🎧 James Carville on How Democrats Self-Sabotage


As one of America’s most famous political strategists, James Carville worries that Democrats shoot themselves in the foot by focusing on the politics and language of the “faculty lounge.” Because they worry more about sounding virtuous than about persuading voters, he argues, they leave a wide opening for authoritarian populists like Donald Trump.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and James Carville discuss what makes for good political messaging, why so many people on the left won’t speak their minds, and how politicians can talk bluntly without pandering to the lowest instincts of the electorate.

This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: I have two questions right off the bat. What did Democrats do right in 2020 to win the presidency and win control of Congress? What did they do wrong?

James Carville: The thing we did right is we ran against Donald Trump. The second thing we did right is we nominated Joe Biden. Underneath that, I actually thought it was a disappointing election cycle. We came within 42,000 votes of losing to what I call a historical buffoon. I mean, maybe the biggest buffoon in history. And we lost House seats. We came back in Georgia rather nicely and made some amends. But we have a tough cycle coming in 2022. We had an awesome 2018. Why we ditched that strategy for a strategy that some people in the party would say, “Well, we won. Now let's change the dictionary”—well, maybe that’s not why we were elected.

Mounk: When you talk about changing the dictionary, are you talking about terms like Latinx or BIPOC?

Carville: Yeah, we're using the language that I point out as the “faculty lounge,” not the language of the people. That's the point I am trying to make. I did it pretty graphically [in a recent interview in Vox], but sometimes when you want to get people's attention, you have to get their attention.

Mounk: I think there's this sense that when you speak plain language, that means you must also end up advocating for bad causes, and that the only way to fight for noble causes is to use very carefully chosen language. How do you think politicians can fight for just causes, but speak in a way that avoids the “faculty lounge”?

Carville: Let's try the most just cause ever. I think it was begun by Hillel in 5000 BC and really brought to attention by Jesus. And it's called, “Love your neighbor as yourself. Do unto others as you'd have them do unto you.” That's not complicated: You know exactly what I'm saying. And it is an utterly glorious thought. There may not have ever been any thought in all of humankind to better describe the ideal relationship between a human and other humans. The idea that in order to communicate these great truths, it takes long winded “jargon-ist” language to explain that to people. [...] If you're at the philosophy department at the University of Chicago, they use that code language, but most people are not philosophy students at the University of Chicago. Most people speak a [certain] language and most people don't give public policy the same amount of thought that someone like you does. They pay attention and it comes in and it comes out. And when it comes in, if you're speaking to them in code, they’re not going to take the time to decipher your code. So, let's try English. It seems to work pretty well in most cases.

Mounk: Why do you think the Democratic Party is not paying attention to this? It seems to me that it has something to do with the incentives. If you're a political consultant who doesn't have your standing and, frankly, your ability to speak your mind, your incentive is to give advice to use Latinx, because you know you're not going to offend anybody, you’re not going to get cancelled on social media, and you’ll get the next contract. And if your candidate loses, that's OK. Consultants who advise losing candidates are still in the business, but ones who are branded as bigoted or insufficiently with the “program”—especially on the inside with the language of the faculty lounge on Twitter or Facebook—may not get the next contract. 

Carville: You're going right to the heart of the matter. I am a political professional. My goal is to win. Bernie Sanders famously said in 2016, “It's really not about winning the election, it's about having an argument.” No, it's not. It's about winning the election. A lot of people say, “You know, James, by 2034 we're going to be in a position to win a lot of races.” Well, I'm 76. I can't predicate my life on 2034. We know what lost elections have cost us: They’ve cost us an entire branch of government. Of course, we have to win the House by seven points to even break even or something like that, and the Electoral College is not exactly in our favor. I'm just advocating that we speak in the vernacular: We speak in the language of people and just in the simplest [form of] communication. [...] Words are valuable things. And when you are in a business like mine, a persuasion business, an inspiration business, then a word is a valuable asset. And you're only going to get so many of them. So why waste it? If you look at words like dollar bills, you'll want to use it when you need it. Don't waste it. Don't waste it on jargon.

Mounk: I'm going to play devil's advocate here. I'm very tempted to agree with you, but it doesn't seem to me like Joe Biden won on his eloquence or on fantastic words. “Build back better” is an OK slogan, but it's not one of the more memorable political slogans of our era. Joe Biden knows how to give a good speech, but he's not as riveting a speaker as somebody like Barack Obama or Bill Clinton was. But what he communicated is decency, common sense, being the antithesis of Donald Trump, being able to promise to voters that they don't have to worry about the president, that they can forget about him for days on end—which is something that I think a lot of Americans were craving. How do you communicate effectively in politics beyond words?

Carville: St. Francis told his disciples, he said, “Go forth and teach the Gospel. Speak if necessary.” Speaking is one form of communication. Joe Biden can communicate to you in a lot of ways—the way he dresses, his demeanor, his wife—and the fact that he is not as articulate as previous democratic politicians actually might even work in his favor, and he may be communicating very effectively. Speech is a form of communication; it does not constitute all political communications. The fact that he's not particularly inspirational probably helped him in his cycle. In his defense, he really doesn't try. He doesn't try to be Franklin Roosevelt. He doesn't try to be Ronald Reagan. 

Mounk: If the Democratic Party followed your advice on its branding going forward, how would you keep control of that message? It seems to me that that was much easier to do in the 1990s, for two reasons. The first is that there wasn't social media, and if some congressperson was out of step with a message, it was much easier for the party to stop that person from being the one who gets all of the attention. Whereas on social media, the most extreme statement draws most praise from activists, but also most pushback from other sides. And the second is the composition of the media. It seems to me that the people who are most enthusiastic about faculty lounge politics are bookers at MSNBC, op-ed editors at the big newspapers, and so on. Both of those things combine to create an effect in which members of Congress—who are by no means representative of their caucus and who are certainly by no means representative of the voters who sent them there—take 75% to 80% of the media attention. So how do you regain control over the brand?

Carville: It's much more diffused now. The idea that you have this kind of big-time campaign manager who imposes discipline and orthodoxy, given the composition of today's Democratic Party, is just not going to be as effective as it used to be. The one thing that all of these politicians have in common is that even if you’re really left—let's say llhan Omar, just pull a name out—you're much better off in a majority than a minority. You just are. [...] Since my Vox piece, you'd be stunned by the number of people who have contacted me to say, “Thank God.” And these are not just Democratic moderates. This is a whole deep, broad cross-section. I think that a lot of woke people are just tired of being woke. I think it's just too hard a way to live—to just worry that you're always gonna say the wrong word to someone or you're not exactly saying exactly the right word at the right time. It's hard, but I think the most effective way is to pick up the phone and remind them they’re not being helpful to getting the things that we want. [...] The best political advice I have ever heard in my life was from Bill Clinton, unsurprisingly. He said two things: “Study hard and meet as many people as you can that are not like you.” That is the trick. Human beings, by nature, want to be comfortable. They want to be around people who are like them. If you're in the Marine Corps, they don't give you that option. If you live in New Orleans, you don't have that option. It's not an option that I want anyway. The more that you project outward, the better communicator you're going to be. [...] But if somebody wants a life in persuasion, you have to push them out of their comfort zone. If you want to be a Ph.D. in medieval English, you don't have to get out of your comfort zone; that doesn’t require that. If you're a mathematician or code writer, you don't have to do that. But anybody else, if you're trying to sell something, you’ve got to get out to people and speak their language.

Mounk: Let me leave you with one last question, and it's a big one. It seems to me that when I look across countries, the left usually does well when people are reasonably optimistic. The right—and particularly far-right figures, right-wing populists—do well when people are very pessimistic. And there's a lot of reasons to be pessimistic about America right now. I've been struck throughout this pandemic by our lack of collective will and ability to carry out collective action. I think in a lot of organizations people feel like it's really hard to have a coherent purpose and to come together for what you want to do, and there’s all of this acrimony. It just feels like the sense that the country had for much of its history, that we can do stuff and we can get things done, has sort of evaporated. How can we regain that sense? How can we become more optimistic about the things we can achieve together as a country?

Carville: The pandemic response has really not been inspirational. We had a common enemy, and we did not treat it that way. It's hard to not put a lot of this blame right at Trump's feet. In fact, I have to be honest, he's 85% responsible for all of it. [...] The best explanation that I've heard, and just to show you that I'm not all against the faculty lounge, is from a Berkeley academic by the name of Arlie Hochschild. Arlie wrote this book called Strangers in Their Own Land. [...] Arlie’s explanation—I think this is a very good explanation—is that people will say, “There's a hill, and the top of that hill represents the American dream. And I've been patiently waiting in line. And yet what happened to me is that people keep cutting in front of me. The blacks cut in front of me, the women cut in front of me, the gays cut in front of me, the Mexicans cut in front of me, people in the Middle East, the Asians cut in front of me.” The truth of the matter is, if you're a white guy in southwest Louisiana with a high-school education, a lot of people are cutting in front of you. The problem is, you're obsessing on your place in the line and not whether the line is moving. So if I'm going to go to a movie— remember when we did that?—and I was fourth in line, but the line didn't move, it didn't help me. I would rather be the 31st [person] in a moving line than the fourth in a stationary line. So the right is very happy to argue about your position in the line while they keep the entire line from advancing by giving tax cuts that amount to stock buybacks, extending patents on drugs, and making education affordable and not accessible. And if we don't correct some of these things, the voters are going to correct them themselves, and they're not going to correct them in a way that is satisfactory to people like you and me. [...] And the truth of the matter is, and I hate to say this because I'm one, but the place of the Caucasian male in America [has changed]. When my family comes out here, my sisters say, “You know, James, this isn’t the same country we grew up in.” I said, “Of course it's not.” And 20 years from now, it's going to be a different country than it is today. We have this nostalgic view, and Trump thinks that the 1950s are sort of a great time. Well, if you're a black person, or a woman, or a gay person, that’s probably not your high-water mark. [...] It's inevitable that whites, particularly white males, are going to lose their status in society. It's just going to happen, it can't be stopped, and it's almost ridiculous to try to stop it. But it's a fact. If we could just get this damn line moving, I would be really happy. We could get more people on the top of that hill.

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