The presidential campaign has begun, which means that Democrats are being asked again and again why they aren’t doing more to “reach out” to Republicans. But there’s something important missing from this discussion: any acknowledgement that we treat this subject with an absolutely ridiculous double standard.
As you may have heard, the Democratic candidates have a disagreement about whether it’s a good idea to appear on Fox News, a discussion that stands in — inaccurately, I’d argue — for a larger question of how they should address Americans whose chances of voting for a Democrat in 2020 are somewhere between slim and none. As South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg said in his recent Fox News town hall, “There are a lot of Americans who my party can’t blame if they are ignoring our message, because they will never hear it if we don’t go on and talk about it."
The only problem with that as a reason for appearing on a network that is a propaganda organ for the White House is that it implicitly assumes that there’s just no other way to talk to conservatives besides going on Fox.
But consider this: When was the last time you heard some chin-scratching pundit say that President Trump will never be able to reach liberals if he doesn’t go on MSNBC?
The fact that you’ve never heard anyone say that isn’t just because of how we think about the media choices politicians make. It’s because of something even more fundamental. Nobody asks whether going on MSNBC is the best way for Trump to talk to liberals because nobody even suggests that Trump should talk to liberals in the first place.
And while it’s true that we’ve never seen a president more contemptuous of people who didn’t vote for him and more singularly focused on pleasing his base than Donald Trump, this applies to the whole Republican Party. We may discuss the demographic challenges the GOP faces as the party of white people in an increasingly diverse America, and what effect it might have on the next election.
But what mainstream journalists and commentators almost never do is suggest that Republicans have a moral obligation to reach out to liberals, to assure them that the party understands them, cares about them and wants what’s best for them.
We talk about Democrats that way all the time. Reaching out to those “heartland” voters, those salt-of-the-earth Middle Americans, those working-class whites — in short, anyone who hasn’t voted for Democrats in a while — is framed as both strategically vital and just the right thing to do.
Which perhaps it is. You can argue that because the president has to represent all Americans, presidential candidates have an obligation to speak to all Americans. They’ll certainly make strategic decisions about where to focus their time and energy during their campaign, but they have to at least make some effort to show that they’ll be working for the good of the entire country should they win.
But if you’re going to take that perfectly reasonable position, you have to apply it to both parties. If Democrats have an obligation to “reach out” to Republicans not just because it might be advantageous in the election but because it’s the right thing to do, then surely Republicans have the same obligation.
But when was the last time you heard a sage pundit opine that Trump is making a terrible mistake by not speaking more directly to the needs and desires of African American women or people who live in large cities or college students or any other group whose members are more likely to vote for Democrats?
You’ve never heard it. Yet it’s a lecture given constantly to Democratic politicians and the voters who support them. From the moment Trump got elected, liberals were scolded about how their opposition to him made conservatives and Trump voters uncomfortable.
Democrats respond to those demands all the time, and when they do, their performance is carefully critiqued. Did it show enough “respect” for conservatives and their values? Did it display sufficient familiarity with conservative cultural markers? Was it “authentic”?
How do we explain this double standard? One explanation: Republicans don’t even bother to pretend that they care about the votes of liberal Americans, or even about their fate. Democrats try to get health insurance for people in red states and write environmental plans that include help for coal communities, but Republicans don’t ask how their policy choices might hurt people who don’t vote for them — unless it’s to figure out how they screw those voters even more. They don’t try to show “respect” for liberals, and they don’t publicly agonize about their inability to “connect” with them.
After a while, it stops even occurring to people in the media to ask whether Republicans need to do more “reaching out,” and they don’t chastise those Republicans for not doing it. Democrats, on the other hand, act like they have a responsibility to represent all Americans, so they're constantly told that they're falling short in fulfilling that responsibility.
So we ought to choose: Either it’s fine for politicians to just focus on mobilizing their own voters, or it’s important that they make an appeal to everyone, even those who won’t wind up voting for them. But either way, shouldn’t we apply the same standard to both parties?