You know a political party is in trouble when its leading voices turn on each other in their search for someone to blame. Democrats, as Will Rogers and others famously have observed, are particularly good at that.

In that tradition, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough and guest Al Sharpton did a verbal takedown of Washington’s Democratic leaders that was harsh enough to be replayed with glee on Fox News Channel.

“Let me say it slowly for my Democratic friends in Washington, D.C.,” Scarborough declared. “Black voters are more conservative than you are. … Hispanic voters are more conservative than you are. … Asian American voters are more conservative than you are. … They’re more conservative on crime, they’re more conservative on education, they’re more conservative on these woke issues.”

By “woke,” Scarborough meant the Democratic Party’s far-left wing from which the term emerged before it quickly became weaponized by the political right.

Democrats are repeating past mistakes by pushing far-left policies like “defund the police” when more moderate approaches were more successful, he said, and offered the example of newly elected New York Mayor Eric Adams, a Black former police officer who campaigned successfully in the liberal city as “a centrist Democrat,” particularly on the hot issue of crime and policing.

Sharpton, a fellow MSNBC host, picked up the ball, blaming out-of-touch elites and “limousine liberals” in Washington for losing touch with bread-and-butter issues that voters of color, particularly African Americans, really care about, like crime and inflation.

“If you are living in a city, in a neighborhood that is inundated with crime and you act like that is not an issue, you’ve already lost me,” he said. “That is an issue.”

Indeed. Of course, the same critique could be made about the right, which has largely turned from bread-and-butter issues to culture war causes like abortion, gender rights and how history is taught in schools.

But, as President Joe Biden’s approval ratings slumped into record lows and Democrats expected to suffer the losses of Congressional seats that the office occupying the White House usually suffers, Democrats have good reasons to sound anxious about their message and what it ought to be.

First, I would remind nervous Dems that Black people and other voters of color are notmonolithic. Their opinions vary by age, gender, class and location, just like white voters.

These complex, seemingly contradictory feelings reflect the dilemma of being Black in America. America’s political class often demands that Black people decide between abysmal options — between unemployment and minimum wage, between displacement and gentrification, between peer violence and police violence.

As made clear by local polls and debates in New York, Chicago and other cities that have been wrestling with a nationwide surge in crime during the pandemic, many Black Americans say they are more worried about police brutality against minorities than about local crime.

But on questions of what to do about it, most cities have turned — like Biden — to favoring more funding of police, not less.

For example, a 2020 Yahoo News/YouGov survey taken after the killing of George Floyd found that 50%of Black respondents still said that “we need more cops on the street,” even as 49%of Black respondents said when they personally see a police officer it makes them feel “less secure.”

Politically, November elections showed support for police defunding to be on the wane. As Republicans pushed a “law and order” midterm message, Biden firmly declared in his State of the Union address: “The answer is not to defund the police. It’s to fund the police. Fund them. Fund them.”

In fact, Biden never called for defunding the police. Like other thoughtful advocates, he supported social spending measures that would relieve police of such challenges as people suffering a mental health crisis who could be better served by specialists.

But the “defund the police” slogan had an impact because Democrats and other liberals lost control of their own message — and the right effectively hijacked it.

With that in mind, the biggest issue for Democrats is message control — and Republicans have done a better job of spotlighting problems, even when their answers fall short. You can have the best ideas in the world, but they won’t matter if you fail to let people know what they really are.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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