Democrats are haunted.
Their phantoms linger in the political background and prevent the party from reclaiming wide sections of traditional supporters — our working class and rural voters.
They are ghosts of the 1960s. That era of cultural change and civic disorder is burned into something like America’s collective unconscious. Even for people who didn’t live through the 60s, iconic images from those times still define liberalism, progressivism, and big government.
These images explain why moderate Democrats have blamed movements like “defund the police” for the party’s poor showing in Congressional races this year. They are why “socialism” and “law and order” still work as the slings and arrows of outrageous campaigns against Democrats.
With Joe BidenJoe BidenUkraine's president compares UN to 'a retired superhero' Biden touts 'progress' during 'candid' meetings on .5T plan Biden to tap law professor who wants to 'end banking as we know it' as OCC chief: reports MORE in the White House, the party has a new opportunity to slay these old ghosts and create different images. But the history of the last half-century suggests it won’t be easy.
Democrats complain about the outsized power of, say, rural voters — but there was a time when the party consistently won rural backing, along with the working class. FDR created a fresh story for Democrats and for government: He brought electricity to farmers and federal pensions to seniors. Now-famous images helped cement that story: from the Appalachian photos of Dorothea Lange to Rosie the Riveter posters during World War II.
But by the mid-60s, that story was falling apart: assassinations, protests, drug use, crime waves, and urban unrest replaced the Norman Rockwell illustrations of FDR’s time. Thanks to television, these startling new images were broadcast into every home. It was — for many — the picture of government literally shooting for the moon yet unable to manage basic tasks on Earth.
Those images overshadowed liberal victories of the 1960s: Medicare, civil rights, clean air and water. There is no doubt that racism plays a big part in how certain voters define that time — but it’s also clear that intense periods of civic disorder like the 1960s are rare in this country and not easily forgotten or understood, no matter your political leanings. Ask yourself: What impressions pop into your mind from those years? For many, they are images that portray something like a national nervous breakdown.
Democrats now have the chance to mold a better story with different images. For that, they need to thank Donald TrumpDonald TrumpUkraine's president compares UN to 'a retired superhero' Collins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid Heller won't say if Biden won election MORE.
The GOP effectively rebuilt its post-Watergate reputation during the Reagan years. Ronald Reagan, a master of imagery, gave anti-government conservatism an optimistic face and assembled a new coalition out of the broken pieces of old FDR alliances. Those images — culminating in Reagan’s classic “Morning in America” re-election campaign commercial — have buttressed Republicans ever since. The party’s recent failures have been historic, including the Iraq war and 2008’s economic collapse. But the bright contrast of Reagan’s domestic tranquility versus the tumultuous 1960s has never faded.
Trump turned “Morning in America” into “American Carnage,” creating a new era of civic disorder that rivals the 60s, this time with Republicans in charge. Yes, Trump’s fan base is impressive today — but it’s too early to know just which images from his presidency will be the ghosts of this era, the ones that ultimately stick in the public consciousness. There are many to choose from: Trump awkwardly holding a Bible. Trump ripping off his mask. Kids in cages. Nazis in Charlottesville. Mobile COVID morgues in nearly every city.
Much of that depends on what happens with the virus and how Biden handles it. Scenes of people calmly lining up for vaccines, of families heading back to ballparks and barbeques, could be Biden’s own American morning, creating lasting images of good government as a rebuttal to the current chaos.
Reagan also challenged a polarizing incumbent — he beat Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterMeghan McCain: Country has not 'healed' from Trump under Biden America needs a new strategy for Pacific Island Countries Afghanistan and the lessons that history does not offer MORE with 50.7 percent of the 1980 vote (in a 3-way race), slightly under Biden’s current 51 percent. But Reagan’s talent for images and communication helped him broaden his base to include many life-long Democrats, voters who likely had pictures of the 1960s disruption printed in their minds.
Biden is not expected to lead a turnaround of his party in that way. But he can do something nearly as important. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTo Build Back Better, improving Black women's health is a must Rahm Emanuel has earned M since leaving Chicago's city hall: report 60 years after the Peace Corps, service still brings Americans together MORE admits he did a poor job of communicating as president: Biden’s old boss even declined a humanitarian visit to the border by telling reporters he was “not interested in photo ops.”
But if Biden cultivates strong images to accompany his programs, he can help Democrats communicate better. And by simply leading a competent, trustworthy government, Biden can create a Reagan-like picture of restored domestic tranquility.
Something like that might finally put the ghosts of the 1960s to rest.
Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.