ChrisWeigant.com

James Carville Is Right

[ Posted Tuesday, April 27th, 2021 – 17:13 UTC ]

Democratic strategist James Carville is getting a little attention right now as a result of an interview just published in Vox. As is his wont, he uses some rather indelicate language to identify a number of problems plaguing Democratic efforts at messaging and getting elected. But I have to say, I largely agree with what Carville says. He's essentially right on his three main points. And other Democrats should take heed at what he's saying instead of complaining about it or denouncing it.

The biggest overarching point Carville makes is that the right way to craft a modern political message is to base your argument in emotion, not reason. More specifically, he derides what he calls "faculty lounge politics," or using the language from the ivory tower rather than speaking to people in the language they use. And finally, he makes what seems to me to be an almost-permanent complaint about Democrats -- they just don't fight as hard as Republicans, and that's why they lose a lot of messaging battles they really should win.

I strongly encourage everyone to read the full article, but allow me to summarize his main points with a few excerpts (and, as already warned, Carville uses some graphic language throughout the interview).

 

First, emotion versus reason. Carville is prompted by the interviewer pointing out that Democrats did win the White House and Congress in the past election cycle. This ends with: "It ain't perfect, but it ain't a disaster either." Carville takes exception to this overly-generous interpretation:

We won the White House against a world-historical buffoon. And we came within 42,000 votes of losing. We lost congressional seats. We didn't pick up state legislatures. So let's not have an argument about whether or not we're off-key in our messaging. We are. And we're off because there's too much jargon and there's too much esoterica and it turns people off.

Immediately thereafter, Carville makes his point plain:

Let me give you my favorite example of metropolitan, overeducated arrogance. Take the climate problem. Do you realize that climate is the only major social or political movement that I can think of that refuses to use emotion? Where's the identifiable song? Where's the bumper sticker? Where's the slogan? Where's the flag? Where's the logo?

We don't have it because with faculty politics what you do is appeal to reason. You don't need the sloganeering and sound bites. That's for simple people. All you need are those timetables and temperature charts, and from that, everyone will just get it.

That's not how the world works; that's not how people work. And Republicans are way more disciplined about taking a thing and branding it. Elites will roll their eyes at that, but I'd ask, "How's that working out for you?" Most people agree with us on health care and minimum wage and Roe v. Wade and even on the climate.

So why can't we leverage that?

He is absolutely right -- this is a longstanding problem for Democrats. Others have pointed it out previously, mostly to no avail. Most Democrats -- and I include everyone in that, not just nationally-known politicians but also a lot of rank-and-file voters -- are guilty of appealing purely to reason while ignoring the emotional appeal altogether. Democrats think if we just explain it well enough, they'll convince voters on the other side of the political spectrum of the errors of their ways, there will be a "light bulb" moment, and suddenly these people will enthusiastically start supporting the Democratic way of looking at things.

Compare that with just about anything on Fox News, at just about any hour of the day. That's the difference. Republicans are guilty of going way too far in the other direction -- so much so that they don't even really care anymore what actual reality is. If they start ranting and raving that "Joe Biden is going to force every American to only eat one hamburger per month and only four pounds of red meat a year!" then people viscerally react. "Dammit, no politician's going to take away my God-given right to eat as much beef and pork as I please!" is the knee-jerk reaction. Which is exactly what Republicans know and are counting on. By the time they actually get around to admitting that they just made the whole scare story up out of whole cloth, the damage has already been done. How many voters will pull a lever thinking "I've got to vote Republican or else the hamburger police will be coming for me"? The answer to that, sadly, is not automatically "zero," even if the next election is over a year away.

Carville, elsewhere in the interview, points out the fact that Democrats are more constrained by the truth than the other side: "if [Democrats lied like Republicans do], our voters wouldn't stand for it." And he's right. Most Democratic voters would not stand for it. But that doesn't mean Democrats can't come up with an emotional argument that is just as powerful as the Republican counterargument.

 

Second, Carville explains at length why using what used to (30 or 35 years ago) be called P.C." or "politically correct" language -- what is now called "woke" language -- is the wrong way to go about convincing most voters to vote for your side.

Carville begins by defining what he means by "faculty lounge politics" -- the use of terms such as "Latinx" (a term Carville says "no one else uses") or "communities of color" ("I don't know anyone who speaks like that"). He then gets to his real point:

There's nothing inherently wrong with these phrases. But this is not how people talk. This is not how voters talk. And doing it anyway is a signal that you're talking one language and the people you want to vote for you are speaking another language. This stuff is harmless in one sense, but in another sense it's not.

When asked if that means Democrats should just not talk about racial injustice because a lot of voters don't want to hear about it, Carville clarifies further:

We have to talk about race. We should talk about racial injustice. What I'm saying is, we need to do it without using jargon-y language that's unrecognizable to most people -- including most Black people, by the way -- because it signals that you're trying to talk around them. This "too cool for school" shit doesn't work, and we have to stop it.

There may be a group within the Democratic Party that likes this, but it ain't the majority. And beyond that, if Democrats want power, they have to win in a country where 18 percent of the population controls 52 percent of the Senate seats. That's a fact. That's not changing. That's what this whole damn thing is about.

A little later, he returns to this point again:

Right, but we can't say, "Republicans are going to call us socialists no matter what, so let's just run as out-and-out socialists." That's not the smartest thing to do. And maybe tweeting that we should abolish the police isn't the smartest thing to do because almost fucking no one wants to do that.

Here's the deal: No matter how you look at the map, the only way Democrats can hold power is to build on their coalition, and that will have to include more rural white voters from across the country. Democrats are never going to win a majority of these voters. That's the reality. But the difference between getting beat 80 to 20 and 72 to 28 is all the difference in the world.

So they just have to lose by less -- that's all.

He goes on to give a very tangible example:

Look at Florida. You now have Democrats saying Florida is a lost cause. Really? In 2018 in Florida, giving felons the right to vote got 64 percent. In 2020, a $15 minimum wage, which we have no chance of passing [federally], got 67 percent. Has anyone in the Democratic Party said maybe there's nothing wrong with the state of Florida? Maybe the problem is the kind of campaigns we're running?

If you gave me an environment in which the majority of voters wanted to expand the franchise to felons and raise the minimum wage, I should be able to win that. It's certainly not a political environment I'm destined to lose in. But in Miami-Dade, all they talked about was defunding the police and Kamala Harris being the most liberal senator in the U.S. Senate. And if you look all across the Rio Grande Valley, we lost all kinds of solidly blue voters. And the faculty lounge bullshit is a big part of it.

Again, Carville is right. Republicans love to use this sort of thing against Democrats, because they know it works so well. They sneer at such "elitism" and it strikes a chord with millions of voters who resent being looked down upon by Democrats. Remember Hillary Clinton's "basket of deplorables"? They do. Because it worked so well for them. Republicans keep banging the drum of "Democrats are sneering at you because they think you're stupid!" because Democrats keep right on giving them fresh ammunition to make such attacks.

Meanwhile, Democrats do an absolutely lousy job of ever making Republicans pay any sort of similar price for the out-of-touch statements on their side of the aisle. Because Democrats just don't fight with the same ferocity as they do. Which brings us to the third point Carville makes.

 

First, he defines the difference in stark terms:

Take someone like Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She's obviously very bright. She knows how to draw a headline. In my opinion, some of her political aspirations are impractical and probably not going to happen. But that's probably the worst thing that you can say about her.

Now take someone like Marjorie Taylor Greene, the new Republican congresswoman from Georgia. She's absolutely loonier than a tune. We all know it. And yet, for some reason, the Democrats pay a bigger political price for A.O.C. than Republicans pay for Greene. That's the problem in a nutshell. And it's ridiculous because A.O.C. and Greene are not comparable in any way.

Democrats pay a bigger price mostly because Republicans are just so much better at this stuff than they ever are. They know how to sing from the same songbook, over and over and over again (as many times as it takes for it to sink in). Democrats just never seem to be able to adequately do that and are far too prone to falling into micro-disagreements with each other rather than keeping their eyes on the prize -- defining the other side by using their worst examples against them.

Carville then provides a proactive example of what he's talking about:

Tell me this: How is it we have all this talk about Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and we don't talk about Dennis Hastert, the longest-serving Republican speaker of the House in Congress? If Hastert was a Democrat who we knew had a history of molesting kids and was actually sent to prison in 2016, he'd still be on Fox News every fucking night. The Republicans would never shut the hell up about it.

So when Jim Jordan was pulling all these stunts with Anthony Fauci [Fauci was speaking at a congressional hearing about ending coronavirus precautions], why didn't someone jump in and say, "Let me tell you something, Jim, if Fauci knew what you knew, if he knew that a doctor was molesting young people, he would've gone to the medical board yesterday. So you can go ahead and shut the fuck up." [Ed. note: Jordan denies knowing about the allegations of abuse when he was an assistant coach at Ohio State University.] I love that Congresswoman Maxine Waters told Jordan to "shut your mouth," but that's what I really wish a Democrat would say, and I wish they'd keep saying it over and over again.

This is really the same old "Democrats bring a knife to a gun fight" problem, in a nutshell. They just aren't that good at the art of demonization. They are far too polite, when they need to be down in the gutter flinging mud at their opponents. There's even a telling bit of editing in that excerpt -- the editor's note was necessary because many readers -- even staunch Democrats -- won't already know what Carville is talking about. This proves Carville right in a crystal-clear way. Democrats haven't exploited this issue, even with someone as odious and offensive as Jim Jordan -- one of the most odious and offensive Republicans around today. If Democrats can't even fight back against Jordan, then what hope do we ever have of fighting back against someone like Donald Trump (or any of his imitators)?

Carville ends by hammering this point home with a much more contemporary example than Dennis Hastert:

First of all, the Democratic Party can't be more liberal than Sen. Joe Manchin. That's the fact. We don't have the votes. But I'll say this, two of the most consequential political events in recent memory happened on the same day in January: the insurrection at the US Capitol and the Democrats winning those two seats in Georgia. Can't overstate that.

But the Democrats can't fuck it up. They have to make the Republicans own that insurrection every day. They have to pound it. They have to call bookers on cable news shows. They have to get people to write op-eds. There will be all kinds of investigations and stories dripping out for god knows how long, and the Democrats should spend every day tying all of it to the Republican Party. They can't sit back and wait for it to happen.

Hell, just imagine if it was a bunch of nonwhite people who stormed the Capitol. Imagine how Republicans would exploit that and make every news cycle about how the Dems are responsible for it. Every political debate would be about that. The Republicans would bludgeon the Democrats with it forever.

So whatever you think Republicans would do to us in that scenario, that's exactly what the hell we need to do them.

Once again, Carville is right.

 

I will end this with one point Carville makes in the middle of the interview. He is asked directly what solution he has for this problem Democrats seem to always have had. And he admits that he just doesn't have any easy answers:

That's why I'm doing this interview. Lots of smart people are going to read it, and hopefully they can figure out that which I can't. But if you're asking me, I think it's because large parts of the country view us as an urban, coastal, arrogant party, and a lot gets passed through that filter. That's a real thing. I don't give a damn what anyone thinks about it -- it's a real phenomenon, and it's damaging to the party brand.

James Carville has always been a blunt and plain-spoken guy in Democratic politics. In fact, he's famous for his folksy Louisiana sayings ("It's better to be married to someone who hates your politics than someone who hates your momma"). Sometimes this gets him into trouble. But often, Carville communicates in a very visceral way what a whole lot of other Democrats really should be saying, which is why it's still worthwhile to pay attention to him.

And, on the three main points he is making, he is absolutely right. Democrats have to stop trying to win over voters by just rationally explaining everything to them. It's demeaning to the voters, and refusing to attach any emotional content to it is a losing game as well. Democrats have to tailor their message to individual groups instead of always deferring to whichever one is currently seen as the most "woke." And Democrats have to learn how to fight back against Republican demonization by using the same tactic against them. In fact, they have actually been trying to do so (with the January 6 insurrection), but they just aren't as effective as (for instance): "Joe Biden is coming for your hamburgers."

Politics is now totally tribal in nature. In the last election cycle, Joe Biden beat Donald Trump because there was a wave of disgust against him personally. Voters were motivated to go to the polls and pull the Democratic lever because they were so dead-set against suffering through another four years of Trump. It was emotional. Democrats have to learn to leverage this and channel the same sorts of feelings against other Republicans who are equally as dangerous and odious as Trump. And at the present, there are plenty to choose from.

Joe Biden is changing this dynamic somewhat, because he does speak plainly and emotionally. He's a lot better at speaking to "average Americans" than a lot of Democrats. We're about to see that, in his first joint congressional address, tomorrow night. But he can't do it alone. Democrats should spend a lot less time squabbling among themselves and instead devote their energies to doing better on all three of the points James Carville makes. Because on each of them, Carville is right.

-- Chris Weigant

 

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

 

17 Comments on “James Carville Is Right”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    From Carville's explanation,

    Let me give you my favorite example of metropolitan, overeducated arrogance. Take the climate problem. Do you realize that climate is the only major social or political movement that I can think of that refuses to use emotion? Where's the identifiable song?

    The identifiable song is Take Me To the Kaptin, of course, the first Climate Apocalypse song!

  2. [2] 
    Kick wrote:

    CW: If they start ranting and raving that "Joe Biden is going to force every American to only eat one hamburger per month and only four pounds of red meat a year!" then people viscerally react. "Dammit, no politician's going to take away my God-given right to eat as much beef and pork as I please!" is the knee-jerk reaction.

    And to this we say, "Since when is pork 'red meat,' you dumbass uneducated hypothetical Republican dipshit!?"

    Which is exactly what Republicans know and are counting on.

    Of course Republicans know their voters are uneducated dipshits and will believe anything no matter how stupid it is; in fact, they're counting on it. But for some reason, the immigrants that own Fox News Disinformation Propaganda for Dummies made the moron who originally spewed this utter nonsensical red-meat bullshit to backpedal on it and issue a retraction.

    So to recap: These right-wing spineless idiots don't care about facts; if they did, they wouldn't all have their lips locked around Donald's John, but they do love that Trump meat.

    So whatever you think Republicans would do to us in that scenario, that's exactly what the hell we need to do them.

    ~ James "the Ragin' Cajun" Carville

    *
    Practicing. :)

  3. [3] 
    Kick wrote:

    CW: How many voters will pull a lever thinking "I've got to vote Republican or else the hamburger police will be coming for me"? The answer to that, sadly, is not automatically "zero," even if the next election is over a year away.

    Because they're stupid.

    How many Florida men were indicted on "Inject Bleach Day" (not a coincidence) for selling a miracle bleach remedy to cure COVID-19? Four. They made a million dollars off stupid people who believe lying idiot Donald Trump... because they're stupid.

    https://www.newsweek.com/florida-men-indicted-selling-bleach-miracle-covid-19-cure-1586153

  4. [4] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    carville has always had a nose for what works in politics, and how it works. ultimately i think it was never-trump republicans like the lincoln project that put biden over the top in 2020. they went places that democrats just wouldn't.

  5. [5] 
    Kick wrote:

    CW: Remember Hillary Clinton's "basket of deplorables"? They do. Because it worked so well for them. Republicans keep banging the drum of "Democrats are sneering at you because they think you're stupid!"...

    And to that type talk from a potential voter, I simply reply: "Republicans keep lying to you repeatedly because they're convinced you're stupid." It gives them something to think about. Donald Trump being the poster child for con artistry, misogyny, lies and deception isn't helping the Republican cause, and it is the very definition of "stupid" to watch a group of Trump cult zombies attack on Trump's command and beat up and injure 140+ police officers because they believed the repetitive lies of a traitor to America.

  6. [6] 
    andygaus wrote:

    So let's try a few talking points:
    1) Our economy is a pie where the upper 20% already gets 9 out of 10 slices. Republicans want to give them the last slice too.
    2) Republicans think you should have to work for $9 an hour and urinate in bottles because you can't take a bathroom break.
    3) Republicans think you should be unable to fill a prescription for birth-control pills and you should be forced to bear your rapist's baby.
    4) Republicans think your daughter shouldn't be able to play soccer without having a doctor look over her private parts.
    5) Republicans think if you're black, you shouldn't be able to vote and the police should be able to shoot you for sport.
    6) Republicans think you should pay the rich people's taxes for them so they don't have to.
    7) Republicans think robots and foreign countries should take all your jobs and medical bills and student debt should take all your money, because that's what keeps the stock market climbing.

  7. [7] 
    Kick wrote:

    How to Handle Fox News Bullshit
    and the Trump Cult Zombie Brigade

    If anybody like Fucker Carlson confronts you outdoors and informs you that your mask is making them uncomfortable and insists that you take it off, simply notify the moron that their face is making you uncomfortable and make a deal with them:

    I'll take this mask off if you'll put it on.

    If they threaten to call the police or Child Protective Services and report you for "child abuse" because your child is wearing a mask, inform them that it is a crime to file a false claim of child abuse in the vast majority of states in America and then offer to dial for them.

    Yes, I'm kidding... probably.

    Yes, I did post this on yesterday's commentary, but it needed repeating because it needed repeating.

  8. [8] 
    John M from Ct. wrote:

    It doesn't bode well for Carville's message that he admits he himself can't come up with a Democratic strategy for a national-scale change of messaging. Almost as if honest liberals have never been good at mindless gut-level expressions of pure lust and need, and so the revolution has been postponed again and again and again.

  9. [9] 
    Don Harris wrote:

    Carville, like the Deathocrats, is right.

    But not right as in right vs. wrong- they are right vs. left.

    The emotional voters are not the Deathocrat's problem. The Deathocrat's problem is voters that make their decision using reason.

    These are the people that recognize that the Deathocrat's promise action while campaigning and then come up with excuses to avoid taking the action they promised when they have the power to do it.

    The answer that the Cryptkeeper just can't seem to come up with is not to try to appeal to emotional voters, but to actually try to do what they promised.

    The reason that Carville can't come up with the correct answer is it would require the Deathocrats to actually want to do the things they promise and not just be a false alternative to create the illusion of choice when the real choice is between two big money choices that are both working for the same goal of pleasing the big money interests instead of ordinary citizens.

    And as long as people like CW keep promoting the deception and the propaganda of people like Carville we will continue to get more of the same.

    The only reason that we won't be looking back at the "very bright" (and articulate?) AOC twenty years from now when she has made the complete transformation as "Force the Vote" on Medicare for all Pelosi from twenty or so years ago to big money establishment Pelosi will be because all of that information will not be made available by the tech firms that are already controlling the flow of information and show no signs of meeting the promise of doing the opposite we were led to believe the internet would be.

    There are plenty of potential voters that would respond to reason over emotion, but the Deathocrats do not want to attract those voters because in order to do so they would have to stop pretending and would have to actually takae on the big money interests instead of working for them.

    Wake up. Wise up. Rise up.
    Get Real.
    Get Credible.

    As long as we keep listening to people like Carville and CW spewing their propaganda the theme song for the War on Habitat and our democracy will be the theme song from the Tales from the Crypt show/movies.

  10. [10] 
    Don Harris wrote:

    Until we get a better one, this should be the theme song for a movement to rid our political process of the big money Deathocrats and Republikillers that are going full steam ahead with the extermination of our planet and democracy by design, not incompetence or honest mistakes.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XBH-uwZiSqo

  11. [11] 
    John M wrote:

    [3] Kick wrote:

    "How many Florida men were indicted on "Inject Bleach Day" (not a coincidence) for selling a miracle bleach remedy to cure COVID-19? Four. They made a million dollars off stupid people who believe lying idiot Donald Trump... because they're stupid."

    But if you actually want to win some of them, a small percentage over, as voters, you have to be more charitable and give some people the benefit of the doubt. A lot of people, lacking experience, are simply naive or uneducated rather than outright stupid. (Though some are. Having worked for years in retail and customer service I can attest to that.) There is no one, however smart you are, who has not been taken in or fooled by someone sometime. Serial killers especially have often been described as charming with a diabolic ability for winning someone's trust, until it is too late and their true nature is revealed. That's because we all want to believe the best of people and are naturally open and trusting, all us us craving that human connection with someone else. We are by nature socially gregarious animals. We need to keep that in mind. There's also the old example, of why do so many poor whites vote for Republicans and not Democrats who would actually help their circumstances more? Because the Republicans gave them another target for them to focus their attention on, whether it be immigrants or poor black folk, so they don't notice the Republicans picking their pockets.

  12. [12] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    well that's just true across the board. most people, whatever their political leanings, are simply not that smart, and don't like being told that it's so.

  13. [13] 
    Kick wrote:

    John M (not from Ct)
    11

    Just so you know, you're preaching to the choir, and we mostly agree with you. Mostly.

    But if you actually want to win some of them, a small percentage over, as voters, you have to be more charitable and give some people the benefit of the doubt.

    No, you actually don't. You learn from experience which ones are outright full up to their eyeballs and adjust accordingly.

    A lot of people, lacking experience, are simply naive or uneducated rather than outright stupid.

    Just so you know, I wrote you a nice couple paragraphs, and then I decided not to post it because the "smart" people already "get it," and the "stupid" ones never will.

    That's because we all want to believe the best of people and are naturally open and trusting, all us us craving that human connection with someone else.

    Just for the record, this is where we disagree. There are definitely people who don't want to (and never will) believe the best of people and couldn't care less about them... your outright liars, users/abusers, con artists, propagandizers, and criminal types who view others as the equivalent of toilet paper and/or chewing gum. It's all fun and games until they're exposed for what they are, and there almost always is a turning point.

    Enough said. :)

  14. [14] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Carville is right about stirring voter emotions, but he was “righter” in 2016 when he urged Democrats to follow the KISS principle.....Keep It Simple Stupid.

  15. [15] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    @cw,

    hope everything's okay on your end. when there's no column there's usually a program note or something. stay frosty.

    JL

  16. [16] 
    BashiBazouk wrote:

    nypoet22-

    I would think he is doing his spot reactions to Biden speech tonight...

  17. [17] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    oh, is it day 100?

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