As is usual for the party out of power, Democrats and progressives have, for the last year, grasping for variants of the same thing: an outline of what good things they’d do. Representative Hakeem Jefferies of New York said we need an “affirmative vision.” Delaware Senator Chris Coons said liberals need “a positive agenda.” Upbeat stuff. But the left needs something else, too—something, well, negative. It needs to explain who the public’s enemies are, and how they can be stopped.
This kind of vituperative populism will scare some liberals. Donald Trump has made many left-of-center thinkers even leerier of populist messaging than they already were—they might say calling out companies or executives by name is a bridge too far, a politician intimidating private citizens or businesses. But a positive vision can’t be evoked in voters if it isn’t also explained why that future doesn’t already exist. Progressives call for an inclusive economy because people are being excluded by someone; they call for a fair economy because there are economic actors making the system unfair.
The right has had an advantage at this for decades. They have an endless parade of villains to point to, usually the weak or disadvantaged. Whether it’s the illegal immigrant taking your job, the lazy welfare recipient wasting your tax dollars, the trans bogeyman lurking in your child’s bathroom: Their political vision has an explanation for their constituents’ hardships and problems. Rick Santelli became a right-wing hero in the aftermath of the housing crisis in 2009 because he was willing to rant about how your life was being ruined by profligate homebuyers, even as banks were being saved by the Obama Administration.
Conservatives know that along with painting a picture of the society they’d like to create—in their case, a socially retrograde and mostly white one—they must promise to defeat those forces that are preventing it. Liberals, meanwhile, tend to call for bold ideas without explaining what’s preventing them. There’s plenty of talk about renewable energy but little mention of polluting oil companies, or visions of a fairer economy minus any mention of CEOs and shareholders hoovering up profits. At least if liberals started casting blame, their targets would be the right ones.
The fire has gone out in the liberal policy world, and the flame isn’t there anymore among most of its politicians, either. Here’s FDR after a financial crisis:
We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.
They had begun to consider the government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob.
Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.
And here’s Hillary Clinton after a financial crisis:
I went to Wall Street before in December of 2007 before the big crash that we had, and I basically said: Cut it out!
Not exactly spurring the troops to the battlements.
Yet there are many businesses that are fat targets. By some measures, Comcast is the single most hated company in America. In this era of income inequality, probably one of the only ties uniting the rich and poor is the dread of calling the cable company. Cable prices have outpaced inflation every year for more than 20 years. A denunciation of telecom companies for their horrible service and unfair pricing paired with a massive infrastructure investment in public municipal broadband is a powerful message. It also forces conservatives to defend the status quo, rather than just trot out “do you want your Internet run by the DMV!?” (Although it wouldn’t surprise me if most Americans would take the DMV at this point.)
Or take a policy like postal banking—that is, allowing Americans to set up a government-run, no-fee bank account at any post office, which are much more equally distributed between rich and poor neighborhoods than big banks. It’s a great idea. However, the phrase “postal banking” isn’t going to send the average voter’s heart aflutter. But pair it with sharp criticisms of, say, Bank of America (the second-most hated company in America, according to one survey) and the message becomes more compelling. Putting aside the financial crisis, banks have a long history of taking advantage of their customers. As this piece was being written, BoA announced it was eliminating free checking for those with accounts holding less than $1,500. Millions of Americans have been ripped off by overdraft fees they didn’t know existed. Wells Fargo had a literal conspiracy to sign customers up for fake accounts, hurting those customers’ credit scores and charging them fraudulent fees. A story told to voters that explains these are the people ripping you off, and this is how government will stop it is far better, and would be far more effective, than simply explaining the virtues of a bank that happens to be located in a post office.
It’s worth noting that Americans do actually know who the enemies are. An urban planning professor who embedded herself in a payday loan operation found that many of the industry’s customers used payday loan companies because “they felt like they got treated better [there] than they got treated at the banks.” For pundits and strategists who don’t have to worry about falling below checking account minimums or accidentally overdrafting, this sounds ridiculous, but it’s totally sensible for plenty of working-class people. Consumers are so frustrated by cable companies that many are opting not to use them at all. The American people are not going to get the vapors from a politician who is willing to acknowledge what they already know—that there are businesses out there harming them for profit.
This strategy would solve another pressing problem for Democrats: Americans not knowing where the party actually stands. A 2017 Washington Post poll found that only 37 percent of Americans say the Democratic Party “stands for something.” This has been an acknowledged problem among elected Democratic officials. But a huge part of knowing what someone stands for is knowing what they stand against. Again, consider Republicans for a cruel and vicious version of this fact: Even if they hate him, people know Donald Trump stands against illegal immigrants, against Muslims, against black football players who kneel. Sometimes the negative fact is the one that sticks; Teddy Roosevelt was a trust-buster, not a competition-maker.
So why don’t Democrats name enemies and promise to bring them to heel? The usual and predictable answer: money. Banks, pharmaceutical companies, and telecommunication companies are all huge donors to the Democratic Party. So policy proposals have to take on vague, gauzy tones, ones that won’t ruffle any feathers. This is not lefty holier-than-thou-ism, but a simple reality. For instance, President Obama in a single interview in 2009 called bankers “fat cats.” The blowback was so intense that, before his next election, he had to invite two-dozen Wall Street donors to the White House as part of what The New York Times described as “an aggressive push by Mr. Obama to win back the allegiance of one of his most vital sources of campaign cash.” Obama campaign manager Jim Messina went to a group of Wall Street Democratic donors and specifically told them that Obama wouldn’t “demonize” them again in 2012. Not that it helped—Bloomberg reported that bankers were still angry about the “fat cat” comment . . . in 2017.
This is another unfair advantage for Republicans—they don’t rely on Muslims or undocumented immigrants to fund their campaigns, and so can smear them with impunity. The Democrats do, however, have an alternative: nullify that disadvantage by moving toward a more distributed and grassroots donor base. Bernie Sanders certainly showed a message geared toward anger can drive small donations.
Another example from FDR illustrates the right way to approach liberal reform: not as technocratic tinkering, but as a government defending you from bad actors. Roosevelt, in a 1932 speech in Portland, Oregon promoting the regulation and occasional government takeover of then-private electric utilities, laid out the enemy and then described the solution. Samuel Insull had been the magnate controlling most of those utilities, and when his holding company went bust during the Depression, it bankrupted hundreds of thousands of middle-class investors. Roosevelt refers to him by name:
The Insull failure has done more to open the eyes of the American public to the truth than anything that has happened. It shows us that the development of these financial monstrosities was such as to compel inevitable and ultimate ruin . . . that private manipulation had outsmarted the slow-moving power of Government. As always, the public paid and paid dearly. As always, the public is beginning to understand the need for reform after the same public has been fleeced out of millions of dollars. I have spoken on several occasions of a “new deal” for the American people. I believe that the “new deal,” as you and I know it, can be applied to a whole lot of things. It can be applied very definitely to the relationship between the electric utilities on the one side, and the consumer and the investor on the other.
The problem and solutions he describes are not so different from what we face today. Telecom companies have prevented countless municipal governments from setting up their own public broadband networks. Like those 1930s private utilities, one’s cable provider can endlessly raise your bill with the knowledge that you the captive customer have no recourse. Airlines can kick passengers off overbooked flights with no penalty. For-profit colleges can fool students into believing they’ll get a degree of value, then drag them into hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt. Drug companies create medicines that rely on billions of dollars of government-funded research, then price those drugs as if they were the result of pure capitalistic brilliance.
All of these problems are not problems of technocracy, or of bureaucracies that simply have to run better or be funded better. They are problems because there are villains in this story that have to be defeated through government power and control.
This language maybe sounds grandiose. But it only sounds that way because the ardor of a vibrant liberalism, one that saw its role as protecting citizens from corporations that would fleece the public at every turn, has been mostly sapped. President Obama viewed the inadequacy of health-care in this country as a series of problems to be solved hand-in-hand with the insurance industry, the very industry causing many of those problems. Obamacare did pass, and has (or had) many merits, but Democrats put tactics ahead of strategy when they assumed an oligopoly would protect Obamacare from conservatives’ destructive impulses. A liberalism that once again decides to start making Americans’ lives better through better Internet, cheaper flights, free health care, or fairer banking won’t be able to avoid upsetting those industries. But whoever takes up this task and, through her policies, enrages telecom companies, airlines, drug companies, and banks, can quote Roosevelt as he finished that speech in Portland:
To the people of this country I have but one answer on this subject. Judge me by the enemies I have made.