The process by which certain strange and tendentious political ideas become widespread, even trite, is occasionally mysterious even to careful observers. A recent example is the common refrain that the battered and bruised Democratic Party has “no ideas”—a strange charge, considering that its last candidate was a famously wonky figure whose path to the nomination included a protracted, substantive primary debate over the party’s overarching vision. The Democratic Party is electorally disadvantaged and internally divided, but what sentient person can have lived through the last two years without noticing that the party supports, to take two obvious examples, a higher minimum wage (whether $12 or $15) and universal health care (single-payer or not)?
And yet, this claim is widespread enough that it can be repeated without any specifics adduced in support, as shown by John Kasich’s assertion on Sunday’s Meet the Press: “The problem with the Democrats, I can’t figure out what they’re for.” This is altogether bizarre, given that Kasich is actively working with a Democratic governor on Democratic priorities like Medicaid expansion (so closely, in fact, that he’s sparked speculation of a bipartisan unity ticket in 2020).
To be clear, casting doubt on the claim that the Democrats have no ideas, or no positive message, is not the same as saying they have the right ideas or the right message. Nor is it to deny that the party faces serious challenges (some of its own making) in returning to power. But I suspect that the alleged ideas gap is one area where, to put it bluntly, pundits and politicians are overthinking it. After all, the party is coming off eight years in the White House, with recent achievements to defend on the economy, health care, the environment, consumer protections, labor rights, higher education accessibility, immigration, and more. Many of these achievements are part of a mixed record that also includes some notable failures, and others fell far short of what might have been hoped for—but this is just a way of saying that they provide an obvious place to start, a foundation on which to build.
For a concrete example, take Dean Baker’s brief but illuminating post on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s recent decision to ban mandatory arbitration clauses in financial industry contracts. At first glance, this seems like the sort of thing that excites liberal wonks and is an insomnia cure for everybody else, but it can be explained in relatively simple terms. As Baker puts it, the rule will “effectively be limiting the industry’s ability to ‘rip-off’ their customers,” in the sense of inserting a “term in a contract that a consumer may agree to because they don’t understand it.” In this case, a ban on mandatory arbitration protects consumers’ ability to bring class action lawsuits against financial companies, rather than forcing them to take up complaints individually, in a private forum outside the court system (which, as the industry well understands, few people have the time or resources to do). What’s more, as Baker explains, the rule will return an estimated $1 billion annually to consumers, while reducing financial companies’ “incentive to develop deceptive contracts in the first place,” a shift which frees up lawyers and industry experts to seek profit by developing better products, rather than by finding new and creative ways to screw consumers. This saves money (and headaches) for people buying financial products and promotes economic growth.
See? That’s not so hard—a Democratic accomplishment (the CFPB) taking steps that are good for the economy, that are not terribly difficult to communicate, and that have an obvious pocketbook appeal to average Americans. What’s more, this is a pretty concrete example of the sort of populist measure that most people think the party could use more of right about now—and it takes almost no effort to draw a striking contrast with the business practices of the con artist currently occupying the Oval Office. So yes, the left has no shortage of problems to overcome before it can return to power. But there are bright spots, too. Take a deep breath, build on existing accomplishments, and don’t overthink this.