If the election of Donald Trump to the highest office in the land doesn’t serve as “shock therapy”, in the words of one our participants, for the progressive movement and the Democratic Party, what will? A little more than a month after the election, Democrats still coming to grips with the reality of a Trump presidency. Reinvent gathered four thought leaders involved with progressive politics for a roundtable that discussed new ways forward for progressives and the Democratic Party. One of the event’s most interesting—and dire—insights came from political strategist and Fox News contributor Joe Trippi, who spoke about the new ability of candidates to “spin up networks” and overrun their parties, in large part due to social media. “I don’t think Trump is an anomaly,” Trippi said, “I think Trump is the future.” If this is the case, what strategies does the movement need to adopt—yesterday? We distilled five big recommendations that emerged from our discussion.
Run younger candidates
Americans in their 40s to early-50s skew Republican because they came of age during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, said Simon Rosenberg, founder and president of the center-left think tank New Democratic Network, and these are the people now stepping into leadership roles. Many of the Democratic Party’s rising stars are on the younger side of Gen X, or the older side of the Millennial generation. “We’re going to have to push people who maybe aren’t really ready through the system faster than usual,” said Rosenberg, “or there’s going to be nobody to run for these offices.” Rosenberg thinks that traditional metrics of evaluating a candidate’s readiness, like “punching a certain number of tickets” or raising a certain amount of money, are holding too many qualified, younger candidates back. “I think we have to crank the generational wheel much faster as a party.”
Much was made in the roundtable discussion of the Millennial generation and the optimism/pessimism, diversity, and tech savviness of its members. Becky Bond, former senior advisor for the Bernie Sanders campaign, spoke about her experience getting to know Millennials who came of age during the financial crisis and inherited the problems of climate change and structural racism. These Millennials have adopted the attitude that the radical challenges we face require radical solutions. “Young people are ready to work together with everybody, no matter where they’re coming from, to build a majority and solve the problems we have,” said Bond, “and this is where the rejection of incrementalism comes in.”
Run more tech-savvy campaigns
In addition to running younger candidates for elected office, the party needs to get more tech savvy, many of our participants agreed, and there’s little time to waste, as proven by the hacking of the DNC. Around 40 percent of everyone who votes Democrat in 2018 will be a Millennial, according to Rosenberg. “How do we keep running television ads as the central way of communicating when such a large portion of our electorate is expecting a completely different way of connecting to a candidate or Democratic brand?” It’s important for a Democratic Party that wants to be successful in 2018, 2020, and beyond to make a concerted effort to understand the behaviors and habits of digital natives, and meet them where they are. The power of the youth vote shouldn’t be understated—if Hillary Clinton had won this cohort by 60 percent, as President Obama did twice, she would have won the election, according to some analysts.
Bond talked about the Sanders campaign’s use of relatively new technology like Google Apps, Slack and Trello to enable peer-to-peer communication among its supporters. “Consumer technology is making a new kind of organizing and campaigning possible, one that allows us to get a lot of people involved in the process of elections and governing,” said Bond. She believes that this technology creates an important new feedback loop that can positively shape progressive policies moving forward.
Craft optimistic messaging around technology
Progressives and the Democratic Party also have an opportunity to craft and deliver a positive message about the power of technology. Ruy Teixeira, author of The Optimistic Leftist: Why the 21st Century Will Be Better Than You Think (written, it seems worth noting, before the election of Donald Trump) worries that Democrats are too pessimistic and thus too hesitant to embrace the promise of technology. The current relationship between the Democratic Party and major Silicon Valley players mostly consists of socially liberal tech billionaires funding campaigns, says Teixeira, but the left needs to take a stronger stand on technology that extends beyond this relationship. “Democrats should be techno-optimists,” said Teixeira. “They should bet that what really drives economic growth over the long term is technology. We need more growth, and we need it better distributed.”
Trippi agreed with Teixeira’s interpretation, and added that progressives need to be wary of the Republican Party adopting a techno-optisim during Trump’s time in office, before the Democrats have a chance to do so. “Everybody thinks Trump’s term is going to be a disaster,” said Trippi. “It may not be. And because you can spin up these networks, beware in the Democratic primary of someone coming out for the robot tax.” Such a tax could make innovation and technology the scapegoat of economic woes, and thus take hold of the party. To avoid this scenario, Trippi said, we’ve got to unite people early around a common positive vision involving tech.
Offer big policy shifts in simple language
Teixeira believes that the common vision progressives need to unite around will be something simple in messaging, but not in scope. “We have to keep in mind how Donald Trump managed to convince the people he did,” said Teixeira. “People are uncertain about the future…and Trump offered a solution. He said I’m going to bring manufacturing back; I’m going to build a wall.” The point, sad Teixeira, isn’t whether or not these policies will work (he believes they won’t) but that these big picture ideas were repeated often, easy to understand, and spoke to the anxiety of much of the electorate. “The left has to offer something equally big that actually might work, and that can be explained in 25 words or less. If you can get people on board with the kinds of things that might actually cure secular stagnation, like massive infrastructure investment, huge investment in education, doing something about the role of Wall Street—you just need two or three things that everybody can get.”
Rosenberg spoke about the importance of the Democratic Party getting real buy-in from the progressive side of its coalition. Do we really believe at the end of the day that we can improve people’s lives, asked Rosenberg, and if not, why are we in this business? Rosenberg believes that the Democratic argument moving forward has to be “big and bold” and has four key elements: 1) People have to believe Democrats can make their lives better 2) People have to believe Democrats are going to keep them safe 3) Democrats have to embrace political reform and 4) Democrats have to be for everybody.
Be for everybody
A party that champions equality of opportunity for minorities and women can come across as threatening to a white male demographic that has historically held most of the power in American society. Trippi suggested that Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment alienated Trump’s supporters rather than giving them a reason to join the progressive movement. The progressive movement also has to contend with being stereotyped as coastal and elitist. “There are a lot of places, like California, that do show a positive path to the future,” said Trippi. “The problem is having to campaign everywhere and be for everybody. We don’t make a case in Idaho or Wyoming about what we’re trying to do. We don’t make a case to California about why they should be partnering with a state like Indiana.” This interconnection, says Trippi, is an important part of the progressive movement embracing a broader, more inclusive vision.
Bond emphasized the significant amount of work that remains if progressives want to win elections—and more importantly, to make substantive changes in the lives of millions of Americans. “We really do need to rebuild the economy at the same time as we address structural racism in this country,” said Bond. “The government is going to have to underwrite that if it’s going to happen fast enough to make a difference. If we do not unrig the system and rebuild the economy, the pitchforks are coming for the people at the top of the economic ladder.” Bond reiterated her faith in Millennials, especially those under the age of 26, whom she describes as team-focused, diverse, practical, and eager to implement major changes to unrig the system. “We can’t ignore both the opportunity and the challenge of this moment when it comes to admitting what we are out of touch with,” said Bond. “We got ourselves to this point, and who’s going to get us out of it?”