2021: What I'm worrying about

2021: What I'm worrying about
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If you’re reading this it means that you are not one of the more than 350,000 Americans who lost their lives in 2020 to the COVID-19 virus. It similarly means you didn’t die of anything else, which is also a good thing.

As you can tell, my standards for what made a decent 2020 are low. I wish I could be less of a Debbie Downer, but 2020 brought very few silver linings.

One of them, though, was Joe BidenJoe BidenNorth Korea conducts potential 6th missile test in a month Clyburn predicts Supreme Court contender J. Michelle Childs would get GOP votes Overnight Defense & National Security — US delivers written response to Russia MORE’s and Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisClyburn predicts Supreme Court contender J. Michelle Childs would get GOP votes Hispanics sour on Biden and Democrats' agenda as midterms loom Officer who directed rioters away from senators says Jan. 6 could have been a 'bloodbath' MORE’s win. The down-ballot losses for Democrats were painful, but our top priority was beating Donald TrumpDonald TrumpNorth Korea conducts potential 6th missile test in a month Kemp leading Perdue in Georgia gubernatorial primary: poll US ranked 27th least corrupt country in the world MORE — and we did that.


In a year that is sure to be full of uncertainty, I want to focus on what we can control: winning elections. There are three areas on which Democrats can improve in order to maintain the coalition that put Biden over the top. They include a more persuasive economic message, improved and targeted minority outreach, and taking on the “cancel culture” debate. 

The economy was always Trump’s focus. He got himself elected in 2016 by touting his outsider and business experience and, even in the face of a once-in-a-century pandemic, he continued to talk almost exclusively about the economy and the need to “open the country up.” It worked. The economy was the top issue for 35 percent of voters, the most important issue overall, and Trump won that group by over 6 percentage points.

While our health care position is a winner for Democrats, it is inextricably linked to the economy and the two cannot be divorced. Biden and down-ballot Democrats failed to break through on this point.

Democrats need to adopt a more populist message, as exemplified by Ohio Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownSenate Democrats urge Biden to get beefed-up child tax credit into spending deal N95 distribution plan could imperil small US mask makers Biden's year two won't be about bipartisanship  MORE, one of the only Democrats to win statewide in red Ohio. Trump’s ability to market himself as a populist has created the impression that the GOP cares about the average American. Their policies say otherwise. To counter, Democrats’ economic messaging must be rooted in the importance of an economy that works for everyone but also, crucially, the dignity of work. Republicans have successfully pitted Democrats as the party of socialism, while they are the party of capitalism. We cannot win that argument. Democrats must talk about the value of work and the importance of getting back to work/reopening the economy more explicitly. Americans need to know that their livelihoods are prioritized over bureaucracy.

I’m not saying anything new in highlighting the importance of minority voters to Democratic wins. Though a record number of Latinos and Blacks voted for Trump and Republicans in 2020, Native American voters in Arizona and Asian and Pacific Islander voters (AAPI) in Georgia were decisive for Biden. These are voters Democrats cannot afford to lose, and it has long been a struggle to create targeted messaging strategies that do more than say “Republicans are worse.” As Kayla Brabham, a Black student, said in the wake of the George Floyd protests, “Clearly our voices are not enough. … We should not have to come out here to make y’all feel like we’re important.”

This sentiment could be expressed by members of any minority group. There is an overwhelming sense that their level of importance rises around election day and falls immediately after. Longtime Democratic consultant Chuck Rocha warned that Latinos may stay home in 2020 because Democrats failed to do the simplest of things: ask for their vote. This needs to happen across the board, and in the correct language — a clear shortcoming with AAPI voters especially. Knowing and acknowledging the issues that matter most to them and having a plan to fix them matters a hell of a lot. Decisive action is what’s needed, and demanded, at this moment. But showing the respect of asking for someone’s vote matters a hell of a lot, too.

As a Democrat who works in conservative media, I spend more time thinking about and discussing issues of “cancel culture” than the average liberal, but I have come to believe that it matters more to the voting electorate than most Democrats admit. First of all, Republicans have made it a focal point of their agenda, which means that it’s in the national consciousness whether we like it or not. Secondly, this is exactly the type of issue that could turn off nontraditional Democratic supporters such as white suburbanites who consistently supported Republicans before the Trump era. This bloc — decisive in the 2018 midterms for Democrats, and in states such as Georgia and Arizona for Biden in 2020 — has limited appetite for what teeters on the line between social justice and mob intimidation.

A recent case is illustrative. The day after Christmas, the New York Times ran a piece on the case of Mimi Groves, a teenage girl who recorded a 3-second Snapchat video when she was 15 years old wherein she uses the N-word. She has apologized multiple times, gone on to become a successful cheerleader, and was accepted to the University of Tennessee with plans to cheer there, too. A classmate of hers, Jimmy Galligan, who is of mixed race, saved the video to use at the right moment and did just that. He put it on the internet after the George Floyd protests and, consequently, the university rescinded Groves’s acceptance. Galligan is proud of what he has done. “I’m going to remind myself, you started something. You taught someone a lesson,” he told the Times.

I am someone who pretty regularly thinks that so-called “cancellations” are worthy and has never used the N-word (even when singing along to a song). But I found myself incredibly upset by this story. People make mistakes, especially 15-year-olds. Mimi Groves isn’t trying to be on the Supreme Court — she’s just trying to go to college and live a full life. I know I’m not alone in feeling this way, judging by the response to the story on both sides of the aisle. I think Democrats need to more actively wade into this culture war on the side of free speech and expression, and make it known that the GOP portrayal of liberals isn’t reality. 

There is no silver bullet to ensure that Democrats perform better at the ballot box, but I do think addressing these three issues will go a long way toward achieving that goal. At the very least, a marked change would make for a better 2021 in my book. 

Jessica Tarlov is head of research at Bustle Digital Group and a Fox News contributor. She earned her Ph.D. at the London School of Economics in political science. Follow her on Twitter @JessicaTarlov.