One disadvantage of being an elected Democrat right now is that Democrats don’t control either chamber of Congress or the presidency. Another is that Donald Trump gets to set the media’s agenda every morning by tweeting to 52.4 million followers. Which is perhaps why Democrats have had difficulty gaining political momentum or expanding the appeal of their own “brand” despite positions on issues ranging from Obamacare repeal to DACA to the Mueller investigation that are widely popular. They’re simply having a hard time getting everyone’s attention.
In a piece published last week, progressive writer Alex Pareene argued that part of what is holding Democrats back is an antiquated, cautious sense of how to conduct public relations. In Pareene’s telling, party leaders’ tepid approach was typified by Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer’s curious recent decision, in the midst of our various ongoing moral and political disasters, to expend his limited resources on a stunt press conference at a Washington, D.C. Exxon station to complain about gas prices:
To understand why Minority Leader Schumer—who failed to get a deal for DACA recipients; who gave multiple Democrats his tacit blessing to endorse Trump’s efforts to install a torturer as the head of the CIA and deregulate the banks; who announced his public support for Trump’s decision to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, making any peaceful and democratic resolution to the occupation even more remote and unlikely—took The Resistance to the pumps, you have to understand that everything he does as a politician is aimed at appealing to a well-off white suburban Boomer couple that only exists in his imagination.
Indeed, as my colleague Jim Newell noticed as early as last February, the most prominent progressive initiatives of the Trump presidency—from the Women’s March to the town-hall campaign against Obamacare repeal to the public activism that followed the Parkland shooting—have been driven by individuals and groups working outside the framework of the Democratic Party. One thing those initiatives had in common was a sense of how to create dramatic moments and images that might reasonably go viral; another was a sense that the U.S. is in the midst of a crisis that needs to be addressed immediately.
Oregon senator Jeff Merkley seems to have been paying attention. With the issue of forced family separation at the U.S. border becoming of increasingly prominent concern to the Democratic base, Merkley took dramatic and memorable action on Sunday, broadcasting his attempt to gain access to a child detention facility housed in a former Brownsville, Texas, Walmart. As you can see, he was turned away:
The video has been viewed 1,129,779 times in the 20 hours since it was posted. With a plane ticket and a camera, Merkley captured the surreal police-state horror of the child-separation policy in a way that made it accessible to a million people who might now be mobilized to protest, make calls to their representatives, and vote in a way that could ensure the policy will not be continued. And it makes Democrat Jeff Merkley look like a reasonable, humane, but aggressive (in a good way) leader. It’s meeting Trump’s social-media fire with fire.
By the way, the video of Schumer’s gas station press conference is, in fact, online if you want to watch it. As of the time of this post, it had 947 views.