How to Fix the Democratic Brand
It Can Be Done, But It Won't Be Easy
The Democrats and the Democratic brand are in deep trouble. That should have been obvious when Democrats underperformed in the 2020 election, turning what they and most observers expected to be a Democratic wave into more of a ripple. They lost House seats and performed poorly in state legislative elections. And their support among nonwhite voters, especially Hispanics, declined substantially.
Still they did win the Presidency, which led many to miss the clear market signals this underperformance was sending to Democrats. That tendency was strengthened by the Democrats’ improbable victories in the two Georgia Senate runoffs, which gave them full control of the federal government, albeit by the very narrowest of margins.
At the same time, Trump’s bizarre behavior around refusing to concede the outcome of the election—which probably contributed to the GOP defeats in the Georgia runoffs—and his encouragement of rioters who stormed the Capitol on January 6 led many Democrats to assume that the Republican brand would be so damaged by association that the Democratic brand would shine by comparison. And yet…here we are a year or so later and the Democrats are in brutal shape.
Biden’s approval rating is in the low 40’s, only a little above where Trump’s was at the same point in his Presidential term which of course was the precursor to the GOP’s drubbing in the 2018 election. Biden has been doing especially poorly among working class and Hispanic voters.
Biden’s approval ratings on specific issues tend to be lower, in the high 30’s on the economy and in the low 30’s on hot button issues like immigration and crime. Off year and special elections since 2020 have indicated a strongly pro-Republican electoral environment and Democrats currently trail Republicans in the generic Congressional ballot for 2022. It now seems likely that Democrats will, at minimum, lose control of the House this November and quite possibly suffer a wave election up and down the ballot.
Most Democrats would prefer to believe that the current dismal situation merely reflects some bad luck. The Delta wave of the coronavirus undercut Biden’s plans for returning the country to normal and interacted with supply chain difficulties to produce an inflation spike that angered consumers. There is some truth to this but it is not the whole picture. The reality is that Democrats have failed to develop a party brand capable of unifying a dominant majority of Americans behind their political project. Indeed, the current Democratic brand suffers from multiple deficiencies that make it somewhere between uncompelling and toxic to wide swathes of American voters who might potentially be their allies. I locate these deficiencies in three key areas: culture; economics; and patriotism.
Culture. The cultural left has managed to associate the Democratic party with a series of views on crime, immigration, policing, free speech and of course race and gender that are quite far from those of the median voter. That’s a success for the cultural left but the hard reality is that it’s an electoral liability for the Democratic party. From time to time—the latest effort was in this month’s State of the Union address--Democratic politicians like Biden try to dissociate themselves from super-unpopular ideas like defunding the police but the voices of the cultural left within the party are still more deferred to than opposed. These voices are further amplified by Democratic-leaning media and nonprofits, as well as within the Democratic party infrastructure itself, all of which are thoroughly dominated by the cultural left. In an era when a party’s national brand increasingly defines state and even local electoral contests, Democratic candidates have a very hard time shaking these cultural left associations.
How did this unfortunate state of affairs arise? To understand this, we must understand the trajectory of the American left in the 21st century. The culture of the left has evolved and not in a good way. It is now thoroughly out of touch with its working class roots and completely dominated by college-educated professionals, typically in big metropolitan areas and university towns and typically younger. These are the people that fill the ranks of the media, nonprofits, advocacy groups, foundations and the infrastructure of the Democratic party. They speak their own language and highlight the issues that most animate their commitments to ‘social justice”.
These commitments are increasingly driven by what is now referred to as identity politics. This form of politics originated in the 1960s movements that sought to eliminate discrimination against and establish equal treatment and access for women and for racial and sexual minorities. In evolving to the present day, the focus has mutated into an attempt to impose a worldview that emphasizes multiple, intersecting levels of oppression (“intersectionality”) based on group identification. In place of promoting universal rights and principles—the traditional remit of the left--advocates now police others on the left, including within the Democratic party, to uncritically embrace this intersectional approach, insist on an arcane vocabulary for speaking about these purportedly oppressed groups, and prohibit discourse based on logic and evidence to evaluate the assertions of those who claim to speak on the groups’ behalf.
Is America really a “white supremacist” society? What does “structural racism” even mean and does it explain all the socioeconomic problems of nonwhites? Is anyone who raises questions about immigration levels a racist? Are personal pronouns necessary and something the left should seek to popularize? Are transwomen exactly the same as biological women and are those who question such a claim simply “haters” who should be expunged from the left coalition (as has been advocated in the UK)? This list could go on. What ties the questions together is that they are closely associated with practitioners of identity politics or adherents of the intersectional approach, who deem them not open to debate with the usual tools of logic and evidence. Politically derived answers are simply to be embraced by Democratic party progressives in the interest of “social justice.”
The Democrats have paid a considerable price for their increasingly strong linkage to militant identity politics, which brands the party as focused on, or at least distracted by, issues of little relevance to most voters’ lives. Worse, the focus has led many working-class voters to believe that, unless they subscribe to this emerging worldview and are willing to speak its language, they will be condemned as reactionary, intolerant, and racist by those who purport to represent their interests. To some extent these voters are right: They really are looked down upon by substantial segments of the Democratic party—typically younger, well-educated, and metropolitan—who embrace identity politics and the intersectional approach. This has contributed to the emerging rupture in the Democratic Party’s coalition along lines of education and region.
This rupture was solidified by the election of Donald Trump in 2016. By far the dominant interpretation of white working class support for Trump on the left was that these voters were racist and xenophobic, full stop. They just didn’t like the loss of status and privilege allegedly attendant upon being white as America evolved to a more multicultural, multiracial democracy. This was odd since Democratic progressives had just spent the last many decades sternly denouncing the American neoliberal economic model and how it was ruining the lives and communities of all working people.
The Trump years further deepened the identity politics influence with the Democratic party, particularly in the wake of the nationwide movement protesting the murder of George Floyd. This left its stamp on the 2020 edition of the Democratic party, notwithstanding their old school standard-bearer, Joe Biden.
It has also left its stamp on how Democrats have handled difficult culturally-inflected issues since the election. They have fallen prey again and again to what I have termed the “Fox News Fallacy”—the idea that if Fox News and the like are criticizing the Democrats on such issues there must be absolutely nothing to the criticisms and the criticized policies should be defended at all costs. This approach has not served the Democrats well as Biden’s term has evolved.
Start with crime. Initially dismissed as simply an artifact of the Covid shutdown that was being vastly exaggerated by Fox News and the like for their nefarious purposes, it is now apparent that the spike in violent crime is quite real and that voters are very, very concerned about it. This very definitely includes black and Hispanic voters, as indicated by polling data and confirmed by Eric Adams’ support base in the New York mayoral contest. No wonder more and more Democratic politicians are running as fast as they can away from any hint of “defund the police”, the slogan beloved of the activist left that was actually put on the ballot in Minneapolis…and soundly defeated, especially by black voters. Consistent with this, a recent Pew poll found that black and Hispanic Democrats are significantly more likely than white Democrats to favor more police funding in their area.
And yet….Democrats, despite Biden’s SOTU admission that funding the police is actually a pretty good idea (followed by his new budget proposal), still seem very far from former UK prime minister Tony Blair’s felicitous slogan: “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. Fox News may exaggerate but voters really do want law and order—done fairly and humanely, but law and order just the same. Democrats, with some exceptions like Eric Adams, still seem reluctant to highlight their commitment to cracking down on crime and criminals because that is something that, well, Fox News would say. Given this, it is no surprise Republicans, according to a recent Wall Street Journal poll, are favored over Democrats on the crime issue by 20 points.
Another example of the Fox News Fallacy is the immigration issue. The Biden administration initially insisted that the surge at the border would go away on its own as the hot weather season arrived, a line most Democrats echoed, invoking the idea that the issue was more a Fox News talking point than a real problem.
Not so. It is now apparent that the perceived liberalization of the border regime under the Biden administration did indeed spur more migrants to try their luck at their border. An astonishing 1.7 million illegal crossings at the southern border were recorded in the 2021 fiscal year, the highest total since at least 1960, when the government first started keeping such records. In response, the administration has scrambled to deploy whatever tools it has at its disposal, including some left over from the Trump administration, to stem the tide. This has not sat well with immigration advocates, who staged a (virtual) walkout on top Biden officials in late 2021 to protest these administration policies.
These and other pressures, as well as the desire not to give in to Fox News talking points about a border crisis, has led most Democratic politicians to treat the topic of border security—and even the phrase—very gingerly (though Biden did at least allude to the need to “secure the border: in his SOTU speech). As a result, there is no clear Democratic plan for an immigration system that would both permit reasonable levels of legal immigration and provide the border security necessary to stem illegal immigration. Nothing illustrates this better than the Biden administration’s current plan to end Title 42, a move that will almost certainly lead to a further surge of immigrants at the border and increased pressure on an already-overwhelmed system.
Voters have noticed. In the Wall Street Journal poll previously cited, Republicans are favored over Democrats by 26 points on border security. And Biden, as noted earlier, has abysmal approval ratings on the immigration issue, typically in the low ‘30s.
Democrats would do well to remember that public opinion polling over the years has consistently shown overwhelming majorities in favor of more spending and emphasis on border security. The uncomfortable fact is that, while this issue is being exploited by Fox News, it is still a very real problem Democrats need to address.
Finally, consider critical race theory or CRT, a particularly flagrant example of the Fox News Fallacy in that Democrats refuse to admit even grudgingly that there might be a problem here. CRT is a term originating in academic legal theory that has been shorthanded by the right as a catch-all for the intrusion of race essentialism into teacher training, school curricula and the like. The standard Democratic comeback to criticism about CRT in the schools is simply to assert that any voters, including parents, who are concerned about CRT are manipulated by Fox News and are opposing benign pedagogical practices like teaching about slavery, Jim Crow, the Tulsa race massacre, redlining and so on. The not so subtle implication is that such voters are racists since who else would be opposed to simply teaching such historical facts?
But voters’ worries about CRT cannot be bludgeoned away so easily by saying CRT doesn’t really exist in the schools and parents just don't want their kids taught about slavery. Parents are far more worried about their children being arrayed into hierarchies of privilege and oppression and encouraged to see everything through a racial lens—whatever the theory is called—than they are concerned with their children learning about historical incidents and practices of racism.
This issue has importantly become caught up in general dissatisfaction with how Democrats have handled schooling issues during the pandemic. In Virginia, voters who were already upset about parental burdens and academic deficits from extended school closures became additionally concerned that an emerging focus on “social justice” pedagogy and policies was detracting from learning traditional academic subjects and rewarding high achievement. As a memo by the Democratic firm ALG Research on focus groups with suburban Virginia Biden-Youngkin voters noted:
They feel that people’s ability to have a civil discussion has vanished, and that they have to walk on eggshells even on seemingly innocuous topics. This extends to discussions around race in schools, where they were less concerned with critical race theory as an idea or curriculum but expressed frustration with the black-and-white approach they see taken toward such complicated subjects….
This isn’t about “critical race theory” itself, and we shouldn’t dismiss that CRT isn’t real and think we’ve tackled the issue. Many swing voters knew, when pushed by more-liberal members of the group, that CRT wasn’t taught in Virginia schools. But at the same time, they felt like racial and social justice issues were overtaking math, history, and other things. They absolutely want their kids to hear the good and the bad of American history, at the same time they are worried that racial and cultural issues are taking over the state’s curricula. We should expect this backlash to continue, especially as it plays into another way where parents and communities feel like they are losing control over their schools in addition to the basics of even being able to decide if they’re open or not.
Again, these issues cannot be waved away simply by dismissing complaining parents as racists or, less pejoratively, as dupes of Fox News. This is particularly the case for Asian parents. It is difficult to overestimate how important education is to Asian voters, who see it as the key tool for upward mobility—a tool that even the poorest Asian parents can take advantage of. But Democrats are becoming increasingly associated with an approach to schooling that seems anti-meritocratic, oriented away from standardized tests, gifted and talented programs and test-in elite schools—all areas where Asian children have excelled.
It does not seem mysterious that Asian voters might react negatively to this approach. In fact, it would be mysterious if they didn’t.
As a result of these and other cultural issues, the party’s—or, at least, Biden’s—attempt to rebrand Democrats as a unifying party speaking for Americans across divisions of race and class appears to have failed. Voters are not sure Democrats can look beyond identity politics to ensure public safety, secure borders, high quality, non-ideological education, and economic progress for all Americans.
Instead, the Democrats find themselves weighed down by those whose tendency is to oppose firm action to control crime or the southern border as concessions to racism, interpret concerns about ideological school curricula and lowering educational standards as manifestations of white supremacy, and generally emphasize the identity politics angle of virtually every issue. With this baggage, rebranding is very difficult, since decisive action that might lead to such a rebranding is immediately undercut by a torrent of criticism (Biden is getting some of this right now) or simply never proposed.
Nevertheless, Biden and the Democrats must persist in attempting a rebrand in these areas because the alternative is ceding a culture wars advantage to the Republicans that will ensure not just defeat in 2022 but the continued failure of Democrats’ efforts to forge a dominant majority coalition for years to come. One obvious place to try this is on the crime issue, building on Biden’s recent, tentative steps in this direction.
Consider the fact that Democrats are associated with a wave of progressive public prosecutors who seem quite hesitant about keeping criminals off the street, even as a spike in violent crimes like murders and carjacking sweeps the nation. This is twinned to a climate of tolerance and non-prosecution for lesser crimes that is degrading the quality of life in many cities under Democratic control.
This clearly has got to stop. Weakness on crime obviously damages the Democrats’ brand and especially hurts some of their most vulnerable constituents. As London Breed, the Democratic mayor of San Francisco put it:
It’s time the reign of criminals who are destroying our city, it is time for it to come to an end. And it comes to an end when we take the steps to [be] more aggressive with law enforcement. More aggressive with the changes in our policies and less tolerant of all the bullshit that has destroyed our city.
She also went directly after San Francisco’s progressive prosecutor, Chesa Boudin, and his ideological allies:
[T]hese ideologies have been what has failed our city, what has failed Black people in our city, and what continues to be about what beliefs are rather than how those beliefs are going to translate to an actual real difference in someone’s life and the ability to keep people safe.
Strong words. But Breed—and Adams—are onto something. Normie voters hate crime and want something done about it. They’re not particularly impressed by disembodied talk about the availability of guns that does not include enforcing the law against the criminals who actually use these guns. Nor do they respond well to assurances that progressive approaches to law enforcement that include less law enforcement will—eventually—work even as crime surges and the quality of life deteriorates.
Biden (or some other leading Democrat) could say something like this, as recommended by the excellent Charlie Sykes at The Bulwark:
We must continue the fight for social justice, but it should not come at the price of public safety. In some of our biggest cities we have folks who think that we shouldn’t put criminals in jail or downplay the dangers of violent crime. They are wrong. We have to protect our families and our neighborhoods.
And then name some names. Maybe it’s not time for a “Sister Souljah Moment”. But how about a Chesa Boudin Moment? I bet London Breed would have your back.
Economics. Just what is the Democrats’ plan for the economy? Right now, it seems to boil down to their legislative accomplishments, past and future, which will result in a “better” economy. However, voters are currently very foggy about what exactly those legislative accomplishments consist of and are not so sure the economy, so far, has landed in a better place.
Nor are they so sure where the economy is supposed to be going under the Democrats’ watch. In that sense voters may be on to something when they see Democrats as being preoccupied with social issues rather the economy. There is an opportunity cost to how parties allocate their limited attention and resources; it seems fair to say that Democrats have not exactly had a clear and unifying laser-like focus on economic growth and good jobs. As the previously-mentioned ALG report notes:
They thought Democrats are only focused on equality and fairness and not on helping people. None of these Biden voters associated our party with helping working people, the middle class, or people like them. They thought we were more focused on breaking down social barriers facing marginalized groups. They were all for helping marginalized groups, but the fact that they couldn’t point to anything we are doing to help them was deeply concerning.
To the extent Democrats have an overarching economic story it is that a dramatic expansion of the social safety net and a rapid move to a clean energy economy will—eventually--result in strong growth and an abundance of good jobs. But this is a muddled story that is clearly not getting through.
A standard Democratic take on this problem is that the basic economic ideas and accomplishments are great, they simply haven’t been properly communicated. But I think the problem runs far deeper than this. Consider the debacle around the Build Back Better bill.
This was the multi-trillion-dollar bill that Democrats were, until very recently, trying to wrangle through Congress. It was supposedly “transformational”—but transformation to what? Democrats talked about the care economy, a Green New Deal, and other big ideas associated with Build Back Better. But what that added up to was not clear. Would it have created a more dynamic American capitalism that could lift up broad swaths of the country that have been left behind? Instead, the bill had a “shaggy dog” quality of funneling money to a wide variety of Democratic priorities. Some of this spending would have supported useful expansions of the notably stingy American welfare system and some would have supported useful public investments not provided for in the infrastructure bill, particularly in clean energy.
But none of this seemed transformational in the sense of leading to a more productive, higher growth, and less regionally unequal American capitalism. Indeed, this did not seem to be the point; rather, it was to make the current model of capitalism a bit fairer and a bit more climate friendly. That was laudable, but it fell short of a new model of capitalism that could brand the Democrats as the party of a fast growth American future.
But it is a huge mistake to lose sight of the need for faster growth. Growth, particularly productivity growth, is what drives rising living standards over time and Democrats presumably stand for the fastest possible rise in living standards. Faster growth also makes easier the achievement of Democrats’ other goals. Hard economic times typically generate pessimism about the future and fear of change, not broad support for more democracy and social justice. In contrast, when times are good, when the economy is expanding and living standards are steadily rising for most of the population, people see better opportunities for themselves and are more inclined toward social generosity, tolerance, and collective advance.
Yet much of the Democratic left still regards the goal of more and faster economic growth with suspicion, preferring to focus on the fairness of how current growth is distributed. This reflects not just an understandable and laudable focus on unequal distribution, but also a general feeling that the fruits of growth are poisoned, encouraging unhealthy consumerist lifestyles and, worse, driving the climate crisis that is hurtling humanity toward doom. The latter view is responsible for the increasing vogue on the left for the idea of “degrowth.”
With such views it is not surprising that economic growth does not rank very high on the Democratic left’s list of economic objectives. We saw this in the content of the endless debate around the Build Back Better bill, which was heavily driven by the House’s Progressive Caucus. Essentially none of this debate was concerned with how well the bill, at whatever level of funding and with whatever programmatic commitments, would promote growth. That was simply not on the radar screen, dismissed as something only conservatives would care about.
Closely related to this relative lack of interest in growth is a distinct lack of optimism among Democrats that a rapid advance and application of technology can produce an abundant future. More common is fear that a dystopian future may await us thanks to AI and other technologies. This is odd, given that almost everything ordinary people like about the modern world, including relatively high living standards, is traceable to technological advances and the knowledge embedded in those advances. From smart phones, flat-screen TVs, and the internet, to air and auto travel, to central heating and air conditioning, to the medical devices and drugs that cure disease and extend life, to electric lights and the mundane flush toilet, technology has dramatically transformed people’s lives for the better. It is difficult to argue that the average person today is not far, far better off than her counterpart in the past. As the Northwestern University economic historian Joel Mokyr puts it, “The good old days were old but not good.”
Doesn’t the left want to make people happy? One has to wonder. There seems to be more interest in figuring out what people should stop doing and consuming than in figuring out how people can have more to do and consume. The very idea of abundance is rarely discussed, except to disparage it.
These attitudes help explain why the Democratic left does not tend to feature technological advance prominently in its policy portfolio. The Biden administration did manage to get the U.S. Competiveness and Innovation Act through the Senate and the closely-related America COMPETES Act through the House (the two bills have yet to be reconciled into a single bill), but these bills have far less funding and far less probable impact on scientific innovation than the originally-proposed bill, the Endless Frontier Act. But nobody on the left seems particularly exercised about this step-down—or even in much of a hurry to reconcile the two current bills-- since it just isn’t very high on their priority list.
You can also see this in the rather modest amount of attention and resources devoted to technological advance in the Democrats’ other bills. The bipartisan infrastructure bill did contain some money for developing next generation energy technologies like clean hydrogen, carbon capture, and advanced nuclear, but the amount was comparatively modest. The clean energy money in the last version of the Build Back Better bill, now shelved, was mostly focused on speeding up deployment of wind, solar, and electric vehicles.
But if there is to be an abundant clean energy future, not a degrowth one, it will depend on our ability to develop the requisite energy technologies which must necessarily go beyond wind and solar. The same could be said about a wide range of other technological challenges that could underpin a future of abundance: AI and machine learning; CRISPR and mRNA biotechnology; advanced robotics and the internet of things. These technologies, just like clean energy technologies, need to be developed aggressively to unleash their potential.
That’s why it’s inadequate for Democrats to focus narrowly on a clean energy, Green New Deal-type future. Not only is there an excessive focus on wind and solar, but the challenges for an abundant future cannot be reduced to the need for a clean energy transition. And make no mistake: what Americans want is an abundant future not just a green one that, they are told, is mostly necessary to stave off planetary disaster. The fact is that, for better or worse, combatting climate change does not rank very high on voters’ priority list (14th in a recent Pew Research poll). That suggests investment in clean energy technologies needs to be embedded in a broader “abundance agenda” (to use Derek Thompson’s phrase) that drives up the supply of innovation and can deliver an abundant life for all not just the avoidance of disaster.
In short, what Americans want and need is an abundant economy, of which a clean energy economy or a care economy are merely subsets or components. That can be a winning vision of where Democrats want to take the economy in ways that Build Back Better or a Green New Deal simply can’t.
As British science journalist Leigh Phillips has observed:
Once upon a time, the Left . . . promised more innovation, faster progress, greater abundance. One of the reasons . . . that the historically fringe ideology of libertarianism is today so surprisingly popular in Silicon Valley and with tech-savvy young people more broadly . . . is that libertarianism is the only extant ideology that so substantially promises a significantly materially better future.
That should be the Democrats’ brand: more innovation, faster progress, greater abundance. Without that, simply being fairer and greener will fail as a unifying economic offer.
Patriotism. Today’s Democrats have difficulty embracing patriotism and weaving it into their political brand. It wasn’t so long ago, Bill Clinton was saying “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America”. And even more recently, when Barack Obama won the Presidency in 2008, he said:
“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”
For his part, Joe Biden does try to inject a little of that old time patriotism into his remarks from time to time. It’s not really taking though. A big part of his party is singing a different tune and singing it loudly. As the liberal commentator Noah Smith observes:
[I]n the age of social media, the progressive movement is defined less by the President and more by the collection of journalists, professors, and lower-level politicians who dominate Twitter and major publications and news networks. And here I’ve seen a remarkable and pervasive vilification of America become not just widespread but de rigeur among progressives since unrest broke out in the mid-2010s…. The general conceit among today’s progressives is that America was founded on racism, that it has never faced up to this fact, and that the most important task for combatting American racism is to force the nation to face up to that “history”…. Even if it loses them elections, progressives seem prepared to go down fighting for the idea that America needs to educate its young people about its fundamentally White supremacist character….
[T]he version of “history” that progressives want to teach young people, generally speaking, is a cartoonish story in which America is the villain — a nation formed from racism, founded the day the first slave stepped onto our shores, dedicated thereafter to the repression and brutalization of people of color. This “history” ignores America’s deep and powerful tradition of anti-racism, the universalistic egalitarian ideals of the Declaration of Independence, the abolitionist movement that was present from the very beginning, the Founders’ conception of the U.S. as a nation of immigrants, America’s role in the ending of European colonialism, its position at the forefront of liberal democratic reforms and experimentation, the promotion of global standards of human rights following WW2, and so on.
Consistent with this analysis, a survey project by the More in Common group was able to separate out a group they termed "progressive activists" who were 8 percent of the population (but punch far above their weight in the Democratic party) and are described as "deeply concerned with issues concerning equity, fairness, and America's direction today. They tend to be more secular, cosmopolitan, and highly engaged with social media".
These progressive activists' attitude toward their own country departs greatly from not just that of average Americans but from pretty much any other group you might care to name, including average nonwhite Americans. Black, Hispanic and Asian Americans, in fact, are highly likely to be proud to be Americans and highly likely to say they would still choose to live in America if they could choose to live anywhere in the world. In contrast, progressive activists are loathe to express these sentiments For example, just 34 percent of progressive activists say they are “proud to be American” compared to 62 percent of Asians, 70 percent of blacks, and 76 percent of Hispanics.
This is a big, big problem. One of the only effective ways—and possibly the most effective way—to mobilize Americans behind big projects is to appeal to patriotism, to Americans as part of a nation. Indeed much of what America accomplished in the 20th century was under the banner of liberal nationalism. Yet many in the Democratic party blanche at any hint of nationalism—one reason so many are leery of patriotism—because of its association with darker impulses and political trends. Yet as John Judis has pointed out, nationalism has its positive side as well in that it allows citizens to identify on a collective level and support projects that serve the common good rather than their immediate interests.
Given all that Democrats hope to accomplish, it makes absolutely no sense not to appeal to Americans’ patriotism and love of country. That too has to be part of Democrats’ rebranding. They must insist that their party is a patriotic party that believes Americans as a nation can accomplish great things. And they should not shrink from emphasizing the competitive aspect of patriotism. America is indeed in a competition with other nations like China and it is not xenophobic to say that America is a great nation that can win that competition.
A Democratic party that occupies the cultural center ground, promotes an abundance agenda and is unabashedly patriotic has a real shot at political domination given Republicans’ serious problems and weaknesses. Conversely, a Democratic party that does not rebrand in this way dooms American politics to continued stalemate and polarization. That’s not a pleasant prospect.
Note: A shorter version of this essay originally appeared in National Review, both online and in the April 16, 2022 print issue.