some compromise. And we should when we can, but not on our principles.
State the principles in the simplest form possible and repeat. The tendency of the left is to over-think and panic when there are short term reverses. Think about any of the right-wing phrases we love to hate. Take "big government," for example. How did that phrase become so ubiquitous that even Democrats use it? It stuck because the right repeated it over and over and over, for many years. Was it true? Certainly there was some data to support the claim, but that mattered less than saying it. There is a narrative there, too, which casts government as the enemy and the right wingers as the saviors.
Recruit people who can actually believe in the principles. Indeed we might laugh at the thought of Republican candidates saying that they believe that the Earth is only 6,000 years old. Try laughing now (just think about Jesus riding a dinosaur). They won. I'm not suggesting recruiting idiots, but the left tends to be full of smart, thoughtful people. Smart people have an annoying tendency to cashier their principles when some facts seem to be inconsistent with those principles. The right doesn't do that. Their candidates, for the most part, stick to their guns (literally) and they end up driving the debate because of it.
Don't like the picture I am painting? Well we could always try to educate voters with the facts and persuade them that we're right. Just think about it for a minute; has that worked?
That brings me to a last point: feelings. Yes, people have them and like it or not they often rely on them to make their decisions about which detergent to buy and who to blame for their troubles. Does anyone remember what Franklin Roosevelt actually said in his fireside chats? Probably not. But we do have the image of people clustered around the radio to hear the sonorous voice of the New Deal. And even Generation Y kids know that Roosevelt said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Last time I checked fear is an emotion, not a quantitative measure of anything.
Reagan told stories that he thought were real but weren't. Clinton felt our pain (and other things, too). But the point is that success in contemporary politics isn't about being smart it's about having principles. I am reminded of Margaret Thatcher who, in the midst of riots, recession, and assassination attempts faced down her opponents with stubbornness and certainty that always enraged her opponents, such as in these lines from a speech to her Conservative Party Conference: "To those waiting with bated breath for that favorite media catch phrase 'the U-turn,' I have only one thing to say: You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning."
We don't have to give up facts and science in order to climb the greased pole of politics. We can be principled and smart. But we cannot give up principles to win. The lesson successful agenda-driving politicians have taught us is that holding our ground will give people confidence — they will feel confident and trust where we lead them.
We owe it to them to win their confidence by having confidence and certainty in what we believe in, that government has a role in our lives and that it has, can, and will make our lives better — in fact, it’s the only thing that ever has.