Progressives Are At A Natural Electoral Disadvantage

It’s Not Easy To Convince Voters You Love A Country That You Want To Fundamentally Change
Photo by Life Matters on

Something struck me this week about the Republican National Convention.

On the surface, it looks like a big old mess. They put forward figures like as prime time speakers like the McCloskeys, the St. Louis couple who pointed guns at protestors; a mother who believes her black son should be treated differently than her white son and that her husband should decide for her who to vote for; another women removed from the lineup for spouting anti-semitic nonsense and someone thought James Madison signed the Declaration of Independence, which is why he was named Madison (Madison didn’t sign it).

But for some observers, the RNC seems to be effective. Polling next week will tell us more, but I’ve so often found myself surprised by something the Republican Party does that comes across as a trainwreck, ends up working for them.

How is it that their message is so effective, when on issues polling – healthcare, the economy, jobs, even foreign policy – people seem to be more in line with Democrats and progressives, and their speakers seem to be disasters?

So I watched some of the RNC today on YouTube to see what they saw. The most important aspect of the RNC is not just to watch because its horrifying, but watch to see why it could be effective. There’s one thing that struck me – the pomp of patriotic displays and words and phrases.

Deciding voters aren’t interested in policy, but what they are interested in is hope, optimism and patriotism. Republicans do that. They put forth military, police, mothers, children, cake them in patriotic regalia and give them jingoist platitudes, and the voters, desperate to hear something positive about the country they were brought up to love, lap it up like pigs at a trough. They love it. For all its problems, it’s still ok to be proud to be an American and to love the country. That’s what the Republicans sell.

It’s hard for Democrats, especially progressives, to compete with that, because we want revolutionary change, and revolutionary change implies America is fundamentally bad, and that perhaps it is not something to be proud of. We also reject symbols – anthems, flags, vets – for what they are; blatant attempts at pandering. But it comes across as nihilist and unpatriotic. It reminds me of something someone said in 2004 as to why he would vote for Bush over John Kerry despite being a union-loving Democrat.

“Why would voters trust the country to people they think hate it?”

There is also, I believe, a level of insecurity about our country in the minds of many Americans. I think most Americans know there are fundamental and systemic problems, perhaps even fatal flaws, in our country. You can tell by how well progressive ideas poll. But patriotism and love of country is up there with faith and family in terms of importance. Just like the person who loves her relative despite him or her doing awful things, or still adheres to a religion despite awful things, Americans want to find a way to love their country while also acknowledging its flaws and promoting solutions.

The good thing is that I think the Democratic National Convention – to the extent that it will be remembered – did just that. Of course Joe Biden is not running on the mantle of revolutionary change, so its easy for him to sell the idea that the United States is an amazing country at its core, being torn apart or led astray by con artists and misinformation. In fact, his acceptance speech last week pretty much sold that idea.

For me, someone who believes America is over and beyond saving, and whoever we elect now is about who will manage the inevitable break up in the most peaceful and least painful way, Biden’s speech was the first time in over a decade I actually felt like the country could be salvaged. That there could be a better future that will destroy the right wing radicals and satisfy the left wing uprising.

And it’s hard to see how progressives get a foothold in a country that wants to see your patriotism before your policies.

But this week has done a lot to ruin that image in my mind. Between the Jacob Blake shooting, the riots in Kenosha, the Kyle Rittenhouse murders, the RNC and the media’s response to all of it, it’s hard to see how Biden can deliver his vision even if he wins handily, which isn’t guaranteed.

And it’s hard to see how progressives get a foothold in a country that wants to see your patriotism before your policies. When your flag pin or the placement of your hands during the anthem are prerequisites to your ideas on social or economic justice, it almost seems phony or contrived to comply, and that phoniness can be easy to spot.

I think Biden the Democratic Party made an effort to do that last week, but time will only tell if it works. Even if it does, it will likely not satisfy true progressives.


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