"The American Dream is dying": Democrats' main selling point "is not a winning message"

"If you want your message to resonate, you can’t be dull, and the Democrats have become more than a little boring"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published May 23, 2024 5:45AM (EDT)

Joe Biden and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Joe Biden and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

President Biden and the Democrats are in a battle for the soul and future of American democracy. The stakes of the 2024 election are that high. Donald Trump is an existential threat to the country.

The 2024 election is existential for President Biden and the Democratic Party in more basic and fundamental ways as well: Trump continues to threaten President Biden and other leaders in the Democratic Party with death and imprisonment if he takes back the White House. The most recent example of such tyrannical behavior occurred last Saturday when Donald Trump told the NRA convention that President Biden should be executed for being a “Manchurian candidate”: “If that were a Republican, he would have been given the electric chair, they would have brought back the death penalty."

Biden is a patriot who loves America. Trump is a corrupt coup plotter and public admirer of Hitler, Vladimir Putin and other enemies of democracy.

Yet Biden has responded to Trump's escalating threats against democracy with a desperate desire to present an image and leadership style that is “reasonable” and “responsible” and emphasizes public policy successes. As I explained in a recent essay, being boring, nice, and passive will not help President Biden and the Democrats defeat Donald Trump and the MAGA movement. Political scientist M. Steven Fish agrees.

Fish is a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley. He has appeared on BBC, CNN, and other major networks, and has published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The American Interest, The Daily Beast, Slate, and Foreign Policy. His new book is “Comeback: Routing Trumpism, Reclaiming the Nation, and Restoring Democracy's Edge.”

In this conversation, Fish argues that the Democrats have neglected the importance of emotions in winning over the mass public to their cause. He also warns that the Democrats (and by implication many liberals and progressives) fundamentally misunderstand the (white) working class and their continued support for Donald Trump and Republicans. Toward the end of this conversation, Fish offers advice for President Biden and the Democrats on how to recalibrate their messaging and leadership style to defeat Trump and the Republicans in the 2024 election and beyond.

Read part one of our conversation here

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length

Politics is fundamentally a struggle over emotions and ideas. Democrats on the national level are horrible storytellers. They believe that facts and policy win political battles. They do not. Democrats win the facts and lose the argument.

All the research I did for my book bears out what you say here. First, on emotions: The Republicans—and for that matter, their authoritarian equivalents around the world—never forget that politics is about appeals to values and feelings more than material interests. The Democrats have lost track of that fact and think that the advantage goes to the party that offers more attractive policies and the most goodies.

A crucial part of appealing to emotions is having a great story. The political psychologist Drew Westen spells this out in his work, and he rightly faults the Democrats for both their belief that elections are primarily debates over policy issues and their lack of a compelling narrative.

"I think blaming the media for anything almost always misses the point."

What I’ve found is that the most inspiring narratives, the ones that really connect with people and win them over to your side, are national narratives. All the great liberal leaders such as Dr. King, JFK, and FDR armed themselves with enthralling national stories that centered on showing the world what we Americans were made of by reducing poverty, overcoming racism, leading the world in education and scientific innovation, and making the blessings of citizenship a reality for all Americans. And by aggressively claiming the flag and constantly wrapping their progressive programs in a grand national vision, they never allowed ethnonational creepy crawlers like George Wallace to claim patriotic superiority.

Today’s Democrats are so squeamish about nationalism and seemingly incapable of appreciating the power of narrative that they have no national story at all. So, in the absence of a powerful, liberal national-democratic story, Trump’s cramped, nativist, ethnonational fable, which treats native-born white Christians as the true Americans, is pretty much all we ever hear, even though most Americans don’t actually find it compelling.

And without a strong national narrative, your policies will be seen as sops to special interests and particular groups rather than as vital to the whole nation’s welfare. In the absence of such a story, no one will care about your policies unless they stand to benefit from them directly themselves. That would include, for example, the vast majority of workers who don’t have reason to think a given infrastructure spending bill will get them a job, and the overwhelming majority of Americans who work for employers who provide health insurance.

I am a proud member of the Black working class. My father was a janitor and my mother a home healthcare worker. I grew up with the so-called “white working class” that the mainstream media and political class fetishizes—and mocks and fails to understand. In many ways I feel more at home with those folks than I do with the white upper class and other elites who I often travel among personally and professionally. This background and life experience has given me a great insight into the Age of Trump, one that most of my fellow travelers, especially if they are white and from more privileged backgrounds, sorely lack.

You just put your finger on why voters of color are going over to the Republicans in droves. Almost half of Hispanics and fully a quarter of Black men now say they plan to vote for Trump. Many highly educated white liberals just can’t believe their eyes, and their reaction is often the same as it is when they see working-class whites throw in with the Republicans: How can these people vote against their own interests? And how can we Democrats strive ever more fervently to let them know how much we love them and how the Republicans don’t care?

Whites now make up no more than about a quarter of my students at Berkeley, and I can’t tell you how many kids of color tell me that their parents are all in for Trump. Many are first and second-generation Americans from Latin America, Asia, and Africa. What I’m hearing from my students, and also seeing in the research, is that a lot of people of color, including many recent immigrants, are tired of well-heeled white liberals treating them as casualties rather than as authors of the American story. Progressives’ white savior complex, however well-intentioned, can become so patronizing that it feels like plain old racism to them.

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In my book, I focus a lot of attention on white working-class voters, since that’s the group that seems to be going over to Trump in the largest numbers.

One of the things these people find most alienating about many affluent white progressives is how bigoted we think they are. Of course, there are plenty of hardcore bigots out there. But a raft of data suggests that they’re a small and diminishing portion of the population, and they’re not even a majority among Republican voters.

Overeducated coastal white elites who rarely mix it up with working-class Republicans—and this includes a lot of academics, journalists, and most of the people who control the Democratic Party’s messaging—tend to grossly overestimate how bigoted working-class whites are.

"Democrats are doing what they always do, which is running on 'the issues' rather on the story that’s much bigger than 'the issues' and that ties them all together."

What the Democrats offer today are pathos-soaked appeals to “struggling working families.” The vibe they put out to working-class people is basically: The American Dream is dying—especially for people like you. The only way you can revive it is by accepting government aid. And if you’re not smart enough to realize how desperately you need it, just wait until you get old and sick, and the Republicans won’t cover your preexisting conditions!

In America, this is not a winning message.

What role has the mainstream news media played in the democracy crisis?

Let’s start with an important fact noted by the historian Timothy Snyder: Reporters are the heroes of our age. They are the guarantors of democracy, all the more in times like ours when democracy is in grave danger. And for the most part, the ethic of objectivity and truth-telling is alive and well.

I’d like to add that I think blaming the media for anything almost always misses the point. I often hear my fellow liberals say that “the media” are to blame for Trump’s rise. But the media are just the messenger, and outlets of every type and stripe stay in business by giving us the information we want and putting it in terms that engage our attention. The reason Trump dominates the airwaves, even out of office, is that he’s more interesting and entertaining and less constrained by the Marquess of Queensberry boxing rules than his opponents, so stories about him get more clicks.

The fact is, we live in an age of click-bait communication, infotainment, and public addiction to spectacle. If freedom’s enemies project more chutzpah and garner more attention than its defenders do, democracy will remain in jeopardy—if it survives at all. And if the truth-tellers tell their truths less provocatively, consistently, and doggedly than the disinformers tell their lies, any shared notion of reality will shrivel. We can already see that happening.

If you want your message to resonate, you can’t be dull, and the Democrats have become more than a little boring. Their low-dominance risk-aversion, fear of offending, distaste for “othering” anyone, and skittishness about using provocative, transgressive language, are a big part of why so many voters, especially young ones, experience the Democrats’ policy appeals as bloodless, boring bromides.

Just have a look at Project 2025 and Agenda 47. Trump and MAGA describe themselves as “conservatives." In reality, they are neofascists (or even more specifically fake right-wing authoritarian populists). We need to use accurate and specific language to defeat this threat to American and global democracy. 

This needs to be integrated into the Democrats’ narrative. The Trumpified Republicans are in no way conservatives, at least not in the American sense. Nor are they patriots. Democracy is our country’s most sacred tradition, and nobody who seeks to undermine democracy in America has the right to call themselves either a conservative or a patriot.

Look, I grew up in a Republican family in the Midwest and the South: small government, small business, personal responsibility, patriotism, and all the rest. Mom told me we were Republicans in part because some Democrats used the N-word. Mind you, this was in Kentucky back in the 1970s, and she was right. Obviously, the Trumpified Republicans are no longer my parents’ party.

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Whatever you and I might think of their policies, Ronald Reagan, John McCain, and Mitt Romney were both conservatives and patriots. None of them would have thought of trying to undermine the legitimacy of democracy by claiming that any election they lost was rigged or by inciting an insurrection. None of these figures were my political heroes, but still, they were real conservatives and real Americans. Trump and his MAGAmen are radical yahoos and traitors. And, as you say, neofascists. It’s long past time the Democrats got over their squeamishness about adducing these facts and using these terms.

You mention Project 2025 and Agenda 47, and you’re right: These documents provide a roadmap for demolishing democracy. As you know, the Republicans’ plans include eviscerating what they call the “deep state,” which actually means the agencies of justice, administration, and law enforcement. These are the part of the government that ensure the rule of law—that is, a system in which the rulers, as well as everyone else, must obey the rules. Gutting them will enable the Republicans to rig political competition, stay in office even when they lose, suppress opposition, weaponize law enforcement, and leverage their offices for private gain.

As usual, Trump and the Trumpized Republicans are telling us exactly what they plan to do, so we have no excuse for acting shocked at their behavior. The question is how democracy’s defenders can use the Republicans’ remarkably candid statements of their intentions against them.

How can the Democrats leverage the Republicans’ betrayal of democracy to beat them in November and beyond?

It’s true that Biden and other top Democrats sometimes sound the alarm on the Republican threat to democracy. But is that what they are running on? Is that what they never quit talking about? Not really. Instead, they run on promises to control prescription drug prices. They run on the Republicans’ abortion bans. They run on taxing the rich at a higher rate. In other words, the Democrats are doing what they always do, which is running on “the issues” rather on the story that’s much bigger than “the issues” and that ties them all together.

That story is about American democracy, and it’s what the Democrats should be running on, day in and day out. Everything we hold dear—a dynamic economy, our preeminence in the world of science and innovation, civil rights, civil peace, a woman’s right to choose, public health, basic human decency—rests on the preservation of democracy.

We defend it; the Republicans are seeking to turn us into a tinpot dictatorship. Their hero and role model is Viktor Orbán, the two-bit Hungarian despot who wrecked his country’s democracy, allied his country with Putin, and drove every company out of business that refused to bankroll his party and bribe his sorry butt. Do you want to live in Orbán’s America?

Trump does. After meeting with Orbán at the White House, he said of him: “It’s like we’re twins!”

Trump’s ultimate hero and mentor, of course, is Vladimir Putin, America’s greatest sworn enemy. Democrats also support our democratic allies to the hilt, including Ukraine. Those relationships multiply our power and keep our nation secure. Trump wants to withdraw from NATO. Withdraw from NATO! Why? Because destroying NATO is Putin’s dream, and Trump sides with Putin. Always, every time. Do you know what Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan would call that? Treason! Because that’s what it is.

Now why the hell don’t the Democrats say it?

If you had a private meeting with President Biden and his advisors what advice would you give them?

Fire your pollsters, or at least ignore them. They can’t get their twitchy noses out of last week’s focus-group data on gasoline prices, and they don’t see the big picture or grasp what you’re up against. Nor do they fully see what you’re really capable of. The constant adjustment of your message to polling data makes you look like a people-pleasing panderer rather than the principled, passionate progressive hard-ass you really are. You’ve been at this for over half a century and run in nine elections. You understand Americans better than anyone else does.

Be provocative. Be interesting. Use transgressive language. Ridicule Trump; don’t even act like you take him seriously. But don’t just keep shining the spotlight on him and hoping against hope that if voters finally see how awful he is, they’ll choose you by default. That’s classic low-dominance politics, and it’s part of why Trump is always the news, even though you’re the president and he’s just a private citizen trying to stay out of jail. Keep the spotlight on yourself. You’re the man; Trump is not.

Switch to a high-dominance messaging style that projects your superior strength and commitment to democracy and the American way. We saw glimpses of your appreciation for the need to do that in your Republican-owning SOTU speech, your decision to leak that you refer to Trump as a “sick fuck” in private, and your “make my day, pal” response to Trump’s invitation to debate. But those were just flashes of dominance; you’ve got to do it every day.

Trump’s a traitor who sides with our enemies. You’re a bold commander who has produced a crackling economy, united our democratic allies against Putin’s horrific invasion of Ukraine, and stood up to Xi Jinping. That’s why Putin and Xi and every other enemy of democracy in the world is pulling for Trump. You kicked Trump’s ass once, and you’re going to do it again. Show it and tell it.

This final bit of advice is not for Biden, it’s for the rest of us, everybody who wants democracy to prevail: It’s time to rally behind Biden with abandon. Let’s leave the prattle about Biden’s age to the Republicans; it’s a disgrace for liberals to keep tearing ourselves apart about it when he’s our candidate and the main thing standing between us and a slide into autocratic hell. So what if he moves more slowly than he used to? Biden’s mind is sharp, his heart’s enormous, and he works 12-hour days. He’s got what it takes and then some. He’s our guy. Let’s back him to the hilt and take it to Trump.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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