Democrats have a Jeremiah problem

The biblical prophet Jeremiah was right, but he sure wasn't popular. They don't call them jeremiads for nothing.

Before he was president, Donald Trump used to warn America about a lot of things: Its leaders were idiots, its president was maybe born in Kenya, the economy was in the toilet, and Mexican rapist immigrants were streaming across the southern border. These were messages a lot of Americans wanted to believe were true, even though most of them weren't.

Democrats have the opposite problem.

Human activity is making the planet irreversibly warmer, Democrats warn, pointing to the multiple recent historically ferocious hurricanes as evidence. Racism is still a huge problem in America. Women face obstacles professionally, institutionally, and personally that men don't.

Few people really want to think about these things, and those who believe them to be true wish they weren't. And people don't typically reward you for saying things they don't want to hear.

This is the Democrats' Jeremiah problem.

Jeremiah, for those in need of a refresher, was a Hebrew prophet who lived from about 650 to 585 B.C. He warned his fellow Israelites about the fall of Assyria, and then the fall of Jerusalem, and then the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and Solomon's Temple, and then the transfer of Israel's higher societies to forced exile in Babylon. His compatriots rewarded him for his dire (but accurate) prognostications with mockery, scorn, persecution, imprisonment, plots against his life, forced exile to Egypt, and, according to tradition, death by stoning from fellow Israelite expatriates.

Hillary Clinton got off easy by comparison. But the prophetic problem for Democrats hasn't eased since she lost the election and President Trump took office.

Take climate change, which is an accepted fact, if not an existential crisis, in most of the world. Over the past decade, Trump has been all over the map on climate change, but his actions as president suggest that he's still in the "it's a hoax invented by China" phase. He pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate accords, disbanded a White House climate change council, kicked off the process to scrap EPA regulations designed to lessen planetary warming, and promoted the dirtiest of energy sources — coal — with the fervor of a snake-oil salesman.

The U.S. military believes in human-influenced climate change. Insurance companies do too, as do oil giants like ExxonMobil. But because many high-ranking Republicans publicly deny that climate change is real, or is human-influenced, Democrats have become the party of climate change jeremiads by default.

When everyone agrees there's a crisis, we can debate the best way to address it; when only one party acknowledges the problem, people have a deceptive safe space where they can look the other way. Climate change doesn't have any easy answers, and the solutions will probably involve cost and sacrifice. It isn't a winning political issue — yet Democrats continue to take up the cause, pleading with Americans to listen.

Then there's race. Lots of white Americans probably honestly believe that the U.S. is post-racial, given markers like the success of The Cosby Show and Arsenio; the first black secretary of state, Colin Powell, followed immediately by a black female secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice; and then two terms under President Barack Obama. It was never true. But Republicans took America's post-racial reverie a step further, arguing since at least 1968 that the tables had turned so that white people were actually at a disadvantage. Many GOP voters welcomed hearing that at least some of their troubles could be blamed on reverse racism.

Democrats and others who believe that racism is still a big problem — institutionally, residually, and individually — don't want that to be the case. They want people to be treated equally, and because racial minorities aren't being treated equally, they want change. But there are no easy solutions to racism, and even the white people who understand that they are treated differently — not followed around in stores, not shot during traffic stops, not frisked on the street for suspected drugs — grapple with owning how they benefit from being white and struggle for ways to ameliorate the problem.

But no one wants to be scolded to "check your privilege," and even a proud racial-profiler like Joe Arpaio's feelings get hurt when people call him racist. Trashing "political correctness" is a winning political issue; "identity politics" is apparently not. ("As many have pointed out, whites have identity politics, too," points out Molly Roberts at The Washington Post. "We just call it 'politics.'") Mark Lilla thinks focusing on race is a dud, and Stephen Bannon couldn't agree more. After all, working to throw out "white privilege" is easy to paint as whites giving up a winning hand.

Institutional racism, sexism, and a progressively more uninhabitable planet are things that affect people's lives right now, and none has an easy fix. So Democrats have a choice to make: As a party, is it better to talk about big, important, even existential questions that make them sound like elitist nags to half the country, or to focus on winning elections and trying to sneak in the hard decisions once in office?

Jeremiah, it should be noted, was an unwilling prophet. But after everything went wrong for his people, and the entire Israelite society crumbled around him — as he had warned it would for 40 years — Jeremiah shifted to a message of hope.

That's not a bad place to start in terms of political messaging. You might even throw in some change.


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