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On Nov. 2, Democrats received a jarring wake-up call. Across the nation, from gubernatorial races to local elections, voters overwhelmingly shifted right. In Virginia, political outsider Glenn Youngkin pulled off a shocking upset over former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, gaining 6.6% more of the vote than President Trump attained just a year earlier. Meanwhile in New Jersey, in a losing effort, Republican candidate Jack Ciattarelli still made up 6.9% of Trump’s margin. With these results echoing everywhere from House seats to local school boards, the possibility of a red wave in 2022 seems more likely than ever.

After campaigning on the platform of a return to normalcy in 2020, voter anger over the Democrats’ failure to meet that promise has evidently manifested itself in a shellacking at the polls. With President Biden’s approval ratings nearing record lows in the aftermath of an inflation crisis, botched Afghanistan withdrawal and stagnant pandemic recovery, Republicans capitalized on the administration’s failures by reasserting themselves as the party of reason. While Democrats coasted on the sole issue of being anti-Trump in 2018 and 2020, unless the party can find an identity beyond that before 2022, they stand to compound their losses. 

As opposed to Glenn Youngkin, who campaigned on improving a broken education system and cutting taxes on groceries and gas, his opponent never declared his policy priorities and instead resorted to attack ads dubbing Youngkin, who refused to campaign with Trump, as “Trumpkin.” Voters saw through this obvious partisan charade and punished McAuliffe on election night by voting on day-to-day issues instead of the artificial threat of an ex-president. Although in the aftermath of Jan. 6, Republicans seemed primed to lose their moral authority indefinitely, the party has done a remarkable job of rebranding itself over the past 11 months, connecting with voters on real problems rather than ignoring community sentiment by taking universal support for granted.

Ironically, Democrats were upset for nearly identical reasons just five years ago, when Trump branded himself as a champion of the common worker rather than an inside-the-beltway political hack unconcerned about the household struggles of middle-class families. After serving as the party of the people for decades, Democrats have suddenly become the party of the “liberal elite.” Fair or not, until the party can realign its public image with its past priorities, it will struggle to turn out the suburban and rural voters critical to victory.

In order to accomplish this, Democrats must shift their central platform toward uncontroversial issues that improve the lives of blue-collar Americans. While the party has achieved significant legislation to accomplish this through the bipartisan infrastructure bill, too often these types of successes are drowned out by divisive debates over “defunding the police” and a “Green New Deal.” By focusing party messaging on how to move red areas of the country forward instead of dismissing half of the country’s views as backward, Democrats can reclaim their position at the forefront of the fight for workers.

An excellent first step would be to double down on lifting pandemic restrictions and combating inflation. With a slow reopening frustrating many across the country and inflation severely restraining purchasing power, these issues are the top concerns of many middle-class families. By dismissing inflation as “transitory” and not allowing vaccinated individuals to stop wearing masks in certain states, Democrats appear detached from the core issues affecting voters. Rather than continuing to embark on a self-righteous quest to reform the social policy beliefs of Americans, Democrats can easily win back swing voters by ceasing to paint them as “racist” and instead listen to their concerns.

Through incentivizing citizens to get back to work and tightening fiscal policy with lower government spending, Democrats have the opportunity to fulfill their promise of returning the country to normalcy. After almost two years of unprecedented disruptions, voters are exhausted by the prospect of an overheated economy and a never-ending pandemic. If the Democrats shift their attention from a controversial agenda that would exacerbate inflationary pressures and fail to correct the nation’s near-term issues, they have the opportunity to score incredible political capital by defeating COVID-19.

For the Democratic Party to have a future in a post-Trump world, they must reconnect with Americans and focus on proving the merits of a Democratic administration. By ignoring inflation and the pandemic, the party is on track to replicate its disappointing 2021 results in 2022, potentially setting the stage for them to lose the House and Senate. Until the party proves it can effectively govern, Republican candidates will continue to appear safer and more reliable than their Democratic counterparts. For the good of the country, let’s hope the Democratic Party has finally learned its lesson.

Nikhil Sharma is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at nsnikhil@umich.edu.