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Why Looking for the “Winning Issue” Is a Losing Proposition

They want candidates who espouse values, not tactics

Much has been made of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in New York, but the fact is, local, home grown progressives have been winning for months now in purple states like Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Virginia. (Lancaster Stands Up voted to endorse Jess King, Lancaster, PA/ Photo: Twitter)

Much has been made of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in New York, but the fact is, local, home grown progressives have been winning for months now in purple states like Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Virginia. (Lancaster Stands Up voted to endorse Jess King, Lancaster, PA/ Photo: Twitter)

There’s been a spate of articles and pronouncements from the usual suspects speculating on what the winning issue might be for Democrats. 

Pundits and politicians have pitched everything from Trump’s treatment of immigrant children to legal weed, to relief from college debt, to defense of social security, to advocating for affordable health care, and of course, Russia. Much of this search is designed to get the no-shows – most of whom are young -- to turn out, although finding a “winning issue” for other groups—such as African Americans, Hispanics, or the LGQBT community -- is also a focus of the party and the pundits. More about how targeting identity groups undercuts the Democratic Party – and the objectives of the groups themselves, for that matter – later.  First, we’ll focus on why the notion of a “winning issue” is also self-defeating. 

Issues won’t win; values will

To put it bluntly, the idea that there’s some magic issue that will enable them to win shows that Democrats and their pundits haven’t learned a thing since 2016.

Krystal Ball nailed the problem with a “winning issue” approach to politics in this description of Hillary Clinton’s campaign:

The very fact that her team is so publicly mulling these choices reveals that they have no clue that their biggest problem isn’t making the proper electoral calculations, but rather            that their entire campaign is based on electoral calculations.

It was this kind of public scheming that convinced millions of potential voters to sit out the 2016 election, and it will have the same effect in 2018 and 2020 if Democrats don’t get wise.

The no-shows aren’t interested candidates trying to spin their way into office; they aren’t interested in candidates who do ethical backflips to retain their ties to corporations and big money donors; they aren’t interested in calculating, triangulating, scheming, or conniving candidates.

They want candidates who espouse values, not tactics.  And if they don’t get them, they’ll stay home, and Democrats will, once again, cede the election to the minority of the bitter, the angry, and the ignorant.

And it won’t do any good for Democrats to blame voters for not showing up to vote.  If they refuse to run candidates who represent the people, they have no right to expect the people to vote.

In fact, Democrats have been losing for decades, now, precisely because they refused to embrace New Deal values.  Even their recent victories – Obama in 2008 and 2012 and the Congress in 2008 -- came about as much from a combination of gross incompetence and overreach on the part of Republicans as it did from anything Democrats ran on. Hope and change? Hope for what, change to what?  No one asked, and it didn’t matter; voters were desperate to get Cheney and Bush out of there, and reign in Paul Ryan’s give-a-ways to the uber rich and corporations.

And it’s possible that Democrats will capitalize on the publics’ fear and loathing once again in 2018 to eke out control of the House, and if they’re very lucky, the Senate, although that’s a stretch. But 2018 will be a Pyrrhic victory at best.  Republicans will still control most of the states, the courts, the Presidency, and most likely, the Senate.


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The evidence that people are hungering for a party that embraces values is overwhelming.  Much has been made of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in New York, but the fact is, local, home grown progressives have been winning for months now in purple states like Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Virginia.  And even Connor Lamb’s supposedly centrist win had him backing progressive programs like affordable health care, defending social security and Medicare, and opposing the Republican tax cuts for corporations and the uber-rich, while regulating Wall Street and the big banks a decidedly progressive suite of issues.

Then of course, there was the stunning rebuke of Diane Feinstein by the California Democratic Party on July 14th, when they endorsed the more liberal Kevin de Leon. 

All of these are a result of a grass roots rebellion against status quo Democrats that’s been brewing since the 2016 Convention.  They won’t be fooled by a “winning issue.”

Why identity politics plays into Republicans’ hands, and why a values-based party makes it unnecessary

As I wrote that sentence above, I prepared myself for the storm that is sure to come from many legitimately aggrieved minorities and alienated groups.  Yes, Black Lives Matter and the wholesale gunning down of young black men must stop; and yes, the LGBQT community is under assault, as are immigrants, Hispanics, women, and the Muslim community. For that matter, atheists get their fair share of hate these days, too. 

And yes, white male America – despite some efforts on the part of government to give others an equal shot at the brass ring – still has an inside track in many ways.  And too many feel entitled to that position, and are loath to give it up.

 But here’s the thing – divided we will fall; only united will we succeed. Here’s why.

Republicans and conservatives have invested billions of dollars trying to split Americans up – to divide us one against another.  Fanning the flames of hate, fear, selfishness and greed has been their path to victory.  The whole us vs. them playbook is the reason they can win as a minority party. And identity politics -- despite the best of intentions, the noblest of motives, and the legitimacy of the specific grievances of each group – merely reinforces the fracturing of society.

The Reverend Martin Luther King said, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”   

A national party that endorses, embraces, and lives values such as tolerance, equity, justice, compassion, fairness, and a belief in an effective government capable of protecting the rights of all Americans will accomplish what each individual group wants and deserves more surely than any single group could achieve them, for one simple reason – it is the approach that will win elections, and throw sand into the gears of the Republican hate and fear machine. 

A new day is dawning, with grass roots progressives running and winning across the land; with Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez doing sold out events in red-red-red Kansas; with centrists like Diane Feinstein and Crowley getting shoved aside by voters. But with climate change, control of the courts, and state redistricting on the line, time is not on our side, and a “winning issue” won’t save us.

John Atcheson

John Atcheson

John Atcheson is author of the novel, A Being Darkly Wise, and a book on our fractured political landscape entitled, WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back On Track, both available from Amazon. Follow him on Twitter @john_atcheson

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