Don't blame the voters.

Photographer: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

Democrats and Those Stupid Voters

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. He was chief Washington commentator for the Financial Times, a correspondent and editor for the Economist and a senior editor at the Atlantic. He previously served as an official in the British finance ministry and the Government Economic Service.
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Supporters of the Democratic Party have many theories to explain the drubbing they were handed on Election Day. The explanations seem to boil down to one basic proposition, however: Voters are too stupid to know what's good for them.

Let me say it clearly: The Democratic Party will continue to underperform until it learns to take election beatings a bit more personally.

The sheer variety of theories based on the stupidity of voters is what's so impressive. For instance, the Obama administration's record is good, and the economy is finally doing better; but voters are too stupid to see that. Or: The policy record is poor and the economy is screwed, which is the Republicans' fault for paralyzing Washington; and voters are too stupid to see that. Or: The policies are bad, the economy is screwed, and Democrats are to blame for failing to press the robust progressive agenda that voters want; then voters (who really are impossibly stupid) punish this lack of commitment by electing conservative Republicans.

These theories aren't mutually exclusive, apparently. I think Paul Krugman has supported all of them at various times. Like many progressives, he's lost count of all the ways voters are stupid.

A theory putting less weight on the stupidity of voters might run along the following lines: With Barack Obama in the White House for two more years, the electorate could choose to empower him by electing Democrats or obstruct him by electing Republicans. The voters chose to obstruct the president -- and that wasn't such a dumb thing to do.

Whether the Republican Party had a policy program, and whether this program was any good, was beside the point with Obama still in office. Those questions will come up in 2016. In this election it was the Democrats, not the Republicans, who needed a program, because only they might be in a position to implement it.   

They didn't have one. All they had was a policy record, but (see above) they weren't sure whether to boast about that or make excuses for it. Mostly, therefore, they settled for not talking about it. They were asking for the power to govern but wouldn't be pressed on what they'd do with it.

Six years in, a president can find it hard to project an urgent sense of purpose, but since getting re-elected Obama has moved a long way toward the other extreme. He often seems bored. Since 2012 he's frequently given the impression that he thinks his work is done. In foreign policy, the state of the world says otherwise; in domestic policy, the list of unfinished business is long.

Obamacare, the president's signature achievement, isn't a finished product. Most voters don't want it repealed, but they'd like it repaired and improved. What are the Democrats' plans on that front? Hard to say. Financial regulation after Dodd-Frank is another work in progress. Where would that go under a Democratic Congress? That's hard to say too. Entitlement reform? Tax reform? Trade policy? Democrats have ideas, but you'll have to remind me what they are. These subjects didn't come up much during the campaigns.

Offered to voters in place of a policy program were, first, attacks on Republican opponents and warnings about the dire consequences of putting them in power; second, the overarching liberal worldview of a society in crisis requiring radical surgery. Neither was much help.

The assault on Republican candidates was blunted this time by a better roster. The party, for the moment at least, seems to have got its instinct for choosing laughably bad candidates under control. In addition, as I say, voting Republican wasn't going to give the party control in Washington.

The Democrats' worldview didn't go down well either. Progressives are right to stress policy challenges such as climate change and lack of economic opportunity: Action on both, and on other issues they advance, is needed. The electorate is doubtless persuadable. But the lack of a detailed program means that the methods and limits of the relevant initiatives aren't set out -- and they have to be. Why? Because wavering buyers of progressive politics need a lot of reassurance.

The American electorate is always skeptical about the federal government's ability to do things well, and the Obama administration has demonstrated managerial ineptitude unusual even by Washington standards. The burden of proof is on Democrats to explain that their plans are actually within their competence.

The constant emphasis on social injustice, economic inequality, class struggle and the existential perils of climate change advertises a far-reaching transformative ambition. Here's the problem: Even putting aside the question of competence, U.S. voters aren't sold on the idea of having their society transformed. They just want it made better. To be popular, the progressive agenda therefore needs to be plausibly delimited. The Democrats need to make clear what they won't do as much as what they will. Without a clear program, that's difficult.

It won't do to say, "Trust us to dismantle this fundamentally broken society and build something new. You can leave the details to us." That's what Democrats were offering the country last week. The voters said, "No, thanks." I wouldn't call that stupid.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Clive Crook at ccrook5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net