Why Mimicking Republican Ideas Is A Losing Democratic Strategy

May 18, 2017

A few weeks ago, I was in room full of progressives listening to the presentation of a Democratic pollster explaining how the Party can regain power and win in the midterm elections.

“Democrats are ceding the territories of ‘National Security’ and ‘Job Creation’ to Republicans!” he warned, gesturing at his PowerPoint of graphs and charts that showed the issue areas where Republicans were more trusted than Democrats. “Some of the solutions will be unpopular in this room,” he cautioned, ready to impart Hard Truths. “But what we found is when Democratic candidates in state races started talking about tougher vetting for immigrants, we closed the gap on ‘National Security.’ When they started talking about cutting taxes for the middle class and small business owners, we closed the gap by a few points on ‘Job Creation.’”

His solutions are not new, nor are they unique to that pollster. The argument is essentially that if Democrats want to compete with Republicans at the ballot box, they need to move to the right on core issues.

Not only is this approach morally bankrupt, it’s also terrible strategy. Yes, it’s entirely possible that calls for tougher vetting and tax cuts can move the needle a few points for Democrats in New Hampshire, South Carolina or other states or localities.

But the only thing Democrats will accomplish with this rhetoric is to endorse the false premises Republicans rely on to win elections in the first place. It’s well documented that the fear of immigrants and refugees occupies a significantly outsized role in the American political psyche relative to the actual security threats posed by these groups and that they are not the reason for the weak labor market. Trump’s election was carried by a wave of racism and xenophobia, and the responsibility of progressives now is to dismantle the dangerous assumptions white voters may have about immigrants and refugees—primarily for moral reasons, but also for political reasons. A Democratic strategy led by calls for more extreme vetting will only further entrench the falsehoods that Republicans leaned so heavily on in 2016. Progressives don’t want to enter a competition with Republicans on who can talk the toughest about immigrants (i.e., a competition on who can be the most racist). That’s not a competition progressives could win or should ever want to win.

A similar dynamic is at work with tax cuts.

Republicans have, for decades, relentlessly driven the narrative that tax cuts equal economic growth and jobs, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary. The 2003 dividend tax cut, a historic slashing of the capital gains rate, failed to unleash economic growth, raise wages, or create jobs. Its primary effect was to increase corporate payouts to shareholders. Governor Sam Brownback’s conservative tax agenda has devastated Kansas, as the state lost jobs, missed growth projections, and found itself in a sudden deficit crisis of $350 million. Economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez estimate the socially optimal tax rate for the top earners should not be cut but rather increased to 83 percent. Their model accounts for the effects of rent-seeking behavior—behavior that increases wealth and capital at the expense of others, rather than contributing to the broader economy—of top earners into their model. Available evidence from past tax cuts and current economic theory support the idea that the current barriers to growth and job creation include excessive concentrations of corporate and financial power—not overly cumbersome tax rates.

Democratic politicians are at a crossroads. They can seek to regain power by accepting a Republican ideological framework and create messaging and policy within those confines. Or they can operate within the confines of facts and reality and challenge these demonstrably false and fear mongering arguments. If Democratic party strategy must be data-driven, however, party leaders should pay heed to the polling data that show voters prefer a bold and progressive economic agenda to the moderate and incremental approach that has come to be associated with past party leaders and standard-bearers.