Talking Points

The 2 hard truths Democrats need to share with their voters

With Democrats confronting the imminent failure in Congress of their bills to expand social spending and voting rights, recriminations have already begun. As Politico reports, progressives are especially preoccupied with how to talk about their defeats with their presumably angry and demoralized constituents.

Not that I imagine it will happen, but I think the Democratic Party would benefit from setting aside spin for a change and telling its voters two hard but essential truths about American political reality.

The first truth is that, according to recent data from Gallup, only 25 percent of the country self-identifies as "liberal," with "moderate" and "conservative" pulling in more than a third each (37 percent for the former and 36 percent for the latter). That's more than in the past (thirty years ago, just 17 percent of the country described themselves as "liberal"), but it's nowhere near enough to ram through a progressive agenda in Congress.

This gets obscured by the fact that within the Democratic Party, the left has made enormous strides over the past few decades. Back in 1994, just 25 percent of Democrats considered themselves liberal. Today that number is 50 percent. Over that same timespan, self-identified moderates have fallen from 48 percent of the party to 37 percent, while conservatives have gone from 25 percent to 12 percent. It's understandable that the left would want to translate its growing numbers into political power, but with the other half of the party less inclined to support a progressive agenda, the obstacles are greater than a couple of recalcitrant senators.

If Democrats probably won't convey the first hard truth to their voters, they're even less likely to share the second truth, which is that their rhetoric on voting rights has been wildly exaggerated and even outrightly demagogic. Yes, Republican efforts to make it marginally more arduous to vote are morally vile. But they've been at it for many years, and there's no evidence that it has had a measurable effect on rates of voting.

So by all means, hit the GOP for making voting somewhat more difficult. But calling such efforts "the end of American democracy" or "Jim Crow 2.0" are risible and civically irresponsible — roughly equivalent to conservatives accusing Barack Obama of being a socialist during debate over passage of the Affordable Care Act. Such shrieking hyperbole might be good for fundraising and keeping activists maximally engaged on social media, but both do serious damage to our politics by transforming the parties into conduits for transparent and corrosive BS.

Then there's the fact that, as the Democrats are currently learning, there's little evidence the five-alarm rhetoric gets the job done. Hopefully next time they will adjust their expectations to fit American political reality.