If you’re a young progressive, a racial justice activist, or someone who’s developed an affinity for the verb “resist” in the past several months, you probably watched the wrong Democratic response to President Trump’s joint session of Congress.
Unless you speak Spanish, that is.
The English-language response, delivered by former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear in a diner that looked like a sitcom set, wasn’t for you. Instead, you should have listened to the Spanish-language response, delivered by DREAMer and activist Astrid Silva (sporting
Beshear’s speech was for people who would like to see President Trump live up to some of the promises he made on the campaign trail. Silva’s speech was for those who are terrified that he might.
Of course, many more people saw Beshear than Silva — including the people who would have been much more receptive to the latter. And that’s a problem for Democrats.
Right now, Democrats are trying to harness a wave of anti-Trump energy and activism. The Democratic establishment is trying to convince activists that the Democratic Party is their ally and champion, not an only-slightly-better version of the Republican Party that needs to be challenged from within (à la Bernie Sanders) or without (à la Jill Stein).
But at the same time, Democrats are trying to extend an open hand to independents and Trump voters who might help them win back the Upper Midwest and Rust Belt states they lost in 2016.
It’s not an impossible balancing act, but it’s going to be very hard — as last night’s dueling response speeches demonstrated.
The two Democratic responses were speaking totally different languages — figuratively as well as literally
Doing a Spanish-language response to the State of the Union, in addition to the minority party’s traditional English response, became standard during the Obama administration. In that case, of course, the party responding was the GOP.
Appealing to Latinos (during a time when they were fleeing the Republican Party in droves) wasn’t the easiest task for the Republican politicians assigned to give the Spanish-language response. While there were variations, the two speeches typically used the same base text — although Republicans’ Spanish-language State of the Union responses often included issues that were absent from the standard response, such as immigration reform and Cuba.
The approach of offering the same basic ideas in different languages wouldn’t have been possible if the Republican Party were using its State of the Union responses solely to fire up the base. But the Republican responses to Obama’s State of the Union speeches were typically efforts to bridge the establishment and base of the party — selecting young politicians with Tea Party cred but upward aspirations, like Marco Rubio or Nikki Haley. So while there were things in the Spanish-language speeches that might have surprised some Republican voters, there was little in the English-language responses that would have offended Latinos.
The Democrats, in their first response of the Trump era — Tuesday’s speech wasn’t technically a State of the Union, but it was treated as one — took a different approach. They wrote entirely separate speeches in English and Spanish. (If you don’t speak Spanish, you can read the official English translation of the speech here.)
Essentially, the Democratic Party was narrowcasting — using different language to demonstrate belonging in two different communities.
Beshear’s speech was for moderate white working-class and middle-class voters in the Rust Belt, Appalachia, and the Upper Midwest — the voters who voted for Obama in 2008, and maybe even 2012, but voted for Trump in 2016. Beshear was selected in part because he was a governor who made an Affordable Care Act exchange work in a red state — a perfect messenger for voters who are suddenly worried that the politicians they elected to “fix” the ACA might end up making the health care system worse.
Silva’s speech, on the other hand, was by definition going to reach an audience whose biggest concern about Trump is that he will discriminate against them — immigrants, Latinos, people for whom English isn’t a first language:
In this country there is no space for discrimination, racial profiling, or persecution. But sadly, this is what the Trump Administration has brought forth for Latinos and immigrants.
During his first weeks as President, Trump signed executive orders that endanger our entire community. He took actions that focus specifically on hurting immigrants and refugees. He is spending resources on targeting working immigrant families for deportation, he wants to spend billions of dollars to build an unnecessary border wall, and he’s looking for ways to deny entry to our Muslim brothers and sisters.
It was inevitable that Trump’s immigration policies would be the center point of Silva’s speech. But Democratic speechwriters made her condemnation of Trump broader — making it a cri de coeur for all people who feel more vulnerable in the US because of the man in the White House, and all people who’ve been “in the streets” since Trump’s win:
[It’s needed for] those of us who understand what’s at risk for women, for the LGBTQ community, for our environment, for workers, immigrants, young people, and refugees, [to] work together to protect our communities from deportation, violence, and discrimination. That’s the only way to safeguard the values that make our country great.
Immigrants and refugees are the heart and soul, and the promise of this country. And we are not alone.
Democrats have vowed to fight for us and for the middle class.
They are our frontline against President Trump and Republicans’ harmful policies – in Congress, in the Senate, in the courts, and in the streets.
The speech wasn’t recorded in English. But it’s entirely likely that if it had been, it might have resonated with younger, more progressive Democrats — the ones who’ve been attending Women’s Marches or airport protests — far more than Beshear’s speech did.
The Democratic split: hold Trump to his promises, or raise the alarm about them?
The problem with tailoring your message like this is that it can too easily shade into double talk: promising two groups of people contradictory things, or saying something to one group that would alienate the other if they heard and understood it.
The Democratic responses didn’t particularly diverge when it came to policy (although one assumes a Latino audience would have bristled at Beshear going out of his way to assure viewers that Democrats believe “we need to enforce our immigration laws”). But rhetorically, the attitudes toward Trump couldn’t have been more different.
Beshear’s speech asked President Trump to live up to the populist image he projected on the campaign trail: “Mr. President, as a candidate, you promised to be a champion for people struggling to make ends meet, and I hope you live up to that promise.” When talking about health care, Beshear returned to the theme: “Folks here in Kentucky expect you to keep your word. Because this isn’t a game. It’s life or death for people.”
That message might resonate with an audience that voted for Trump, or at least found things in his candidacy to like, who have been disappointed with him mostly for (say) appointing so many Goldman Sachs executives to high administration positions. It wouldn’t resonate with an audience that was scared of
Those are the people whom Silva’s speech addressed. She reminded viewers that Trump’s promises are threats:
He made it very clear during his presidential campaign that he wanted his supporters to believe that all immigrants are criminals and refugees are terrorists. ...
President Trump is taking us back to some of the darkest times in our history: criminalizing anyone who is different, pitting us against each other, and sending the wrong message to the rest of the world, helping to breed anger and hate from terrorist groups to our country.
Both Beshear and Silva criticized Trump’s attacks on the media for (in Beshear’s words) “eroding our democracy.” But while Beshear did it in a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone, Silva echoed the anti-Trump slogan “This is not normal.”
We are living in uncertain times that are completely abnormal, in which the administration constantly questions the media and tries to actively destroy their credibility.
We can’t let these actions become normalized.
It’s hard to imagine Beshear saying those words without provoking hand-wringing among pundits over whether he might be alienating the white working-class voters Democrats lost in 2016. It’s equally hard to imagine Silva telling President Trump that “folks here expect you to keep your word.” For Spanish-dominant Americans, Trump keeping his word would be a terrifying prospect.
Nationalized elections make code switching really, really hard
Here’s the problem: Millions of people who might have really liked Silva’s speech
Democrats could have done a better job on this, logistically — there’s no reason they couldn’t have had Silva pre-record the English translation of her speech and put that out on YouTube to reach a younger audience. (Of course, they couldn’t have prevented progressive activists from watching Beshear’s speech and wondering whether Democrats were really committed to resisting Trump after all.)
Parties used to have a much easier time tailoring their messages and positions to the electorate of a particular jurisdiction — running socially conservative candidates in West Virginia and gun-banning hedge funders in New York. But it’s become clear over the past decade that that strategy has lost its effectiveness. Republicans who beat incumbent Democrats in 2010 and 2014 didn’t run against the incumbent Democrat; they ran against Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi.
And when a Democratic candidate tried to stake out a conservative position on a hot-button issue with a local audience, the effort often got unwanted national attention. The Democrat who challenged Mitch McConnell in Kentucky in 2014, for example, made two separate attempts to run tough-on-immigration ads on local radio without national progressives finding out, and ended up getting more attention from out-of-state progressives than she probably did from her own voters.
The Trump era is still nascent; Democrats don’t have to figure out immediately whether, by the time the 2018 midterms roll around, their core message will be that Trump has been a disappointment or that he must be resisted. But they will have a very hard time delivering both messages simultaneously.
Last night’s dual-speech experiment aside, the two groups Democrats want to reach aren’t neatly separated. The party has to figure out which one to talk to first.