Symposium | Halfway Home?

Can the Democrats Do Emotion?

By Daniel T. Rodgers

Tagged DemocratsDonald Trump

Two years ago, anxiety and alienation dominated the election. The economic consequences of globalization were on everyone’s mind. In the midterm election, anxiety was eclipsed by raw fear. On the Republican side, fear was visceral, racist, and strikingly manipulable. It could easily be turned on immigrants, criminals, women who spoke out against men, the media whose facts the President didn’t like, the “mobs” who picketed, and, above, all the racial outsiders to Trump’s white America, both within and outside the gates. On the Democratic Party side, fear was not so cruelly expressed but it was no less real: dismay at the demagoguery in which Donald Trump reveled so blatantly; recoil against his onslaughts on truth and legal process; fear for the future of democracy itself.

But setting fear against fear is not enough for a liberal revival, even joined with the precise targeting on Republican health-care proposals that helped win back the House. The arenas of state and local government, this election showed, are more important than ever. A handful of state legislatures slipped from Republican to Democratic control, but the radical erosion of liberal-dominated state houses during the Obama years has barely begun its reversal.

2018 changed the demographic composition of liberalism. The New Deal party that relied on a powerfully unified working class is now clearly beyond recovery. The blue-collar Trump voters did not return, as many hoped, to the Democratic Party in 2018. Suburban voters turned the election, many of them women: granddaughters of a population that had once solidly stood for Eisenhower and the politics of decency and the “middle way.” Their presence will strengthen liberalism, but it will also make the work of holding its coalition all the more tricky yet important. Predictions that Trump’s Republican Party would fragment have proven wrong; but, with its much broader ideological tent, liberalism’s fissure is a constant threat.

What will save liberalism in this context is not the national policy proposals at the center of many post-election debates. Policies are beside the point for those who vote most solidly for Donald Trump. They are proxies for the emotional bonds they feel so powerfully with him. In this context, what liberalism most needs is an emotional equivalent. It needs a coherent story about itself that connects its aspirations with the dreams of those who, in these fear-driven times, still hope. It needs candidates whom cynicism-inured voters will trust. It needs candidates who can hear voters’ voices, in the way that Trump’s base feels so passionately, however wrongly, that he hears theirs. A higher minimum wage, a health insurance system simpler and better than Obamacare, and a more equitable taxation system are not sufficient. Without an emotional connection with voters stronger than the fears of 2018, they will not bring about a liberal majority in the age of emotional politics we have blundered into.

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Daniel T. Rodgers is the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University. His most recent book, As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon, was published earlier this fall by Princeton University Press.

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