It’s hard to pick one particular reason why the Democrats lost the 2016 election. Among them was the perception that Hillary Clinton was irredeemably corrupt. Another was the influence of Russian meddling. Much of it was the natural ebb and flow of the two-party system: Democrats stay in office for two terms, then the Republicans for another two, and so on so forth.
But three years after the 2016 election, none of these seem to adequately explain why Donald Trump, an inexperienced and brash business mogul, beat Hillary Clinton, one of the most experienced politicians and Washington insiders out there.
The more you think about the result, the more confusing it is. Whether you like Trump or not, there’s no denying he’s not much of a detail-oriented guy. His key policy proposal was literally “build the wall and make Mexico pay for it.” Most immigration experts have noted that this isn’t a very salient plan to address immigration.
And yet, there was no denying the clarity in Trump’s messaging. “America First”: the rallying cry of Americans who have been left behind. The wall was never literal; it was a symbol of a vision Trump had, and one that roughly half of voters deeply identified with.
Hillary Clinton was everything Donald Trump was not: polished, articulate, experienced and careful. Unfortunately, she was also the antithesis of what the country wanted, and what the Democratic Party needed. I, along with everyone else who insisted she be the next president, thought the decision was clear. Contrast Trump’s hamfisted proposal to build the wall with Clinton’s 40-page, in-depth, wonky policy proposals.
Turns out, myself and 65 million other voters were missing the point. For American voters, it’s not actually about policy. It’s about the capacity for politicians to envision a future that is more ambitious than the one we can have, but the one we should have. Voters don’t want piecemeal policies to address years of economic disenfranchisement, and they definitely don’t want to hear politicians lecture them about incremental change. Instead, they want a policy platform that speaks to the America they want to live in, even if it sounds like a fantastical, fictional world to others.
For Trump voters, their fantastical world became an expensive wall, a reigning in of corruption in D.C. and a massive reversal of Obama-era social and economic policies. It was a world that was more insular and less tolerant of liberal change. Most importantly, it was a direct rebuttal to the moderate world of the Republican Party, which had left behind rural voters and apathetic conservatives for too long. Trump won because he spoke to those voters and captured their imagination. Given that, the question for the Democrats this upcoming election should be as clear as day: can a liberal candidate do the same?
For those still stuck on the idea that Democrats should put forth candidates that put forth passable, well-designed policy, it’s important to recognize that the purpose of the presidency was never to play policymaker. There’s a reason the President has no power to make laws directly, nor can they directly veto individual parts of a bill. Instead, their purpose is to provide moral leadership for the country. Prioritizing vision-based messaging over policy-based campaigning is not only a winning strategy, but it’s probably more closely aligned to the purpose of the position anyways.
If Democrats want to win, they would be mistaken choosing another policy-wonk like Clinton. Charismatic, trustable candidates with symbolic policy ideas embedded into the tissue of their campaign are what captivates voters and inspires the disenfranchised.
So, what does that look like? Some Democratic candidates have already hinted towards large, conversation-starting policy proposals. Elizabeth Warren has announced support for reparations for African Americans to remedy the dark history of slavery. Candidates such as Bernie Sanders support Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “Green New Deal,” a huge plan to address climate change. Others support big ideas like making secondary education, universal health care and paid family leave free.
Will reparations or the Green New Deal pass Congress? Of course they won’t. But neither will Trump’s wall. Once again, passing the policy is not the point. The point is outlining a clear message symbolized by grand policy proposals so that voters know exactly where their political party stands. It gestures a philosophy that defines their political affiliation, which is what turns people out to vote in the first place. People are attracted to ideas because it motivates them to care.
Presidents can piece together the numbers and details for policies when they are in office, which is when negotiations and debate actually occur. The purpose of a campaign is to prove you have the vision to lead those debates. To win back the Oval Office, Democrats should follow the lead of the politicians who have done the best job captivating voters with a vision — Trump, Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez — and dream big.