Democrats keep bringing pencils to a knife fight. They correctly believe passing meaningful, needed legislation will help improve the lives of many Americans — but they wrongly believe such legislation will improve their chances in 2022 and 2024.
Some of this is due to Republicans’ recent propensity to take credit for popular legislation they almost universally opposed, such as the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. Most conservatives reaping the benefits of stimulus money won’t care who voted ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ by Election Day. If their side touts it, that’s good enough for them.
However, there’s a larger issue at play. This is not an Age of Ideas. It’s an Age of Politics. Republicans have understood this for decades, driving wedges between liberal Democrats and Southern Democrats in 1994 over failed health care legislation and perceptions of government overreach. They adopted an even more sophisticated approach in 2010 — using not only health care as a wedge, but also President Barack Obama’s citizenship.
Obama, of course, was born in the United States, but a lie propagated by his eventual successor helped convince roughly a third of Republicans — and strikingly, about one-in-six Democrats and independents — that he was born outside the U.S., and therefore was not a legally elected president. On the eve of the 2010 midterms, this lie laid waste to the Age of Ideas, and with it, Democratic unity and power. A few years later, from its still-glowing embers, QAnon was born — and with it, a new Republican identity.
There are no more actionable conservative 10-point plans to turn the country around. No more big ideas to reshape the American workforce or advance economic opportunities to pockets often left behind. It used to be a rite of passage for presidential candidates to publish books a year or so before running, both to introduce (or re-introduce) themselves to a curious public by presenting their compelling personal story, and also to describe what they would do as president.
In an Age of Ideas, these manuscripts were both useful and necessary. Did they move the needle among the voting populace? Probably not much. But they broadcast policy-driven viewpoints. No one wrote about pedophilia or birth certificates or fake videos of vote counters destroying uncounted ballots. They wrote about issues that impacted livelihoods. Then they promoted, honed, and sometimes modified these concepts on the campaign trail. Campaigns were not just about battle-testing candidates: They were also about battle-testing policies, with some of the best ideas rising to the top.
Sure, elections have always been about personalities, and negative campaigning has been alive and well in America since the beginning. But the Age of Ideas kept a degree of focus on belief systems that could be molded into legislation. A party that advanced popular and/or demonstrably effective policies improved their electoral changes. Conversely, a party that lacked cohesive, viable ideas frequently floundered.
In the Age of Ideas, we cared about health care and immigration reform, about school safety and tax policy. In fact, our democracy’s survival requires an ever-present Age of Ideas. It is the surest way to achieving “a more perfect union.” It is problem-solving for the sake of problem-solving. The Age of Ideas unshackles humankind for the betterment of future humankind.
The Age of Politics, however, is an entirely different and more dangerous animal. It brings out the worst in people. It fosters an us-versus-them culture. It rewards the angriest and loudest. It feeds on power and power alone, chewing up truth and spitting out slander to the cheers of the ever-growing persuadable masses.
Most of us don’t want to live in an Age of Politics. It sickens us. It’s beneath us.
And yet it’s here, and it’s been here in various forms for decades.
Democrats can either continue to ignore it or confront it head-on. Ignoring it means bringing more pencils to knife fights and hoping common sense, reason, and legislative victories will win the day. Confronting it means recognizing Democrats cannot return the country to an Age of Ideas until they prevail — legally and unequivocally — in this Age of Politics.
B.J. Rudell is a longtime political strategist, former associate director for Duke University’s Center for Politics, and recent North Carolina Democratic Party operative. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on presidential campaigns, in a newsroom, in classrooms, and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books and has shared political insights across all media platforms, including for CNN and Fox News.