November 12, 2014

THROWDOWN THURSDAY: Fear, Hope and Change

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By ERIC PESNER

The exciting thing about Senator Barack Obama was what he represented. He was a personification of an ideal, of an idea of what America could be. A majority of Americans embraced him as a messenger of hope and a bringer of change. He spoke of an America that could be — a united America of promise and possibility. And his message brought out millions of people to vote for him. But it didn’t last.

Almost immediately, the newly-elected President Obama was met with a forceful and unrelenting opposition that threatened to undermine his ability to implement his agenda. The stimulus to aid the flailing economy barely avoided the filibuster, and further attempts to stimulate growth were shut down before they got off the ground. Meanwhile, the Republicans began to formulate their own vision for a future America.

In 1994, Newt Gingrich formed The Contract with America which talked about lower taxes, a smaller government and a reformed Congress. Similarly, the Tea Party Movement began in 2009 as a rejection of the liberal ideas that brought Obama to the White House. In both 1994 and 2010, the conservative backlash to a liberal governing ideal propelled the Republicans to overwhelming electoral victory.

The problem with running a campaign on hope is that reality never lives up to the expectation. Obama was supposed to end partisanship, government corruption and racism, which clearly just could not happen. When a human president could not achieve superhuman results, his supporters became disillusioned. Obama accomplished many great things during his first two years, but he failed to deliver the world he promised, so the American people turned to the Republicans, hoping that their vision could bring about the desired results.

But the Republicans’ message was, unlike Obama’s, not solely one of hope. The Republicans tapped into a deep American fear about an over-powerful central government threatening their freedoms. And this mixture of a positive vision and a negative view of the opposition worked wonders in the 2010 elections. The Republicans had taken the mantle of change back from Obama and had used it to great success.

But then, in 2012, it switched right back with Obama winning re-election with a majority of the vote. While not able to promise change like in 2008, Obama cast Mitt Romney as an out of touch plutocrat who did not care about the people he sought to lead. Obama tempered his message of hope with fear, just as the Republicans had two years earlier.

That brings us to 2014. This year, the Republicans walloped the Democrats in the midterms. The Republicans offered no positive vision for the future, instead stoking fears about ISIS, Ebola and a dysfunctional government. The Democrats, however, had the exact same problem. I’m a committed and partisan Democrat, but I have no idea what vision we were trying to run on. Every Democratic candidate had a scattershot message about their independence from Obama, their conservative bona fides on energy and how much the Republicans want to ban birth control. Meanwhile, the Republicans never broke lockstep on their message — their Senate candidates even used many of the exact same lines during the debates.

The vision that Obama ran on in 2008 is gone. The Democrats have completely abandoned whatever principles and ideals they held in order to try to appeal to a portion of the electorate that they were never going to win. This year saw the lowest turnout in a midterm since 1942, largely because Democratic voters just did not show up. Making conservative pleas to southern, white conservatives turned off many center-left moderates and liberals from turning out for Democrats.

The Democrats ran a campaign on why voting for the Republicans was a bad idea, but they didn’t give the electorate a reason to vote for them. So it’s hardly surprising that the voters that the Democrats rely on just stayed home. The Republicans once again reclaimed the mantle of change, arguing that they would provide a relief to the floundering and directionless Obama administration. Both parties tried to run a campaign based on fear, but the Republicans were simply better at it.

The Democratic Party needs to reformulate its vision for the country. If they don’t come up with something, then their voters just won’t come back. And this isn’t too hard a task. Much of what Obama promised in 2008 remains unfulfilled, from immigration reform to a living wage and paid leave to environmental protections. And there are numerous other policies to push for and promote. No party can please everyone, but they have to try to please someone. The Democrats spent 2014 saying what they were fighting against, but unless they want a repeat of this year’s elections, they need to spend 2016 saying what they’re fighting for.

Eric Pesner is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at erp55@cornell.edu. Dems Discuss appears alternate Thursdays this semester.