Can the Hapless Democratic Party Deliver What We Need?


Have you ever had the experience of trying to communicate something and cannot find the right word? You can almost see it in your mind's eye, but it is too fuzzy to make out. You try several other words but none are what you are looking for. And then, several days after you initially became stuck searching for the word and have almost forgotten about it, the word suddenly pops into your head. It just happened, and the word is hapless. Yes, I realize it is supposed to be a synonym of unfortunate, but I don't agree that those are equivalent. To me, "hapless" conveys something far more pervasive and enduring than simply being unfortunate or unlucky. It is more of a chronic and persistent sense of being unfortunate. It has a self-defeating quality so that whatever it is used to describe just can't seem to manage to get anything right, at least not for long.

Why was I searching for the word and what was I trying to describe as chronically and persistently unfortunate in this way? The Democratic Party, of course. The thoroughly hapless Democratic Party, a party I strongly prefer to the Republican Party but a party that seems to disappoint over and over again. I think that "hapless" really is the perfect word because even when it looks like the party's candidate is pulling ahead, you can't help but wonder what they'll do to screw it up this time.

I did not watch much of either the Democratic or Republican conventions, but I didn't have to watch much of either to come away with the sense that the Republicans simply did it better. I don't mean their values were better (they were far worse), and I don't mean their messaging better reflected reality (they were far worse). I mean their messaging seemed far more effective in arousing their base. Once one sets aside reality and accepts the fact that we have been living in an era of post-truth politics for some time, whether we like it or not, I'd argue that the Republican Party has been far better at messaging. Their propaganda, delivered through conservative media, is simply better than anything the Democrats have come up with.

This is hardly a new observation. It has been the case for some time. I'm not sure if this is the only reason for their advantage, but I think that their willingness to play fast and loose with the truth has been a big part of their effectiveness. There's a certain swagger involved in looking someone right in the eye and lying to them in such a way that you know that they know you are lying but you continue to do so without flinching. I'm not sure exactly when this started, but I first became aware it was a potential problem while listening to Rush Limbaugh in the late 1980s. But it wasn't until the the administration of George W. Bush that I realized how much damage it could do. It has become much worse since then, mostly because it has been so thoroughly normalized.

It never occurred to me, not even during the lowest points of the Bush administration, that we'd ever find ourselves so divided by this sort of messaging that we'd be unable to come together to fight a global pandemic because nearly half the population either didn't believe there was a pandemic or preferred to focus their efforts on blaming China for it rather than taking action to reduce its impact. But that's where we are now. Trump's senior advisors can take the stage and talk about COVID-19 in the past tense and few members of the intended audience will ever question it.

I have seen a small but growing number of voices on the political left calling on the Democratic Party to do more of this, to fight fire with fire. I really hope cooler heads prevail. Not only have I seen little evidence that the Democratic Party can do this with anything approaching the skill with which the Republican Party does it, but I continue to believe that the moral high ground has value. Of course, the counterargument is that the moral high ground does one little good when one keeps losing elections. I can see why some would find such an argument appealing, but I believe there have to be other ways to win more elections besides trying to emulate the other party's most despicable tactics.