In This Episode
How do we fix what’s wrong with the Democratic Party? Focus groups of Democratic voters in Texas and Michigan, along with thousands of callers, offer their views.
The Wilderness is a documentary from Crooked Media and Two-Up about the history and future of the Democratic Party. Pod Save America’s Jon Favreau tells the story of a party finding its way out of the political wilderness through conversations with strategists, historians, policy experts, organizers, and voters. In fifteen chapters, the series explores issues like inequality, race, immigration, sexism, foreign policy, media strategy, and how Democrats can build a winning majority that lasts.
[mechanical voice] The machine is on. [phone rings]
[different voices] Hello. Hello. Hello. Operator. [beep]
Jon Favreau: Hey, it’s Jon Favreau. I know we all think that the Democratic Party is perfect in every way, but if you happen to think there’s room for improvement, I’d love to hear your thoughts for a new Crooked Media podcast I’m working on that will be out this summer. So after the beep, please answer the question: what’s wrong with the Democratic Party and how do we fix it. [dialing beeps]
caller 1: Hey John, what’s wrong with the Democratic Party is that it is a party of centrist neocon squishes who are afraid to govern, and the last activist Democratic president is LBJ, which is before I was born.
caller 2: Let’s see. I think, first of all, we need to stop using the cast of the West Wing in ads and Facebook videos.
caller 3: Essentially, the Democratic Party is too big to function.
caller 4: I don’t believe that you could be fiscally conservative and socially liberal.
caller 5: Democrats too often give in to the GOP rhetoric and their game the way they play it.
caller 6: Democratic leadership is incredibly old and they’ve done little to groom the next generation.
caller 7: They don’t show a backbone. They don’t show balls.
caller 8: I want to know why the Democratic Party does not run on a progressive agenda.
caller 9: I’m seeing a lot of push on the left, farther to the left, and obviously living in Texas I think that’s to our detriment.
caller10: And I feel like the Democratic Party is missing a huge opportunity to target Christians in the south.
caller 11: There’s nothing wrong with the Democratic Party. It’s just people are so about their heritage.
caller 12: The re-litigation, the Bernie-Hillary, like please, we need to stop this or we’re not a party.
caller 13: We don’t know what we stand for, where we’re trying to go. Feels like we just go from kind of election to election, grabbing on to whatever issue feels salient.
caller 14: I just think we need young blood in there. OK, thanks for doing this. Love you all, bye.
[mechanical voice] The machine is off. [dial tone]
Jon Favreau: In March of 2018, I found myself in Texas staring out at the open wilderness because I thought it would go well with my metaphorical podcast title. Actually, I went to a town outside of Houston called Stafford to conduct my very first focus group of voters. Later I went to Canton, Michigan, right outside Detroit to do the same thing. I figured that before we hear from all the strategists and experts about the different challenges facing the Democratic Party, it’d be good to start by hearing from actual voters. As you just heard, we first ask people to call in, and leave a voicemail with an answer to the question: what’s wrong with the Democratic Party and how do we fix it? Nearly 2,000 of you called and we went through every single message, some of which you’ll hear in this episode. But I also wanted to do a more scientific sampling of voters, which is where these focus groups come in. If Democrats want to win again, some combination of three things has to happen. Number one: 2016 nonvoters or third party voters need to vote Democrat. Number two: 2016 Trump voters need to vote Democrat. Or number three: 2016 Trump voters need to stay home. Since we don’t have much control over number three, I decided to talk to the first two groups of voters. In Texas, I talk mostly to 2016 nonvoters or third party voters. These are people who identify as Democrats or Independents and who voted for Barack Obama in 2012, but in 2016 they either didn’t vote for president or they voted for third-party candidate. They tend to be younger and more diverse, mostly in their 20s and 30s. In Michigan, I talk mostly to the infamous Obama-Trump voters. These are people who identify as Democrats or Independents who voted for Barack Obama in 2012, and who then voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Yes, I know it sounds crazy, but these voters are very real and they tend to be older and whiter, mostly in their 40s, 50s and 60s. Focus groups aren’t perfect. The voicemails aren’t a scientific sample. And what you won’t be hearing in this episode are the voices of the millions of Democrats and first-time voters out there who were more energized and enthusiastic to vote in November than they’ve been in a really long time. But I can tell you from our Pod Save America live shows, that those Democrats are out there, they make up a vast majority of our party, and they’re absolutely kicking ass right now. The purpose of this episode is to hear from Democrats and Independents who think the party can do better. We’ll also hear from pollsters and other folks who spend a lot of time talking to Democratic voters. And hopefully by the end, we’ll get a good sense of where we are, so we can get a better sense of where we need to go. I’m Jon Favreau. Welcome to The Wilderness.
Jon Favreau: Hi, everyone.
[voices] Hello. Hello.
Jon Favreau: Thank you so much for doing this, I really appreciate you taking time. For those who voted for Trump, what made you vote for Trump?
woman: He said he was going to drain the swamp.
Jon Favreau: Yes. Do you think he’s draining the swamp?
same woman: Oh, no, he’s stocked it with bigger and badder alligators.
Jon Favreau: [laughs]
same woman: Yeah, his politics aside, I just think he’s kind of a reprehensible person. And I didn’t think that before he was elected.
Jon Favreau: OK.
same woman: But then all the skeletons started coming out of the closet.
man: Now the skeletons are sticking to him. [laughs]
same woman: It’s a cemetery. [laughter]
man: Yeah. Yeah.
Jon Favreau: I’ll start with the good news: not one of the Obama-Trump voters I spoke to in Michigan had anything positive to say about the President. Nearly all of them regret their vote. I realize this may also be somewhat infuriating to hear. What did they think was going to happen when you elect Donald Trump president? But ultimately it’s a sign that the swing voters who put him over the top in 2016 may not be there for Trump in 2020. I also heard some of the 2016 nonvoters and third-party voters I spoke to in Texas say that the Trump presidency has made them realize it’s important to vote in 2018.
Jon Favreau: Would you consider yourselves more eager to vote in this, in the next midterm elections or less eager?
woman 1: I think more.
Jon Favreau: More for you.
woman 1: Because I want a change.
woman 2: More, I mean, let’s do what we can on the ground, ground level, you know, grassroots level of where we are right now. It’s like we as a nation are a reality show right now.
woman 2: I feel like the world was—
man: It’s a joke.
woman 2: —looking at us and snickering at us.
man: He needs an ass whooping, from his mamma.
woman: I think if you want to change, if you want to see a change, you should at least do your part by voting. So I’m more inclined to vote.
Jon Favreau: But the disappointment and disgust I heard about Trump didn’t necessarily translate to love for Democrats, or a commitment to vote from some of the people in Michigan and Texas. Mostly they seem pretty cynical about parties and politics in general.
man: I don’t know. It just seems so pointless at times like, I don’t know, like, they’re saying it’s like some rigged shit. Like, I don’t even see the point.
Jon Favreau: And you don’t think that voting will change it much?
same man: I mean, you want to believe that, because you’re raised to believe that your vote counts. Right? But then you see this shit on TV about like Donald Trump in that position, like the stupidest choice, honestly.
woman: Of all of them. Yeah.
different woman: Out of anyone.
third woman: How did it happen? How?
same man: And he wins.
Jon Favreau: When it came to the Democratic Party itself, I didn’t hear much anger or disdain, but I didn’t hear a lot of excitement and passion either. Mostly I heard confusion. And that’s what we heard in a lot of your voice mails, too.
caller Robert: Hi, John. This is Robert calling from New York City. What is wrong with the Democratic Party? The party doesn’t stand for anything clear. The Republican Party, especially in today’s world, stands for tax cuts, stands for anti-immigrant, and stands for building a wall. It’s really that simple for them. The Democrats need to stand for something clear, simple, and easy. It needs to fit on a Post-it note.
female caller: I don’t know what Democrat utopia looks like. Right? Like if the government were 100% Democrats, I don’t know what America would look like. I know we have more health care.
male caller: They’re wishy washy, their pushovers. When given real power, they don’t exercise it. And I agree with that. I mean, I don’t find Democrats to be more principled in reality. That’s so frustrating to me.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: I think the brand of the Democratic Party right now is not very well defined.
Jon Favreau: Pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: I think for the Democratic Party, it’s: I don’t really know what they believe; what do they stand for? If you don’t really know what a party stands for, why are you going to sign up with them? Even if you may think: well, the individual candidates may tend to hold positions that I like, or the individual people may be preferable to the Republican counterparts, or man, I don’t like those Republicans—but I think that right now it is hard for a lot of voters to really answer the question, what is the Democratic Party all about?
Jon Favreau: As you’ve heard so far, there’s a good amount of confusion and disagreement over what the Democratic Party stands for, though I will say that when I posed this question to voters in Michigan and Texas, there was a common theme to the answers.
woman: I think they’re more on the side of the working man than the Republicans.
man: Blue collar.
Jon Favreau: Blue collar.
woman: Working class.
Jon Favreau: So what is your opinion of the Democratic Party today?
woman: More caring.
Jon Favreau: More caring.
woman speaker: It’s more for the people.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: I think in the Obama era, the Democratic Party got branded as the party for young people, a party that was looking towards the future, maybe a party that was soft focus, more sort of touchy feely. What I would hear in focus groups when I would ask people what comes to mind when you think of the Democratic Party would be that they think it’s against the rich. They would say that it’s the party that wants to take care of people. It was really kind of wrapped in this concept of caring. The Republican Party may be more of numbers and tough love and that sort of thing, whereas the Democratic Party is the party that is more likely to want to give you a hug.
Jon Favreau: Who do you think the Democrats are fighting for most?
woman 1: The people.
woman 2: Minorities and—
woman 1: Middle class.
woman 3: The misfits, the left behind.
woman speaker: The party of the middle class. Like, for example, I have cerebral palsy when I was a child, you know, my parents were die-hard conservatives, we can never get health care for me because I had a preexisting condition. And what Obama did and passed, I mean, it was just, it was for me, directly affected by it. And yeah, so the party of the middle class.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: But just because they were branded as the party that sort of cared about the poor, cared about LGBT inclusion and cared about folks who are immigrants, did not mean that everybody felt like they were captured by one of those labels.
caller Kelly: Hi, my name is Kelly. I am 42 and I live in West Virginia. I live in a state, one of the only states actually, which did not go for Reagan. So the state has turned from very blue to very red in my lifetime. And I think I have some insight as to why, living here. And I went away to college and came back. So I feel that I have a little bit of insight as a sort of insider and outsider here. I think that the Democratic Party has sort of abandoned the middle class and lower middle-class workers. In Hillary’s speech at the Democratic convention, I watched and I waited for her to mention the middle class or middle-class workers or unions. It was probably 15 to 17 minutes in when she did. And that could be a slight exaggeration but it was a long time, long enough that she probably had lost many of them by that time because they had to go to bed to get up early for work the next day.
Dan Wagner: When you asked these people, why do you not like the Democratic Party, they say the same thing over again.
Jon Favreau: Data scientist Dan Wagner, who worked in Obama’s campaigns and spent a lot of time talking to Obama-Trump voters in red and purple states.
Dan Wagner: They say you are a bunch of impotent, urban, non-understanding hypocrites that couldn’t give two fucks about me or my community.
Jon Favreau: I thought Dan was being a little hyperbolic here, but I did hear similar complaints in the focus groups and the voice mails, even from Democrats who’ve been involved in politics.
caller: I have been thinking a lot about this topic as an activist, but also as someone who loves politics and has managed campaigns and worked on campaigns. And I’ve been trying to put my finger on it. And I think something that is wrong is that it’s not totally untrue, the idea that people in the Democratic Party think that they’re better than everybody else or smarter. And I don’t even exclude myself from that. But I think that’s part of what brought us this election is, I always thought it was kind of a false narrative that people felt talked down to by the party, but they really, really do feel talked down to by the party. We add fuel to the fire when we call people deplorable or tout our intellect while trying to discredit theirs. Politics has turned into a game of winning and losing, and there’s no sort of common ground that people are even attempting to reach.
Jon Favreau: Another thing you hear from voters is that while Republicans care too much about the rich, Democrats care too much about the poor, and that neither party is looking out for everyone else.
David Binder: A lot of the work that I’m doing here with Independents or swing Democrats, moderate Democrats—
Jon Favreau: Pollster David Binder.
David Binder: —you do hear a lot of the Democratic Party appears to be trying to help people who won’t help themselves. And that’s the biggest criticism of the Democratic Party that I get from people, is that they tend to be giving too many handouts, a little bit too loose with taxpayer dollars without the sort of accountability that we want to see with our money. And that, to me, is code for welfare moms and food stamps.
Jon Favreau: Sue and Eric from Michigan agree.
Sue: I think that they should be on the side of the working person, but with a little bit tighter rein on the checkbook, because we can’t spend our government into oblivion.
Eric: I think the Democratic Party needs to promote social responsibility and fiscal responsibility—not just within the party, within government, within individuals, So that people don’t look at as government as you’re going to solve all my problems. Have to teach people to solve their own problems and I think creating a nation of people a little too dependent on being cheap.
Jon Favreau: This gets all the more confusing because later in the conversation, some of these very same voters told me that they’re in favor of Medicare for all, or that they want the government to do more to put people back to work. It seems like they aren’t upset about the idea of government spending in general, they’re upset about government spending that doesn’t seem to help them. There doesn’t seem to improve their lives. Even if the government is helping them, they can’t see it. In addition to confusion over what or who the party truly stands for, there’s another issue that came up a lot:
male caller: I’m from Tennessee. I was a state House candidate back in 2016. I lost miserably to a Republican incumbent opponent, but I learned a lot along the way. You know, a Democrat in Tennessee, the word Democrat here means something way different than it does in California or New York, even Wisconsin. And unfortunately, with a lot of people, it has a very negative connotation.
female caller: I grew up in a family where my parents, well they used to vote Republican, now they’re split and they are also split. But I grew up being told or feeling like the term Democrat was like not a label that you would want, even if you identify with those policies. And the ideals—like even now, I think I have a lot of friends or at least some friends who hesitate to use that word, the party, to describe themselves and will instead use pretty much anything else, even if they are perfectly describing the Democratic Party. They’re not really sure why that is.
female caller 2: I’ve mostly grown up and in the South. As a lifelong member of the Democratic Party, sometimes in conversation, I’ve described myself as an Independent just to be taken seriously and not immediately discounted as a left-wing liberal. It’s not until you have a candidate, a Democratic candidate, that can break through the stigma almost of the Democratic Party, that people can view them as a person versus a Democrat. So like Obama or Bill Clinton, they were able to just king of break through and people saw President Obama as President Obama, not Democrat Obama.
Cornell Belcher: Look, in 2008, 11% of our electorate were new voters. Right?
Jon Favreau: Democratic strategist and Obama pollster Cornell Belcher.
Cornell Belcher: There was a new electorate. And that’s just amazing, right? I think roughly 62, 63% of that 11% were voters, in fact, under 30. But we got to understand that the bulk of that new electorate, they are Obama voters. They’re not necessarily Democratic voters. Right? There was a reason why these voters hadn’t been engaging in the process before. And, yes, they’re a lot closer to us on almost every issue, but they have no love for Democrats per se, and they still don’t understand who we are, what we represent.
[voice clip] So the majority of people, especially young people, don’t support the values of the Republican Party, but they still have a hard time supporting the Democratic Party, and they end up just not voting or thinking that both sides are evil and corrupt. And that’s when Democrats lose elections.
Cornell Belcher: For a lot of these folks, they fundamentally don’t think that there’s a great deal of difference between Democrats and Republicans, right?
Jon Favreau: What didn’t you like about Clinton?
Sue from Michigan: Well, I kind of thought she was a crook. [laughs] I mean, they’re all crooks, basically, when you’re voting in a presidential election, I feel that you’re voting for the lesser of two evils.
Jon Favreau: Again, that’s Sue from Michigan who voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary and then Donald Trump in the general.
man: Yeah, yeah.
woman: That’s a good way to look at it.
Jon Favreau: Can anyone remember the last time you voted where you didn’t feel like you were voting for the lesser of two evils? Someone you were excited to vote for.
woman speaker: It was probably the first election that I ever voted in and I voted for Jimmy Carter. I was 18 years old. I was pretty excited. I thought he was going to do a good job.
Jon Favreau: OK, so Jimmy Carter. Long time ago.
man: Bill Clinton.
Jon Favreau: Bill Clinton.
same man: I was happy with that.
Jon Favreau: Bill Clinton, you’re excited for Bill Clinton. Anyone else excited for someone they voted for?
man: I liked Obama.
woman: I think I was excited about Obama, too. I thought it was going to be a refreshing change.
Jon Favreau: And what did you, those of you who voted for Obama, after eight years, how did you feel?
man: If you can add another four, I would have given it to him.
Jon Favreau: You liked him at the end. You would have voted for more. Same with you.
woman speaker: I would have probably voted for him again.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: So there has been an increase in the percentage of Americans who choose not to identify with either political party. I think there are two reasons why people who may functionally hold the views of a political party choose not to identify with it. I think the first reason is that we don’t need those labels to find a tribe or a community in politics, that you can now bond with people over particular issues that you care about. So I think one, just the utility of the parties themselves has been diminished. The second is the baggage that comes with a label that is unnecessary. So there may not be upside to wearing the label, but then there also may be downside. If I identify myself as a Democrat, yes, I may agree with the Democratic Party on X number of issues, but if I don’t agree with them on issue A or issue B or issue C, if I sign up for the party, am I implying that I’m OK with everything the party stands for? Why bother?
Symone Sanders: Young people, particularly millennials, they don’t want to hear: you have to vote Democrat .
Jon Favreau: Symone Sanders, Democratic strategist.
Symone Sanders: So many millennials do not strongly identify with either political party. So it’s very hard if you come to the millennial generation and you’re saying: the way to create change, the way to better the economy is to just vote Democrat, is to be a Democrat, is to work with the Democratic Party—because they don’t believe in that.
woman caller: For me personally, I didn’t register to vote Democrat until the Democratic primaries for the 2016 election, because that’s the only time I really thought it mattered. I have never thought of myself as a Democrat, and I still don’t, specifically because it’s not liberal enough to accommodate my needs and my values. I think that the U.S. is increasingly progressive, and we have felt alienated from the Democratic Party for as long as I can remember, because it tends to cling too much to the moderate zone.
man caller: As a millennial, I have some serious issues with the Democratic Party, and actually unregistered from them a couple of years ago after Obama got reelected in 2012, because I was disappointed in his lack of radical left agenda that I was promised after campaigning and raising money for him. And after that, after he pursued a centrist agenda, I lost faith in the Democratic Party.
Cornell Belcher: What we found in some of the post-election research was that they don’t feel as though that a vote for either of these two parties is fundamentally gonna change anything. So it’s a sense of powerlessness.
Jon Favreau: This sense that Washington is gridlocked at best and corrupt at worst, was definitely real among the voters I talked to. Most of them think Republicans are the main culprits, which was nice to hear. But way too many think the Democrats are a big part of the problem, too. It’s a big reason why a lot of them chose not to identify as Democrats, even if they voted for Democrats in the past. But since all of these people did vote for Democrats in the past, I wanted to know why. A lot of people talked about economic issues, like in this exchange I had with the Texas voter:
Jon Favreau: What makes you vote for Democrats, when you vote for Democrats?
Jon Favreau: Taxes makes you vote?
woman: Taxes, some of their beliefs.
Jon Favreau: And what part of Texas? That they’re—
woman: So, where the I guess 1%, the rich ones, they’re getting breaks and all these other things. But the middle class, which is me, I’m suffering and paying the most, and struggling while, you know, I just feel like there needs to be something that kind of balances it out.
Jon Favreau: But there are other people who couldn’t quite figure out where the party stands on the economy.
Jon Favreau: What do you think the Democratic Party’s position is on the economy?
man: I don’t think they do a very good job of defining a position or a solution. They missed an opportunity to jumpstart the economy, you know, sort of like the Tennessee Valley Authority in the ’30s where, OK: make-work programs, improving infrastructure, people are working and they’re able to put money back into the system. They really didn’t jump on that. I think they spent more time on social issues and the environment, and that left the door open for Republicans, specifically Trump, to say: we’re going to rebuild the infrastructure. That’s a Democratic staple of putting people to work for, you know, basic jobs. And they took their eye off the ball, and Trump was smart enough—there is a sentence or phrase you’ll never hear. [laughter] To see there’s an opportunity.
Jon Favreau: What does everyone else think about that?
male speaker: Well, they just think they’re stuck. They see the numbers, they see what everybody’s going through and they’re trying to help, but they can’t.
Jon Favreau: In the voicemails, we heard a lot about the party supposed coziness with the wealthy.
caller: We still have a problem, realistic or not, with a perceived connection to Wall Street, that we’re still seen as too elitist in that way, and too much in favor of corporations and the 1%.
male caller: The Democratic Party has huge issue at the top, in terms of money and finance.
different caller: The rich fund all the party, and the poor have zero voice.
Celinda Lake: The single biggest problem that the Democrats have today is lack of a coherent economic vision.
Jon Favreau: Celinda Lake, a long-time political pollster and strategist for Democrats.
Celinda Lake: In the Roosevelt years, we were known as the New Deal Party. People knew what Democratic economics was. In 1992, when I did the focus groups for Clinton-Gore, we would have 90% of the voters know what Republican economics was. They would say lower taxes, less government—they didn’t necessarily agree with it, but they knew what it was. 80% of the voters today know what Trump economics is. But you still got 40 or more percent of the voters who say: I’m not sure what Democratic economics is.
caller: I supported Bernie for president. Reluctantly held my nose and voted for Hillary because I did not believe she represented anybody but big money on Wall Street. That is the issue with the Democratic Party: is getting back to the People’s Party, representing the people who vote for them, who represent the side of things that the Democrats only pay lip service to. And that is untenable.
caller Jessica: Hi, Jon Favreau. My name is Jessica Babbitt and I live in the heart of Beto country in Austin, Texas. We need to embrace the popular idea of Medicare for all and we need to run on that.
Jon Favreau: I heard this a lot from the Michigan voters. And remember, these are the people who mostly voted for Trump.
Jon Favreau: A couple of you mentioned health care. What do you think the Democratic Party should stand for when it comes to health care? Obviously, you know, President Obama passed the Affordable Care Act. Some have now called for single-payer health care, Medicare for all. There’s all kinds of different proposals. Republicans tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Is there any proposals do you find compelling or what do you think?
woman 1: We should have the same kind of insurance like Canada has. We should be able to insure, they should be able to come up with some way where all Americans can be covered, whether or not you get it from your employer or not. I mean, if Canada can figure out, I don’t understand why we can’t figure it out. And it works for them. And, you know.
woman speaker: It seems like there’s some third-world countries that receive better health care benefits—
overlapping voices: Right. Yeah. Right.
same woman: —than we do. I mean, honestly.
woman: I think we should have Medicare for all. I think it should be as free as it can be after retirement age. Before retirement age, I think that people should pay a monthly premium based on their income, not their health condition.
man: The thing about Obamacare that appealed to me, I was insured when it all began. However my wife was also diagnosed with cancer. I wanted to move to another job. There’s not a chance in hell I’d be able to get insurance with her having a preexisting condition like that. That was my reason for being in favor of it.
Jon Favreau: There’s obviously a debate in the party about how to guarantee affordable medical care to every American, but it’s one of those issues where you’re seeing a lot more consensus between folks on the left and the center left. That isn’t the case with every issue. We’re a big tent party. We contain multitudes. We’re more diverse than the other party in terms of who we are, what we look like and where we come from. We embrace openness and tolerance and small d democracy. That’s a good thing, but it also presents a challenge.
caller Carol: Yes. Hi, this is Carol and I’m in New Hampshire. I think the biggest problem, is the Democrats, we don’t have a message. The Democrats aren’t good on messaging. I mean, the Republicans, they get a message for each day, it seems like. And everybody that’s on TV has that same message. They are like little soldiers. They stick to that message. And the Democrats, they don’t have a single message. And, you know, I guess that’s why we call the big tent or whatever, but I guess that’s where they got the saying that trying to get Democrats to agree is like trying to herd cats.
caller Rick: My name’s Rick. I’m a lifelong Democrat. You know, I guess the sort of cliché is that it’s not a party so much as a loose coalition of interest groups. There’s the whole big tent story. But it often feels to me like, really, there’s no tent at all. It’s just a bunch of us out in a campground at best.
Jon Favreau: Rick, my fellow Mass-hole makes a great point. Are Democrats really under one big tent? Is there a common thread to what we believe, some core values that we can build a governing majority around? We’ll take a look after the break.
Jon Favreau: [ad break] And now back to The Wilderness presented by Honey, the easiest way to save money when shopping online.
Jon Favreau: What does it mean to be a big tent party? I asked the voters in Texas their thoughts.
Jon Favreau: I’m going to read a list of different constituency groups. Let me know if you think this group is generally more comfortable in the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. Women.
woman: Depends on the woman, but Democratic.
woman 2: It depends on the woman, though.
Jon Favreau: OK, white men.
[different voices] Republican.
Jon Favreau: Gays and lesbians.
[different voices] Democrats. Democrats, Democrats.
Jon Favreau: The very wealthy.
[different voices] Republican.
woman: —unless it’s a Hollywood liberal, and then we’re fine.
Jon Favreau: Ok. That’s noted, noted. African-Americans.
[different voices] Democrat. Democratic.
Jon Favreau: Immigrants.
[different voices] Democratic. Democratic.
Jon Favreau: Latinos.
[different voices] Democratic. Democratic.
Jon Favreau: The very poor.
[different voices] Democratic.
Jon Favreau: Millennials.
[different voices] Democratic. Democratic.
Jon Favreau: NRA members.
[different voices] Republican. Republican.
Jon Favreau: Corporate executives.
[different voices] Republicans.
Jon Favreau: Veterans.
woman: I feel like they can be in between.
woman 1: They can be in between.
man: That’s a toss-up.
Jon Favreau: And people like you.
[different voices] Democratic. Democrat. Democratic.
Jon Favreau: You’ll notice the people sported most of these diverse social groups into the Democratic Party. And some people think this is one of the party’s big challenges, that we’re nothing more than a collection of different groups and identities advocating for our own specific policies. The pundits like to refer to this as identity politics.
caller: Democrats are kind of like the dog from UP, you know, we’re anything new that comes up that, you know, defines liberal values, they jump on it. I think, I think the focus—while I support it—I think the focus on trans restroom issue was not productive in terms of party politics.
Jon Favreau: You hear this kind of thing a lot, which is always frustrating because the party that made restroom’s an issue was the Republicans, not the Democrats. But these perceptions still trickle down to voters.
Sean McElwee: There’s really a false dichotomy between what’s often called identity politics, and I guess, other politics.
Jon Favreau: Sean McElwee, co-founder of Data for Progress.
Sean McElwee: The people who believe in economically progressive policies also believe in what is often sort of snidely demeaned as identity politics. I have a model where I show that the women who believe that it’s extremely important to get more women elected to office also believe that we should raise the minimum wage. And women who don’t believe it’s important to get a woman elected office are much less likely to support raising the minimum wage. So that movements for liberation that are based on gender and race and identity are also deeply committed to liberation economics. And so I do think that there’s this attempt to pit them against each other when in reality you can’t have one without the other.
caller: I just feel like the left has been so scared of being charged with identity politics that they’re not willing to talk about what identity politics actually means. It shouldn’t be hard to be against mass incarceration and unprosecuted murders of Black men. It shouldn’t be hard to argue for providing basic health care to women in the south, where they have third-world level maternal and infant mortality rates. It shouldn’t be hard to argue against kidnaping mothers from the street in front of their children in order to deport them, or to be for stronger unions and a decent living wage for most people. Just have the courage of your convictions or don’t count on people to vote for you. Don’t take our votes for granted and assume that women and minorities are going to support Democrats just because the other option seems worse.
Celinda Lake: We need to stand for things. We’re having this debate now that we’re going to be a big tent. Yes, maybe, but not that big a tent. I mean, we stand for something. We are pro-choice party. We are a party that believes in equality for LGBT. We are a party that believes in the DACA students. We’re not going to forsake what we believe in. And young people really want you to stand for something. We have principles and anybody who agrees with those principles is welcome in the tent. But if you don’t agree with those principles, go become a Republican.
Jon Favreau: We got into this a little bit earlier, but another one of the lingering debates from 2016 is whether Democrats should move to the left or to the center. It’s a debate that’s a bit overblown by the media, since most of the Democratic candidates in twenty eighteen have fairly similar agendas, no matter where they’re running. But it’s still something I heard from people who participated in the focus groups and left voicemails.
male caller: We’re just afraid to think big. We’re so scared as some people might be frightened off by our radical ideas that we just keep running to the center, and we end up presenting this plan that’s not inspiring.
female caller: I believe that the Democratic Party has just gotten so lost. We’re fighting every single battle, getting offended by every little thing, and we have to pick our battle based on what’s most important.
male caller 2: I think the Democratic Party needs to embrace its progressive roots. And I think young people and progressives, the hard left, these giant movements across the country, are looking for progressive leadership. They want something they can stand for, people they can believe in.
Sean McElwee: I should just say so that your readers trust me, is a very large sample, more than 60,000 respondents survey called the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, and what we did with that is we use techniques that actually party strategists and operatives and academics used to model support at the district level. And so we were able to model support for different policies like abortion choice, to gun control regulations, to immigration—and we were able to model that at the district level. And what we found is that in the average D Triple C target district, there is majority support for progressive policies.
Jon Favreau: The D Triple C is the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which works to elect Democrats to Congress. A target district is one that the D Trip thinks will have a close competitive race in 2018
Sean McElwee: We looked at immigration, a path to citizenship, and that had majority support in the average D Triple C target district. We looked at an assault weapons ban, which had majority support. We looked at things like allowing the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide, again majority support in these districts. So on the core progressive base questions, a Democratic politician is not going to take a hit for standing on that policy.
Jon Favreau: The data certainly backs up what Sean is saying. But in some of the redder parts of the country, there’s still a sense among Democrats that the national party doesn’t necessarily reflect their values, or even pay much attention to them.
female caller: Those of us who live in the reddest cities on earth, it feels, have felt abandoned by the Democratic Party forever. And so what I would love to see here is an acknowledgment by the national party that Democrats in super red cities do exist, and to invest in us accordingly.
female caller 2: I work at the Texas legislature and it’s kind of easy to be very progressive on the national front and see all these big changes happening and be very excited, and then you go to the specific state legislatures and see extremely Republican bills and discussion. And I think that we need to have a more nuanced conversation on how people can be involved at the state level and make changes and elect people at the statewide level. Democrats just have not been engaged at that level for so long that it has just kind of given Republicans free reign.
Jon Favreau: It’s also true that in different parts of the country, not every Democrat has the same politics.
man caller: Everybody in the party seems to think that they have to speak in absolutes with no give for understanding to the idea that candidates are going to be different, and hold different ideals, and in some cases not be quite as progressive or liberal in red states, and that we should actually accept that. Embrace that, in fact, so that we can win in places where we might not normally win.
caller: We need to be a little bit bigger tent on the abortion issue. I think the Democratic Party has a huge opportunity to say: hey, Christians who find life sacred, on our side you will see that the Republican tradition is not really pro-life—it’s only pro birth and it’s really through our programs that you will actually prevent more abortions.
woman caller: We need to be a little bit more inclusive, actually we need to be a lot more inclusive. I’m a gun owner. I’ve got a lot of friends that are gun owners. Some are Democrats.
male caller: I’m just wondering again if there is room for somebody who is socially conservative within the Democratic Party but can’t absolutely stomach what has become of the Republican Party, especially as it relates to immigration and with race relations.
Sean McElwee: It is clear that not all Democrats are going to be able to look like Elizabeth Warren. And I do think that there is always space to allow Democrats to run campaigns that fit their district but the reality is things like the Dream Act, things like raising taxes on the rich to fund the social safety net, things like CHIP, things like abortion choice, are actually quite popular across the nation. Even in states that we think of as very, very conservative. We saw this with the example of Doug Jones winning. We were told before that race that the fact that he was pro-choice was going to doom his campaign and he ended up winning that race.
Cornell Belcher: I’m always suspect of Democrats who say we’ve got to spend 90% of our resources on this swinging middle—which, by the way, is shrinking and less of a swinging middle, and they’re not so swinging—as opposed to doing in fact what we did in 2008 and 2012 that led to majorities. And by the way, along the way, we picked up House and Senate seats, and that is expand that electorate and bring in more and more of our voters.
caller: I think the Democrats take a lot of their constituents for granted, particularly people of color and the LGBT community, any marginalized groups. We can’t just pay attention to them when it’s time to get their vote, but then not follow through on the things that are important to them. And PS, I think a lot of the things that are important to them are not all that different from what may be important to white voters or how non-marginalized voters.
Faiz Shakir: I see this healthy debate.
Jon Favreau: Faiz Shakir, National Political Director for the ACLU and former adviser to Harry Reid and Bernie Sanders.
Faiz Shakir: You think of the Republican Party during Obama, how discordant they’ve looked like. They were fighting over each other—Tea Party wings v. establishment wings v. like moderate wings—over all manner of issues. And I think it was healthy for them in the sense that they found a voice. I think it’s like bad politics and policies that have resulted from it. But at least they found something that generated winning out of all that.
caller: How will the moderate wing in the liberal progressive wing of the Democratic Party united for the fall to actually get something done together? Will they work together? How will they address unity? How will they address compromise? Because I feel like that’s a leftover wound that’s not being addressed and it’s like a slow-moving accident moving towards a future election. I think it will work okay in the 2018 election but when you get to a presidential election, I think that’s going to be extremely problematic.
Faiz Shakir: You have a leaderless party that, it’s got a lot of coalitions who are agitating for causes that we care deeply about, and they should be doing that. So if you have dreamers fighting for immigration rights, then you’ve got criminal justice reform, you’ve got voting rights, you got Planned Parenthood and women’s reproductive issues, a climate agenda, and national security issues—all of them competing forcefully to change and modify and alter the direction of the party in a way that I think compels the next leader of it to listen to. And that’s good. You should not be handing over as a free lunch to the Democratic Party that, like: my vote is yours, irrespective of what positions you take. This is the time for agitation. This is the time for compelling and pushing, and then knowing and understanding—and I think everyone does—that, you know, if it comes time to vote, like you got to vote your values.
Jon Favreau: Again, Celinda Lake:
Celinda Lake: The strongest messages start with values. They don’t start with acronyms. They don’t start with policies. They don’t start with bill numbers. They start with values. What is the orienting principle here? What are we trying to achieve? And when we have a message, we always have all of our issues in there, and then we dump a few more in for good because we don’t leave anybody out. And what we haven’t established, is what’s the central thing that we are for? What are we fighting for? What’s the narrative that we’re telling? What’s the story that we’re telling?
Jon Favreau: OK, I’ll play a little game, you know that the Democratic Party’s emblem is the donkey, the Republican Party’s emblem is the elephant. But take a minute and come up with, if you can, a slogan for each party. OK, let’s start with you Sue.
Sue: Republicans, the party for the people, as long as they’re rich.
Jon Favreau: [laughs] What about Democrats.
Sue: Well, that was tougher. I don’t know if this is exactly right or not, but: we are for the working man, we’re just not sure how we’re going to pay for it all.
Jon Favreau: OK.
man: For the Democrats: working for progress.
Jon Favreau: OK.
male speaker: Democrats, we will work for you.
woman: For Democrats: it takes a village.
Jon Favreau: To sum up everything we discussed tonight: if Democratic Party leader were standing here right now, what would you say to them?
woman: Make schools safer.
female speaker: Truly have the citizen’s best interests at heart.
woman: I’d probably say thank you for actually trying to do something.
Jon Favreau: OK?
woman: It’s not easy.
woman 2: No it’s not.
Jon Favreau: Any messages?
man: I probably told them that: think about everyone, overall, not just the poor or the rich or who deserves what, it’s all about being fair. And you just have to try, try to be fair.
woman 1: Don’t give up the good fight.
woman 2: There you go.
woman 3: That’s, that’s the one thing I would tell them.
Jon Favreau: OK, so we may be in the wilderness right now, but we’re not completely lost. There’s some confusion about what the Democratic Party stands for and disagreement over just how big our tent should be. And there’s definitely a sense of cynicism and disgust with politics in general, a belief that most politicians are full of shit, fight with each other way too much, and are way too focused on their own reelection. But underneath all that, most of the people we talked to and heard from seem to believe that Democrats once were, and could be again, a party that speaks to everyone, that includes everyone, that fights for everyone, regardless of race or class or gender. Being that kind of party requires more than a list of policies or constituencies, it requires a vision, a message and messengers that can break through the daily shit-show that is life in the Trump era. It also requires us to look within, to ask some hard questions, have some honest conversations, and do a lot of listening to a lot of different people. And that’s what we’re going to do here. In the next few episodes, we’ll pick up where the Celinda Lake left off, by talking about the Democratic Party’s values and vision around a few key topics: the economy, immigration, foreign policy, and next week, race.
Jon Favreau: The Wilderness is written and directed by me, Jon Favreau of Crooked Media. It’s produced by Zach Akers and Skip Bronkie of Two Up, and Ruth Lichtman. Tanya Somanader of Crooked Media is our coproducer. Andrea B. Scott is our editor, and David Fox is our assistant editor. Our archival producer is Rebecca Kent, and our archival researcher is Gianna Jefferson. Music by Marty Fowler. Sound design and mixing by Joel Robbie. Tracy Lien is our lead interviewee researcher. Additional writing from Zach Akers and Andrea B. Scott. John Maynard and Dan Kelly were our recording engineers. Fact checking by Anna Altman. Promo segment editing from Allison Grasso. Agency services from Ben Davis at WME. Legal services from Dean Bahat at Ziffren Brittenham and Chad Russo at Ramo Law. Clearance Counsel is Kathryn Alimohammedi from Donaldson + Califf. Thanks for listening.