US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell embodies the poisoning of America’s political well. Photo: AFP

I thought Democrats would never disappoint me more than in 2004 when they couldn’t beat a president who’d lost the popular vote four years earlier, turned a budget surplus into a deficit and undermined America’s global leadership and credibility with an unjustified war based on lies.

In 2020, Democrats nearly topped the 2004 failure. They got the fight of their lives from a historically corrupt president who never reached 50% approval and tragically failed to address a public health emergency that cost 230,000 American lives (and counting), leading an increasingly extremist party energizing the worst impulses of a minority of Americans.

Democrats eked out a presidential victory, but lost seats in the House of Representatives and failed to win the Senate, unless they stage an unprecedented double victory in Georgia’s run-off elections. After this failure under extraordinarily favorable circumstances, party leadership and supporters must examine what they’re doing wrong.

From a life-long Democrat living overseas, here are large and small questions party faithful must answer honestly.

What does it mean to be a Democrat?

It’s not Democrats who keep talking about socialism, it’s Republicans, portraying the Biden-Harris victory as a Communist takeover. Since the Reagan era, Democrats have too often served up Republican lite. Party leadership’s zeal to capture marginal centrist voters too often alienates the base. So Democrats regularly lose to a side that plays to its smaller base far more effectively.

Why did I only hear about the legislated 2021 tax increases on families earning $75,000 and less this campaign season in a Joseph Stiglitz New York Times op-ed on October 31, instead of from every Democratic candidate in every race since the shameful 2017 tax law passed?

Why don’t Democrats emphasize issues where the majority of Americans agree with them: higher taxes for the wealthy, gun control, abortion rights, immigration reform and a path to citizenship for children raised in the US?

Democrats cannot let the public and media define “radical” as “opposed by Republicans.” Democrats cannot fear standing for something. Nobody yearns to vote for a party or candidate slightly less bad than the alternative. 

How did Democrats fail to embrace the largest mass political movement of the past half-century?

Demonstrations following George Floyd’s killing highlighted Democrats’ bedrock pillar of racial equality. Yet prominent Democrats were not visible among the demonstrators. The absence of leading Democrats at the forefront of peaceful protests allowed more extreme elements to shape the narrative, highlighting ideas such as “defund the police.”

Republicans associated that slogan and protest violence – at times reportedly instigated by right-wing provocateurs – with Democrats anyway, despite their distancing efforts.

The pandemic partially excuses Democrats’ physical no-show, but I wonder if much of Democratic leadership and the party’s white-collar, college-educated wing felt the demonstrators just weren’t their kind of people, or they felt uncomfortable declaring Black Lives Matter.

Moreover, did party operatives register marchers to vote, collect their contact info and help them get to the polls? Would Republicans have hesitated to mine and nourish an organic White Lives Matter movement and keep it active through election day to drive turnout and spotlight down ballot races?

Why do Democratic strategists and pollsters keep getting things so spectacularly wrong?

Why didn’t Democrats run against Mitch McConnell?

Look up “soulless plutocrat” in the dictionary and find McConnell. He embodies the poisoning of America’s political well tracing to Newt Gingrich, transforming the other party from fellow patriots with different policy ideas to mortal enemies bent on destroying the country and your family’s way of life.

That reasoning elevates party interest to national interest and justifies obstructionism against measures like a Covid aid package that would benefit the country but could help the other party at the polls. Though he said it in a different context, McConnell summed up the doctrine in 2010 when he declared, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for president [Barack] Obama to be a one-term president.”

Plus McConnell stole two Supreme Court seats and has filled more than 200 federal bench vacancies (many that he kept vacant during Obama’s presidency), predominantly with white, male far-rightists whose malign influence promises to outlive McConnell.

Republicans have demonized terminally reasonable Nancy Pelosi, but Democrats haven’t effectively targeted preternaturally evil Mitch McConnell. The Georgia run-offs are high time to start.

Why didn’t Democrats seriously fight the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett?

Beyond sarcasm, though, elected Democrats did nothing meaningful to oppose Amy Coney Barrett, an ideologue now positioned to darken American jurisprudence for decades.

If Democrats were serious about stopping Barrett, or at least delaying her Supreme Court confirmation until after the election and making it a campaign issue, they could have led efforts to shadow every Republican senator, especially the 23 on the November ballot, chanting “What’s the rush?” and occupying their offices and their lives until they agreed to postpone the vote.

In the late 1980s, Democrats took the forefront of America’s anti-apartheid movement, participating in street demonstrations and getting jailed to demand freedom for South Africa’s black majority.

But their 2020 counterparts would not similarly stand up for American women who will be forced to carry unwanted children to term by further restrictions on abortion, for workers who’ll be denied the right to organize, for immigrants seeking to nourish and enrich our shared American dream or for the millions of Americans who’ll lose their medical coverage if the Supreme Court voids the Affordable Care Act.

Maybe likely victims of Barrett’s confirmation are not top Democrats’ kinds of people. Party leaders and their families don’t face eviction, loss of health insurance and choosing among grocery bills, medical bills and rent when Republicans prevail. Joe Biden seems to understand people who do. That’s why he outperformed the rest of the party on November 3, and that’s a lesson Democrats must learn from this election. 

Muhammad Cohen is a contributor to Forbes Asia and editor at large of Inside Asian Gaming, and wrote Hong Kong On Air, a novel set during the 1997 handover about TV news, love, betrayal, high finance and cheap lingerie.