“Orange Man Bad” Is a Fine Message for Democrats
Negative partisanship works, and is good.
Image: Mark Taylor CC
“The Democrats can’t just rely on hating Trump; they need to offer something positive!”
If you’re on social media at all, you’ve probably seen leftists say this or something like it. It’s a standard talking point, and a standard critique of Biden and Democrats. Leftists who pay close attention to politics (like me!) often get frustrated by the way in which pundits and officeholders dump on Trump and constantly remind voters how awful he is. They dislike the appeal to what scholars refer to as negative partisanship. They would prefer that Democrats focus on positive goals—raising the minimum wage, repealing student debt, making free medicare available for all, lowering home prices. Don’t tell us how much we should fear the other side, they argue. Tell us how you’ll make our lives better.
The left argument here sounds reasonable; everyone would rather appeal to hope than fear. But the truth is that “Orange Man Bad” is a really powerful argument, and negative partisanship motivates voters. Democrats should of course also tout their own achievements, and push for better policies. But they would be committing malpractice if they didn’t remind their voters, and independents, just how terrible Trump is.
Negative partisanship drives votes
There’s been a fair amount of research trying to determine what motivates voters. There’s no one answer, but there is substantial evidence that, yes, hatred of the other side—or negative partisanship—gets people to the polls.
For example, this 2014 paper on negative partisanship found that it did increase voter turnout, and that it also was more effective at increasing other kinds of political participation, like protest, than was positive partisanship. Political scientist Chris Weber noted in 2020 that the consensus of research is that, “One consequence of anger, and even negative campaigning in certain circumstances, is that it actually does increase voter turnout.” He added, “This idea that you can really stoke fear or anxiety to turn up the base has actually been empirically shown to be true.”
This shouldn’t be surprising given the success of one, Donald Trump. Trump has virtually no coherent positive policy positions. He will vaguely talk about an idealized lost American past, but his real rhetorical enthusiasm is reserved for trying to frighten his voters with a vision of the misery and decline that will ensure if Democrats get into power. The most vivid part of Trump’s inauguration speech in 2017 was devoted to a bleak apocalyptic vision of evils he attributed to liberals.
Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves. These are just and reasonable demands of righteous people and a righteous public, but for too many of our citizens a different reality exists. Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories, scattered like tombstones across the across the landscape of our nation, an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge, and the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.
Trump leans hard into negative partisanship; by the same token, his own striking lack of popularity has been a huge spur to voters. The crushing Democratic midterm victory in 2018, when Trump was in office, was driven in large part by hatred of Trump, whose approval at the time was 39 favorable/57 unfavorable. In fact, 2018 saw record turnout levels, as did 2020—in large part because of Trump, who fires up his own voters with a steady diet of negative partisanship, and inspires his own opponents with a burning hatred of his orange mug.
No, negative partisanship is not a danger to neighborly amity
Part of the reason people are hesitant about acknowledging the power of negative partisanship is that they think that negative partisanship is wrong or unhealthy. Chris Weber, after acknowledging that negative partisanship increases turnout, hurried to add that he didn’t support negative partisanship. “Viewing half of the country or a large section of the country as antithetical to American democracy is actually really harmful,” he insisted.
Weber’s argument lightly skips over what I think is a pretty central question—is it true that a large section of the country is antithetical to American democracy? If one party has actually abandoned democracy, isn’t it more dangerous to pretend that all is well? Getting along with your neighbors is preferable, but if your neighbors want to (for example) strip you of bodily autonomy and voting rights, it’s important to acknowledge that so you can work against it. Is partisan democracy the most dangerous threat we face? Or is it fascism? And if it’s fascism, isn’t partisan opposition to fascism a good thing?
Or as I put it in a post earlier this year:
Scholarly appeals to social harmony and unity aren’t just sidelining inequality as an issue. They’re leaning into a staple of white supremacist ideology and nationalist rhetoric. “Unity,” as an overriding virtue in the United States has long meant, “unity of white people.” A social science that sees polarization and partisanship as the main threats to democracy is a social science that implicitly—and often more than implicitly—is calling for white, Christofascist solidarity against Black (and feminist, and queer, and disabled) demands for justice.
Currently more than half of Republican voters say that Trump’s January 6 insurrection was a “legitimate protest.” This is a political party that has embraced political violence and rejected democracy. Democrats should find that frightening and should be eager to vote against a party that has abandoned democratic norms. Outrage is warranted; people shouldn’t just say, “well, gee, they’re my neighbors, so who cares if they try to murder the vice president.”
No, negative partisanship does not preclude positive change
People on the left who are uncomfortable with negative partisanship may be less focused on bipartisan amity and more concerned about low expectations. “Biden isn’t Trump” can be used to deflect from dangerous Democratic policies (such as support for Israeli war crimes in Gaza, as the most pressing example right now.) You want Democrats to promise and deliver on good policies. You don’t want them to settle for not being as bad as the other guy.
Those are reasonable concerns. I think they can downplay, though, how negative partisanship and positive goals are almost inevitably intertwined.
The obvious example here is abortion rights. The Dobbs decision, which revoked pregnant people’s right to bodily autonomy, is incredibly unpopular, and has been a powerful force behind a series of stunning Democratic victories, most notably in the 2022 midterms. Democratic voters have been motivated by rage at Republican abortion policies (negative partisanship) and by a desire to institute abortion protections (a positive program.)
When Ohio voters overwhelmingly enshrined abortion access in the state’s constitution, were they voting from negative partisanship? Positive partisanship? Surely the answer is both—and that’s the case for most voters and most issues. Voting against Trump’s vicious attacks on immigrants is also a vote for more humane border policies; voting against a politician like Trump who is a rapist is also a vote for keeping rapists out of positions of power and holding them accountable for violence. Voting against Trump’s program of tax cuts and starving the poor is a vote for Biden’s policies of supporting unions and working people.
Don’t be afraid to say, “Orange man bad.”
Biden and Democrats should of course run on real accomplishments and on further promises; I think Biden should, for example, put together a clear list of pro abortion policies he wants to work for in 2024 and beyond, and should make the case for further expansions of the safety net as well. But he should also remind people why they hate Trump, and why Trump is uniquely dangerous.
People on the left shouldn’t be put off by attacks on Trump. On the contrary, they should join in. Trump hates democracy; he hates the left, he hates marginalized people. If he has his way, he will imprison, torment, torture, and kill many of us and our loved ones. We need to remind each other, and the country, just what he stands for, and who he will harm. Sometimes, negativity is called for. This is one of those times.