As Democrats are (hopefully) reflecting on their election loss in Virginia, they should understand that it is not about Trump, it has never been about Trump – and that even Trump has not been about Trump (well, maybe a little bit).
It is about the issues.
First, Bill Clinton knew that it is about the economy, always, always, always. What does that mean? Economy means paychecks and opportunities, paying for your housing, health care, being able to save for retirement, education, raising your family, building a future. Furthermore, if there is no economy, then the government has no money either for social welfare policies, and will have to tax more, which will lead to throttling the economy. You can try to mess with this formula, and it will always fail. Even issues like climate change will have to be solved by utilizing our economic model – otherwise, voters will not support it.
Second, Barack Obama knew that Americans care about racism, that you can talk with them intelligently about the subject, and that they will vote for you – twice. Confronting racism cannot be a zero-sum game. Confront history, confront present-day injustices, prevent future injustice. Together. Do not be divisive, do not insult people, do not make this about collective guilt but about a concern for people, for all people. That was the message of every civil rights leader. People are not objecting to teaching about racism – we have been doing this for decades. They are objecting to the way that it is being taught.
Third, both Bill and Hillary Clinton knew that American foreign policy is based on strength and values, together. Executing a disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, jilting European allies like France, foregoing on producing our own energy and relying on OPEC simply do not work. If America does not lead, someone else will, and it won’t be a democratic power. When America leads, it needs to lead in a way that does not replicate the old-style colonialism, but by bringing people and countries together in a functioning multilateralism.
Fourth, as any immigrant to this country knows, America has strength and appeal across the world. The world is watching. Fulfill the promise, work out your problems, but don’t stop believing. Don’t play into the narrative – actively or passively – that this country is a failure. Learn from those who have come, who continue to come, to seek the fulfillment of their dream, as corny as this may sound to some of those who have been born in the USA.
Fifth, education matters. Teach history, teach science, teach culture – universally. Expand the canon, do not cut it down. Do not talk about math as racist. Do not denigrate competitiveness. Our students deserve better, and the international competition is fierce. Our students need to learn more, be more competitive, and become more educated in both STEM and non-STEM fields. Ideology does not help.
Sixth, physical safety matters. Do not defund police, make it better. We need better policing, not less policing. Do not tolerate shoplifting and other crimes. I do not believe in owning guns, but I understand why some people believe they should. Guaranteeing physical safety, which includes the safety of property, is the basic duty of the state, for all people.
Seventh, get the pandemic under control. Vaccinate. Find solutions for how to do business with people being able to work from home. Don’t do what Trump did in his last year by pretending it’s over. It isn’t. It won’t be for a while.
Eighth, build infrastructure. This means trains, roads, bridges, ports, airports, public transportation, housing, energy. You have a bipartisan proposal. Get it through. Build back better without too much ideology. We need a better physical public transport infrastructure to help against climate change. We need nuclear, wind, solar, water and hydrogen. We need to keep using natural gas as a transitory technology, because it is better than coal. We need to set an example of how to successfully transition to a greener economy for the world to follow.
Ninth, democratic cities should be role models for the rest of the country. If the results of democratic policies are unappealing, reconsider what you are doing. Make democratic cities in democratic states safe, attractive, economically viable, inclusive and fix crime and homelessness. Then, your message will be convincing.
Tenth, and finally, actions matter, not words. Get things done that are impossible, and do not gamble on the impossible. This is not Europe. It has never been Europe. It will never be Europe. Americans value freedom and opportunity over safety and welfare. You may think about this as you wish, and there certainly are lessons the US needs to learn from some (but not all) European countries, but any effort to remake the US into a (largely incorrect) utopian fantasy version of European welfare states like Germany, France and Sweden (who all have their own problems!) will fail.
Accept reality, work with reality, work with the opposition, dream a little, but not too much. It’s the issues that matter. Extremism can only be fought with moderation.