Opinion | Diane Hessan

A dilemma for the Democrats

‘Yesterday morning, I walked outside to get my newspaper, and my neighbor was screaming that he had a flat tire,” said Maria of Arizona. “I swear he was going to blame it on Trump.”

Maria is typical of many Republicans in America today. She voted for Donald Trump in 2016 but is disappointed in his leadership, his tweets, and the general chaos that she believes he creates wherever he goes. Although she wrote me last fall that she is open to voting for an alternative in 2020, she now says she could never vote for a Democrat because “they have become a radical and hateful party,” so much so that she finds herself defending the president on a daily basis. Even with her neighbors.

Cynthia, a Trump voter from Massachusetts, agrees with Maria, calling the president “a terrible leader, whose ego gets in his way every time he speaks.” And yet she sees the Democrats as “growing so far left I think they will implode” and “spending way too much time on hating Trump and not enough time on fixing the country.”

The words used by Democrats to describe the president and his base are well documented: racist, uneducated, misogynistic, deplorable. When I asked the 280 Republicans and independents in my panel of voters to describe Democrats, it was equally blistering, as shown in the diagram, where the larger the word, the more often it was said.


Worse, many Democrats agree with those words. Jeremy, a self-described liberal from Massachusetts, mourns the days when the Democratic Party stood for pragmatism and compromise. “Historically, it’s been a ‘big tent’ party, encompassing people with different ideological perspectives,” he says. But now, he is concerned that the party is becoming too extreme and that “the sweeping promises of our candidates are not based in reality.”

When asked about this issue, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg suggested ignoring the labels and staying focused, because Democrats will be called crazy socialists no matter what. His belief is that if Democrats stand for the right policies, they will prevail. Many of my 220 Democratic voters are not so sure. They warn against fighting for single-payer health care and decriminalization of illegal immigration as the policies that will assure Trump a second term.

In fact, in the last month, over two-thirds of the Democrats on my panel expressed concern that their party has become radical and full of hate, and that it will doom their chances in November 2020. “What are we doing?” asked Alexander, a Democrat from Illinois. “Do we have to call everything racist? Do we have to blame everything on rich people? Do we have to spend all of our time investigating? Do we have to make everything free, even for illegals?”


The Democratic Party is at a crossroads, and given that the primary goal of most of the party’s voters is to defeat Trump in 2020, there are two potential strategies. The first is to take a deep breath, abandon the extreme ideas, and move to the center, in the hopes of recapturing the support of those independents and Republicans who are not happy with Trump. Joe Biden’s attempts to do this have him in the lead, despite his unremarkable debate performances and his missteps of the last several months. And, given that most of the critical states to win are in the Rust Belt, where Democrats tend to be more moderate, this strategy may be the safest bet.

The second strategy is to ignore the labels and to stay bold, radical, and extremely progressive. My data says that this will turn off Republicans and independents, and might potentially have moderate Democrats staying home. Thus, winning at the ballot box will require record turnout from citizens who have not voted in the past — particularly voters under 30, whose propensity to show up on Election Day is lower than any other age group, according to research done by the Tisch College at Tufts University.


Here’s the conundrum. In the recent past, Democrats have lost presidential elections when they nominate a well-known and tested candidate — Walter Mondale, Al Gore, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton — and have won when a relatively fresh face enters the scene: Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama.

Is there a third strategy for the Democrats? A fresh face who can move toward the center? A progressive who can also tell Maria of Arizona’s neighbor that his flat tire is not Trump’s fault? Or, given that nearly 100 percent of my 500 voters are distressed about the divisiveness in our country, and nearly 100 percent would like a leader to bring us together, perhaps there is a candidate who can inspire us behind new common-sense, less hateful messages that both Democrats and Republicans could support? That may be our only hope for keeping the United States united.

Diane Hessan is an entrepreneur, author, and chair of C Space. She has been in conversation with 500 voters across the political spectrum weekly since December 2016. Follow her on Twitter @DianeHessan. See her methodology at https://www.documentcloud.org/