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“Wokeness is a problem and we all know it”

James Carville on the state of Democratic politics.

James Carville.
Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

I called James Carville hoping to get his thoughts on President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office.

He obliged — then, one question in, brushed aside the exercise to talk instead about why the Democrats might be poised to squander their political advantage against a damaged GOP.

His failure to cooperate may have been for the best since the first 100 days ritual can sometimes lead to dull, dutiful analysis. What Carville offered up instead was a blunt critique of his own party even after a successful 2020 election cycle — a sequel of sorts to his fulminations during last year’s Democratic primaries. The longtime Democratic strategist is mostly pleased with Biden, but it’s where much of the party seems to be going that has him worried.

“Wokeness is a problem,” he told me, “and we all know it.” According to Carville, Democrats are in power for now, but they also only narrowly defeated Donald Trump, “a world-historical buffoon,” and they lost congressional seats and failed to pick up state legislatures. The reason is simple: They’ve got a “messaging problem.”

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

What do you make of Biden’s first 100 days?

James Carville

Honestly, if we’re just talking about Biden, it’s very difficult to find something to complain about. And to me his biggest attribute is that he’s not into “faculty lounge” politics.

Sean Illing

“Faculty lounge” politics?

James Carville

You ever get the sense that people in faculty lounges in fancy colleges use a different language than ordinary people? They come up with a word like “Latinx” that no one else uses. Or they use a phrase like “communities of color.” I don’t know anyone who speaks like that. I don’t know anyone who lives in a “community of color.” I know lots of white and Black and brown people and they all live in ... neighborhoods.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these phrases. But this is not how people talk. This is not how voters talk. And doing it anyway is a signal that you’re talking one language and the people you want to vote for you are speaking another language. This stuff is harmless in one sense, but in another sense it’s not.

Sean Illing

Is the problem the language or the fact that there are lots of voters who just don’t want to hear about race and racial injustice?

James Carville

We have to talk about race. We should talk about racial injustice. What I’m saying is, we need to do it without using jargon-y language that’s unrecognizable to most people — including most Black people, by the way — because it signals that you’re trying to talk around them. This “too cool for school” shit doesn’t work, and we have to stop it.

There may be a group within the Democratic Party that likes this, but it ain’t the majority. And beyond that, if Democrats want power, they have to win in a country where 18 percent of the population controls 52 percent of the Senate seats. That’s a fact. That’s not changing. That’s what this whole damn thing is about.

Sean Illing

Sounds like you got a problem with “wokeness,” James.

James Carville

Wokeness is a problem and everyone knows it. It’s hard to talk to anybody today — and I talk to lots of people in the Democratic Party — who doesn’t say this. But they don’t want to say it out loud.

Sean Illing

Why not?

James Carville

Because they’ll get clobbered or canceled. And look, part of the problem is that lots of Democrats will say that we have to listen to everybody and we have to include every perspective, or that we don’t have to run a ruthless messaging campaign. Well, you kinda do. It really matters.

I always tell people that we’ve got to stop speaking Hebrew and start speaking Yiddish. We have to speak the way regular people speak, the way voters speak. It ain’t complicated. That’s how you connect and persuade. And we have to stop allowing ourselves to be defined from the outside.

Sean Illing

What does that mean?

James Carville

Take someone like Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She’s obviously very bright. She knows how to draw a headline. In my opinion, some of her political aspirations are impractical and probably not going to happen. But that’s probably the worst thing that you can say about her.

Now take someone like Marjorie Taylor Greene, the new Republican congresswoman from Georgia. She’s absolutely loonier than a tune. We all know it. And yet, for some reason, the Democrats pay a bigger political price for AOC than Republicans pay for Greene. That’s the problem in a nutshell. And it’s ridiculous because AOC and Greene are not comparable in any way.

Sean Illing

I hear versions of this argument about language and perception all the time, James. It’s an old problem. What’s the solution?

James Carville

That’s why I’m doing this interview. Lots of smart people are going to read it, and hopefully they can figure out that which I can’t. But if you’re asking me, I think it’s because large parts of the country view us as an urban, coastal, arrogant party, and a lot gets passed through that filter. That’s a real thing. I don’t give a damn what anyone thinks about it — it’s a real phenomenon, and it’s damaging to the party brand.

Sean Illing

Part of the issue is that Republicans are going to paint the Dems as cop-hating, fetus-destroying Stalinists no matter what they say or do. So, yeah, I agree that Democrats should be smart and not say dumb, alienating things, but I’m also not sure how much control they have over how they’re perceived by half the country, especially when that half lives in an alternate media reality.

James Carville

Right, but we can’t say, “Republicans are going to call us socialists no matter what, so let’s just run as out-and-out socialists.” That’s not the smartest thing to do. And maybe tweeting that we should abolish the police isn’t the smartest thing to do because almost fucking no one wants to do that.

Here’s the deal: No matter how you look at the map, the only way Democrats can hold power is to build on their coalition, and that will have to include more rural white voters from across the country. Democrats are never going to win a majority of these voters. That’s the reality. But the difference between getting beat 80 to 20 and 72 to 28 is all the difference in the world.

So they just have to lose by less — that’s all.

Sean Illing

So what do you want the Democrats to do differently besides not having people peddle politically toxic ideas like abolishing the police? How do they change the conversation so that Republicans aren’t defining them by their least popular expressions?

You’re a strategist, James. I want to know what you’d advise them to do. You don’t have any complaints about Biden because he’s getting stuff done. He’s putting money in people’s pockets. But the Democratic Party is a big coalition and you’re always going to have people promoting unpopular ideas, right? Whereas the Republican Party is more homogenous, and that lends itself to a tighter, more controlled message.

James Carville

Tell me this: How is it we have all this talk about Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and we don’t talk about Dennis Hastert, the longest-serving Republican speaker of the House in Congress? If Hastert was a Democrat who we knew had a history of molesting kids and was actually sent to prison in 2016, he’d still be on Fox News every fucking night. The Republicans would never shut the hell up about it.

So when Jim Jordan was pulling all these stunts with Anthony Fauci [Fauci was speaking at a congressional hearing about ending coronavirus precautions], why didn’t someone jump in and say, “Let me tell you something, Jim, if Fauci knew what you knew, if he knew that a doctor was molesting young people, he would’ve gone to the medical board yesterday. So you can go ahead and shut the fuck up.” [Ed. note: Jordan denies knowing about the allegations of abuse when he was an assistant coach at Ohio State University.] I love that Congresswoman Maxine Waters told Jordan to “shut your mouth,” but that’s what I really wish a Democrat would say, and I wish they’d keep saying it over and over again.

Can I step back for a second and give you an example of the broader problem?

Sean Illing

Sure.

James Carville

Look at Florida. You now have Democrats saying Florida is a lost cause. Really? In 2018 in Florida, giving felons the right to vote got 64 percent. In 2020, a $15 minimum wage, which we have no chance of passing [federally], got 67 percent. Has anyone in the Democratic Party said maybe there’s nothing wrong with the state of Florida? Maybe the problem is the kind of campaigns we’re running?

If you gave me an environment in which the majority of voters wanted to expand the franchise to felons and raise the minimum wage, I should be able to win that. It’s certainly not a political environment I’m destined to lose in. But in Miami-Dade, all they talked about was defunding the police and Kamala Harris being the most liberal senator in the US Senate. And if you look all across the Rio Grande Valley, we lost all kinds of solidly blue voters. And the faculty lounge bullshit is a big part of it.

Sean Illing

If you’re a Democrat, you could look at the state of play and say, “We’re winning. We won the White House. We won Congress. We have power. It ain’t perfect, but it ain’t a disaster either.”

James Carville

We won the White House against a world-historical buffoon. And we came within 42,000 votes of losing. We lost congressional seats. We didn’t pick up state legislatures. So let’s not have an argument about whether or not we’re off-key in our messaging. We are. And we’re off because there’s too much jargon and there’s too much esoterica and it turns people off.

Sean Illing

Not to beat a dead horse, but Democrats and Republicans are dealing with very different constituencies. Democrats have a big tent, they have to win different kinds of voters and that means making different kinds of appeals. Republicans can get away with shit that Democrats cannot.

James Carville

Yeah, that’s a problem. We can only do what we can do. People always say to me, “Why don’t Democrats just lie like Republicans?” Because if they did, our voters wouldn’t stand for it. But I’m not saying we need to lie like they do. I’m saying, why not go after Gaetz and Jordan and link them to Hastert and the Republican Party over and over and over again? We have to take these small opportunities to define ourselves and the other side every damn time. And we don’t do it. We just don’t do it.

Sean Illing

Republicans aren’t just more comfortable lying, they’re more comfortable with slogans and sound bites, and that’s partly why they’re more effective at defining themselves and the Democrats.

James Carville

Let me give you my favorite example of metropolitan, overeducated arrogance. Take the climate problem. Do you realize that climate is the only major social or political movement that I can think of that refuses to use emotion? Where’s the identifiable song? Where’s the bumper sticker? Where’s the slogan? Where’s the flag? Where’s the logo?

We don’t have it because with faculty politics what you do is appeal to reason. You don’t need the sloganeering and sound bites. That’s for simple people. All you need are those timetables and temperature charts, and from that, everyone will just get it.

That’s not how the world works; that’s not how people work. And Republicans are way more disciplined about taking a thing and branding it. Elites will roll their eyes at that, but I’d ask, “How’s that working out for you?” Most people agree with us on health care and minimum wage and Roe v. Wade and even on the climate.

So why can’t we leverage that?

Sean Illing

What would you have Biden do to counter some of these messaging problems?

James Carville

I’d have him pick up a phone. I’d have someone in the White House pick up the phone. And when someone in the party starts this jargon shit, I’d call them and say, “We’re only a vote away. Our approval rating is 60 percent. We got a chance to pick up seats in 2022, and if you did this, it would be very helpful to us.”

Sean Illing

Are you sure those calls aren’t happening already?

James Carville

Maybe they are, but they need to be more effective. And we need more of them.

Sean Illing

There’s a philosophy on the left right now, which says the Democrats should pass everything they possibly can, no matter the costs, and trust that the voters will reward them on the back end.

Where do you land on that?

James Carville

First of all, the Democratic Party can’t be more liberal than Sen. Joe Manchin. That’s the fact. We don’t have the votes. But I’ll say this, two of the most consequential political events in recent memory happened on the same day in January: the insurrection at the US Capitol and the Democrats winning those two seats in Georgia. Can’t overstate that.

But the Democrats can’t fuck it up. They have to make the Republicans own that insurrection every day. They have to pound it. They have to call bookers on cable news shows. They have to get people to write op-eds. There will be all kinds of investigations and stories dripping out for god knows how long, and the Democrats should spend every day tying all of it to the Republican Party. They can’t sit back and wait for it to happen.

Hell, just imagine if it was a bunch of nonwhite people who stormed the Capitol. Imagine how Republicans would exploit that and make every news cycle about how the Dems are responsible for it. Every political debate would be about that. The Republicans would bludgeon the Democrats with it forever.

So whatever you think Republicans would do to us in that scenario, that’s exactly what the hell we need to do them.