Make Dems Great Again

Roy Cho

Navigating middle school cafeteria politics as a Korean American kid in the suburbs of Jersey was an incredibly stress-inducing but instructive experience.

And while painstaking calculated, the process was also aspirational.  How did I want to see myself, and how did I want others to see me?  Despite being an ethnic minority, I fought to avoid being boxed in by the characteristics that made up the stereotypically “Asian” contours of my gelatinous identity.

At least until we can get money out of politics (let’s put a pin in that), Americans are stuck with a two-party system.  And so long as both parties put forth arguments premised upon pluralistic values undergirding a liberal democracy, we’re still chugging along as originally intended.

But as we move from political philosophy to winning elections, let’s acknowledge Democrats haven’t been too successful lately.  Democrats were walloped in the 2014 midterms, lost the presidential in 2016 as well as multiple high-profile special elections (politics ain’t horseshoes or hand grenades), and now hold a record low number of governorships.

The Democratic Party is suffering from a major branding problem.  A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll indicates that the majority of respondents think Democrats only stand against President Trump – as opposed to the 37% who believe Democrats stand for something.

Elections are won and lost on how effectively you can persuade the person in the middle to sit at your table.  And such person cannot be ignored.  Recent Gallup surveys show identification with either of the two major political parties are at historical lows with anywhere from 42-45% identifying as Independent.
Having run for U.S. Congress in 2014 in one of the gerrymandered nation’s last remaining swing Congressional districts (NJ-5), it’s tough convincing someone to join you from a position of weakness.

(Side note: NJ-5 has a terrific Congressman now, Josh Gottheimer, who is actively working to bring people together.)

The Horatio Algerian myth is a compelling one because it fits nicely into the ideological infrastructure upon which our nation was built.  The aspirational value of success is burrowed deep in the DNA of our nation.  The notion that hard work and competence rank higher here than birthright is what continues to drive a million plus people to immigrate each year.

I always found it incredibly frustrating that the Democratic Party let Republicans co-opt the “pick yourself up by the bootstraps” narrative.  This is not binary.  Being proud of finishing first does not mean we can’t fight to ensure others can run a fair race in the future. By branding themselves primarily as the party of downtrodden interests, Democrats have allowed Republicans to co-opt winning.

I’m not, by any means, advocating Democrats abandon their principles or support for the disenfranchised.  But Republicans also have a claim to supporting the less fortunate, whether through the prism of compassionate conservatism, private charitable giving, or otherwise.

To win converts, Democrats need their swagger back.  How you govern differs from how you campaign just as in the private sector, there’s a divergence between how you run and market a business.

The problem begins with national party leadership primarily concerned with how much money you can raise.  That disconnect bleeds into how they recruit and brand those who do run as Democrats.  As a first-time candidate, I was shocked by just how much emphasis is placed on how well you can dial for dollars.
Listen, I get it.  The party needs benchmarks to make decisions as to which candidates to support with limited resources.  But the party leadership’s reactionary approach to branding and obsession with fundraising is not only outdated, it’s leaving a lot of persuadable people cold.

Democrats value success just as much as Republicans do.  By choosing to suppress that reality, they come across as inauthentic at best and moralistically haughty at worst.  My message to Democrats is to stop being ashamed of success and stop apologizing for and demonizing those who’ve won.

For example, there’s a gubernatorial election taking place here in New Jersey (remember to vote on Tuesday, Nov. 7th!), and Democrats have an incredibly inspirational nominee.  A man named Phil Murphy who grew up middle class on a good day, put himself through Harvard, and rose through the ranks of Goldman Sachs – one of the most competitive and prestigious investment banks in the world.  Through hard work, sacrifice, and luck, Phil achieved success and is now committed to giving back and helping others.  But during the primary, Phil was demonized by other Democrats for having achieved the American Dream.

President Trump’s electoral victory proves Americans don’t begrudge others for being successful.  But what they will not tolerate is inauthenticity.  The governing principles of the Democratic Party should remain in place.  But if they hope to win converts, the packaging and campaign narrative must change.
Diversity is, at its core, the story of hustle and entrepreneurship.  It fits perfectly into the plucky, entrepreneurial narrative of our startup nation.  If we’re going to continue being the most important nation in a globalized world, we must embrace all the parts that help us win.  And we must stop apologizing for the success that is a byproduct of our winning ways.

The horrific events in Charlottesville remind us of the need to aggressively stamp out bigotry when it rears its nasty head.  But let’s not address it from a position of victimhood.  By labeling itself as the “resistance” in the face of racism and hatred, the Democrats are implicitly acknowledging that racists are the mainstream when that’s clearly not the case.  Let’s attack from a position of power.  Let’s label intolerance for what it is – a perverse and pathetic (sad!) ideology adopted by losers.

I’m not, by any means, advocating we shun those sitting alone in the metaphorical cafeteria.  The Democratic Party must, as a matter of imperative, embrace the disenfranchised.  But our branding should not be tethered to a narrative of fighting from the fringes.  Despite starting off as the underdog, we are the underdog who wins – and proud of it.

Democrats should celebrate the incredible diversity that makes up the patchwork of their collective success and lure others to join a forward-looking party of the future.  Only then can they become the table that the person in the middle wants to sit at.

– Roy Cho was the Democratic nominee for U.S. Congress in 2014 (NJ-5), practiced corporate mergers and acquisitions and private equity law for seven years, and currently works as a business executive in media/television.
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7 responses to “Make Dems Great Again”

  1. Thank you for being introspective Roy, but I think you miss the mark. You suggest that money in politics is the problem (which it is) but better branding is not the solution. A more effective pathway to a future looking party that leads our nation towards economic, social and environmental justice would be one that listens to the base and independent voters. People want a single payer health system. They want a living wage and immediate and bold action on climate. They want to be listened to, and have something to fight for. Purging the party of long time progressive leaders and adding 75 new corporate lobbyists to the DNC is a big FU to the silent majority the Democrats need to become a vital forward looking party of the future. The Democrats must embrace this agenda loud and clear, not just with branding but with policy – and once in power they MUST amend the constitution to overturn Citizens United and pass effective campaign finance reform that abolishes corporate and dark money in politics and funds elections with taxpayer money.

    • Thanks, Dana, for your thoughtful reply and continued activism and commitment. All of the substantive policy issues you mention are certainly critical and I agree that the decision-making of the national party oftentimes makes absolutely no sense. Of course, the policy must always be there – I just think that we as a party need to seriously re-examine the way we market ourselves if we hope to win elections going forward. There have been a lot of unfortunate wake-up calls lately, and if we don’t learn, iterate, and adjust, then we deserve to keep losing. And I agree that campaign finance reform is one of, if not the, the most important issues we’re facing. Hope you are well my friend

  2. Great Article. It reminds me why I worked so hard for your election when you ran for congress a couple of years ago.

    • Thank you so much my friend. Still means so much to me and the best part of the campaign was meeting so many incredible people such as yourself who were willing to share their time and effort. Thank you for everything and hope you are doing great

  3. Josh Gottheimer votes Trumpian half the time. He is NOT a “terrific Democrat.” His only use as a Democrat would be to help Democrats gain chairmanships in a Democratic majority. But he’s basically a Republican. That he’s not insane right doesn’t mean he’s a Democrat.

  4. WOW!

    Didn’t realize that the biggest problem for Democrats is that they didn’t show enough appreciation for financial “winners”

    Perhaps giving a message that everything was fine economically and the Great Recession was completely in the rearview mirror might actually have been the mistake. FDR did well in the midterms in 1934 because he balanced optimism with reality.

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