Condemnation or Civility – What was the Democrats’ Strategy?


Daniel Roytburg, Editor in Chief

With the election far behind us, it’s important to take note of the many different events that converged to give Democrats a successful election season. Events leading up to the election like Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis, the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, the passage of her predecessor Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the disastrous first presidential debate, the subsequent vice presidential debate, and the commentary from media pundits created a lot of spectacle surrounding the symbolic importances of the election. Given recent events like the storming of the Capitol and recent election of Marjorie Taylor Greene, the populist Republican from Georgia, this election strategy provides an important outlet to understand this historical moment. 

In watching these events and the commentary around them, I’ve been more attentive to how liberal media firms like CNN conduct their political posturing, and it seems very distinct from what the elected Democratic officials in question (senators, Biden/Harris, etc.) try to signal. People in office, like recently appointed Press Secretary Jen Psaki, oscillate routinely through mobilization and progressive action while also attempting to retain the theme of “reaching across the aisle.” Recent stimulus negotiations suggest as much; Biden emphasizes action, but not without concerns for the opinions of Republican operatives. This pattern does not exist in a vacuum. Generally, Democrats appear to have straddled the line — while some (both centrist and more left-wing) political or media stewards of the Democratic Party  have turned towards condemnation of Trumpian, right-wing politics, like Jake Tapper, Wolf Blitzer, Rick Santorum, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or even traditionally more moderate actors like Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer. Meanwhile, other leaders turn towards civility and unity; Biden, Andrew Cuomo, Michael Bloomberg and Al Franken have focused on our world’s well-being and national unity. 

Here, I want to analyze both strategies and their relative effectiveness. Ultimately, it seems like Democrats relied too often on civility almost erroneously. While this can be effective when the parties are unified on an issue, it quickly falls apart when mediating real disagreements. 

It is important to note that civility does not mean bipartisanship. There was, as Rick Santorum may describe, a bipartisan consensus against Trump in Biden’s camp, such as the Lincoln Project or Mitt Romney. Civil engagement relies less on content and more on the rhetorical focus of an individual. For instance, Biden pivoted very much towards the benefits that he as a President might yield. He speaks towards his middle-class, Pennsylvania ethos, his reasonable and unifying political paradigms, and the “good-old-days” of American synchronicity. These almost seemed to trade-off with jabs at Trump. Biden pointed towards Trump’s failings tepidly, describing the crisis with the coronavirus and ill more (no pun intended). Despite a significant number of voters seeing the election as a referendum on Trump’s presidency, Biden missed the boat by talking too little about Trump and too much about himself. While he does in fact have a record relevant to a presidential candidacy, many voters ostensibly care more about emphasizing “never Trump.” If that message were lost, Biden never carried enough intrinsic qualities to motivate a large sum of voters.

Fortunately, Trump made it too easy for himself, and through allegations of election fraud Trump alienated any exigent independent voters holding out hope for him. It’s fortunate that the threshold that Biden needed to meet to satiate this set of people was low. Their proclivities are present as a result of their dislike for Trump. It seems that Trump manages these things on his own. Trump does not necessarily restrain his attitude and instead focuses on catering to his base. 

However, this strategy begins to fray when approaching truly undecided voters. Undecided voters in swing states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Georgia were critical for the composition of the overall race. Large swing districts win candidates elections. People in these precincts are currently stuck between re-electing an incivil demagogue they didn’t like or casting a ballot across party lines for somebody that could be molded by their political rivals. This decision is difficult — and Biden made it no easier. Hopefully, Democrats recognize that focus on Biden’s own intrinsic traits didn’t beat Trump’s personality cult — Trump did it to himself. Point blank and period.