When I am asked if I am a Democrat, I always answer that I am a Democrat with a capital D and a democrat with a small d. The two are not the same. While the first means being a member of a United States political party, the second means believing and defending inclusive values. To be a true democrat is to recognize that all eligible voters are equal, that Lincoln’s government “of the people, by the people, for the people” is not limited to those who think like you.
What do those values mean in the age of Donald Trump? It’s not easy to be an inclusive democrat when seventy-five million fellow citizens voted for Trump, over 100 members of the House of Representatives backed an absurd attempt to overturn the 2020 election before the Supreme Court, and a large percentage of Republicans still believe the election was rigged. It’s hard to be a democrat when millions still follow Trump with his over 20,000 documented lies; they have contributed over six million dollars to his post-election political action committee.
Who are the 75 million Trump followers? Who are the Representatives who backed the Supreme Court filing? Remember Hillary Clinton’s infamous remarks at a September 2016 fundraiser in New York: “You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.”
What is a true democrat to do with this “basket of deplorables”?
For the Democrat, the answer is simple: Ignore the “deplorables” while working with the party to reach out to the undecideds. The dedicated Democrat sees no future in wasting time with fervent Trump supporters.
Despite Biden’s promises to be a unifier, the true Democrat sees little hope of changing rabid Republicans. The temptation to ignore the 75 million who voted for Trump is appealing; the cost/benefit analysis of reaching out not worth it. Forays into Texas and Ohio by Democrats in the presidential election had no tangible results. The flyover states remain Red. Flipping hamburgers is easy, flipping these states is not.
But the true democrat is uneasy with this option. A true democrat cannot just ignore almost half the voting population. In leafing through a heavy tome on John Calvin – I do live in Geneva – the author mentioned “Calvin’s concern to combine responsible and scholarly interpretation – eruditio – with a discourse that would move the hearts of his listeners – persuasio…” Calvin, according to William J. Bouwsma, tried to reconcile his dry philosophical interests with his emotional, clerical desire to use rhetoric to move his followers, a classical mind/heart problem.
As someone who is tired of listening to CNN and reading the Washington Post endlessly repeat Trump’s lies and hyperbole, I wonder what has happened to the use of rhetoric to persuade. Is there a language that can move people? Have we lost the will to use the art of persuasion?
The art of the deal or the art of the steal are not the same as the art of persuasion. Deal making is most often based on power. Stealing has nothing to do with persuasion. Donald Trump, the self-declared master of the art of the deal and hopefully soon-to-be indicted master of the steal, never pretended to be adept at the art of persuasion. He only spoke to his base.
A quick look back at some historical elections shows how far we have come from prioritizing rhetoric and the art off persuasion. The Lincoln/Douglas debates of 1858 for the U.S. Senate in Illinois were seven debates over slavery. Each of the debates was three hours long with the complete texts transcribed and printed in newspapers throughout the country, often the following day. Twenty-one hours of rhetoric and the printed word - far more serious than Richard Nixon’s problem with makeup in his 1960 television debate with John Kennedy or Lloyd Bentsen’s zinger to Dan Quayle that “Senator, you’re not Jack Kennedy,” during their 1988 vice presidential debate.
Presidential and vice-presidential debates have become verbal fisticuffs with contenders trying to land a takeout punch, like Lloyd Bentsen’s jab to Don Quayle (although Quayle’s ticket won). Pundits have replaced boxing judges in the large political arena. All campaigns are about performance. Like actors, aspiring politicians merely recite previously written scripts.
1858 was before television and social media. Technology has replaced the physical agora. Junk politics, in Professor Benjamin DeMott’s phrase, has overwhelmed the art of persuasion. Why can’t candidates be asked how they would convince the opposition to follow their policies? The electoral obsession with five or six swing states confirms that Democrats have given up on Red states and Republicans have given up on Blue states.
In this age of identity politics, who you are is more important than your competence or what you stand for. There is little space for persuasion. President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has chosen his cabinet to reflect American diversity. How does one argue with someone who was chosen because of gender, race or origins? But how is Biden, the self-proclaimed unifier, going to reach out to the “deplorables” when his Cabinet choices all reflect his vision of diversity? Aren’t the “deplorables” part of the diverse U.S. population? What is their future role?
On both ends of the spectrum, the 75 million Trump followers and the identity politicians, there seems little room for persuasion. The true democrat remains frustrated. The spoken word, the art of rhetoric, the art of persuasion are all disappearing. Politics is frozen in scripts that have become broken records. If we are true democrats, we need to find a new narrative to persuade.