Here are some things to read about reforming the Democratic Party so that it can grow a broader voter base. However, not everyone is on the same page. And I’ve got my own ideas about who’s right and who’s stuck in old, losing paradigms.
First, let’s review the problem. Here is the 2016 election results map by county:
See the problem? That more people live in the blue spots than in the red doesn’t mean the overwhelming amount of red doesn’t matter, especially if we want to take back Congress. So let’s continue.
Politoco’s Patrick Cavan Brown writes “Heartland Democrats to Washington: You’re Killing Us.” The subhead says that an “elitist” national party is alienating voters. Okay. But the article mostly quotes some good old boys in Indiana who want the Democratic Party to be more about ending abortion rights, being meaner to Muslims and supporting the NRA.
We need to be clear that some things are off the table. Compromising on civil rights — which includes reproductive rights — is off the table. We may not all see eye to eye on what direction to take with gun control, but making guns even easier to get than they are already is off the table. I would not say that an individual Democrat can’t run on right-wing positions, but the positions of the party overall need to be clear on these issues, or the concept of “party” itself has no meaning. The people interviewed speak about a “big tent,” but I say if a tent has no structure at all it’s not a tent.
But what kind of structure will help us turn some of that red back to blue without betraying the constituents who have stuck with us and that we will need in the future?
I say that if a pro-choice Democrat can be elected senator in Alabama, we don’t have to compromise to win elections. Yes, we may lose a few elections on these issues, but we lose more by being squishy. Take stands. Don’t be the generic brand X. We absolutely cannot betray minorities and women and expect to keep their trust. Being squishy has cost Democrats with younger voters also; too many of the young folks just don’t trust the party to do anything for them, and I can’t say I blame them.
Moving on: This article links to a report called “Hope from the Heartland: How Democrats Can Better Serve the Midwest by Bringing Rural, Working Class Wisdom to Washington.” The report was put together by a Congresswoman from Illinois namedÂ Cheri Bustos. She interviewed 72 successful Democratic local officials from rural areas in Midwestern states now dominated by Republicans to come up with guidelines for how Democrats can win in the rural Midwest. Her basic advice for what the Democratic Party should do:
- improve its messaging and the Democratic brand;
- focus our policies on jobs and the economy;
- reconnect with voters from the Heartland; and
- adapt campaigns to be more successful in rural areas.
I can’t argue with any of that. The first two items apply to the entire party in every district, in fact.
If you read the whole thing, though, a big fat piece of hypocrisy emerges. These rural politicians complain that the Democrats in 2016 didn’t focus enough on jobs and the economy and instead spent too much time talking about social issues and “identity politics.” But then when you get into what issues they really want to talk about, a lot of them fell back on abortions and guns. At least no one in this report wanted to deny civil rights to Muslims.
Something’s got to give. I say the main focus has to be on economics and bringing opportunity and prosperity back to the rust belt and rural America. The choice is that America can be an economic backwater with discrimination, guns and back-alley abortions, or it can be a 21st-century nation with a strong economy. Period. And I think that will work, because “economic anxiety” is a real thing. Believe it, or not.
Racism Versus Economic Anxiety
American’s lefty hive mind has pretty much dismissed “economic anxiety” as a cause for the debacle of 2016, settling instead on racism/nationalism as the primary if only factor. I don’t think it’s that simple, though.
It’s often pointed out that Trump voters on average had higher incomes than Clinton voters. See? No economic anxiety. But the nerds at FiveThirtyEight did a deeper dive into the data and found something different. Clinton and Democrats generally did much better among nonwhites, who tend to have lower incomes. So, the average income for Democratic voters was lower. But if you control for race, the numbers look different:
Trump significantly outperformed Romney in counties where residents had lower credit scores and in counties where more men have stopped working.2
The list goes on: More subprime loans? More Trump support. More residents receiving disability payments? More Trump support. Lower earnings among full-time workers? More Trump support. “Trump Country,” as my colleague Andrew Flowers described it shortly after the election, isn’t the part of America where people are in the worst financial shape; it’s the part of America where their economic prospects are on the steepest decline.3
From my current perch in rural Missouri, that’s what I see. People here are much more right wing overall than they were in the 1960s. But in the 1960s a young man — yes, we’re talking about young white men — could graduate high school and the next week get a union job working for the local mining company. And there were great training programs available that paid those young men salaries while they learned to be machinists or electricians or whatever kind of skilled worker the mining company needed. So, just about any male who did okay in high school, stayed out of trouble and was willing to do the work could have a steady, stable job that paid union wages and benefits, and thereby pay for a nice middle-class lifestyle. Now, that’s all gone. Other than maybe college — if you can pay for it — there are precious few opportunities for the young folks here that would put them on track for ever enjoying the same standard of living as their grandparents. Even a college degree is no guarantee of anything. There is still money in the community, although from what I can see much of it is in the hands of retirees.
And, of course, you see the same thing all over the rust belt and in many small rural towns throughout America. There have been huge changes since the 1960s, and not for the better.
I’m arguing that in many parts of the country that voted for Trump, the economic anxiety fuels racism and keeps it as alive as if the past 50 years hadn’t happened. Otherwise, a lot of it might have dissipated by now.
Those who argue that economic anxiety fuels Trump’s support do not maintain that voters aren’t racist, but rather that economic anxiety creates the conditions for xenophobic populist animosity. It is no accident that Nazism sprung from the economic horrors of the 1930s, or that neo-fascist groups like Golden Dawn in Greece rose from the terrible economic conditions facing Europe in the age of austerity. The Brexit vote in Great Britain was, indeed, fueled by cultural and racial resentments–but the flames of those resentments were fanned by economic hardship. Conversely, it is also no accident that the greatest civil rights expansions for large minority groups have tended to come during periods of relative economic prosperity, as was the case during the postwar boom of the 1960s. That Trump’s support is strongest in more ethnically homogeneous areas is also no surprise: Social contact with minorities has long been proven to reduce racism, inoculating people against scapegoating by conservative populists.
This is not to say there was no racism in rural Missouri in the 1960s; of course there was. It was blatant. Rural Missouri was just about entirely white in those days and seems very nearly all white now; it remains a stubbornly segregated state. (Frankly, rural Missouri remains mostly white because of the lack of opportunity; there’s little reason to move here, no matter what color you are; there are only reasons to move away.) I’m saying that racism is so entrenched here partly because of the economic anxiety, along with the homogeneity. And Republicans, especially since Nixon, have done a bang-up job feeding the cultural and racial resentments, resulting in the famous tendency of so many poor whites to vote against their own economic interests.
However, for all these years, Democrats have let them get away with that. They have failed to come up with counter-messaging to persuade people that they really would be better off with Democratic economic policies than Republican ones. Indeed, especially since the rise of right-wing radio and Fox News, the only messaging a lot of folks in rural areas hear is right-wing messaging. I’ve been complaining about this for years.
Stop Being Republican Lite
The standard reaction to this problem from the national party is to run “centrist” candidates in conservative areas, which all too often means Blue Dogs who are not noticeably different from Republicans. Seems to me this has had the long-term effect of reinforcing Republican perspectives. It’s buying into their message. I sincerely believe that if over the past two or three decades, Democrats had had the guts to encourage candidates who offered clearÂ alternatives to Republican messaging instead of watered-down versions of it, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are now.
I acknowledge that rural candidates probably don’t want to put gun control and reproductive rights at the center of their campaigns. That’s why Democrats need to be able to speak credibly to working-class folks on economic issues. Unfortunately, they also gave away their old advantage with working class issues. And please don’t read “white” into “working class.”
The Democrats don’t have a “white working-class problem.” They have a “working-class problem,” which progressives have been reluctant to address honestly or boldly. The fact is that Democrats have lost support with all working-class voters across the electorate, including the Rising American Electorate of minorities, unmarried women, and millennials. This decline contributed mightily to the Democrats’ losses in the states and Congress and to the election of Donald Trump.
Greenberg’s piece is worth reading all the way through. Part of the problem, he says, was that the Democratic message of 2016 emphasized the wonderful recovery from the 2008 financial crash. Unfortunately, big chunks of the country haven’t recovered from the 2008 financial crash. Lots of individuals haven’t recovered from the 2008 financial crash. That message just didn’t jibe with people’s experiences. And I realize that much of what Obama wanted to do that would have helped was blocked by Republicans. But at the same time … show me the bankers who went to jail.
Continuing with Greenberg:
The final dynamic distancing Democrats from working-class America is the party’s alignment with the economically and culturally ascendant in America’s metropolitan centers, where Democrats win office and govern. As Clinton’s winning popular vote margin grew to nearly three million, concentrated in an ever-smaller number of urban counties, the Brookings Institution revealed that fewer than 500 Clinton-won counties produced two-thirds of the nation’s GDP in 2015.
Perhaps that is why President Obama and Secretary Clinton sounded so satisfied with the state of America and its future. In nearly every speech for most of his presidency, including in his 2014 State of the Union address, Obama rightly declared that America “is better-positioned for the 21st century than any other nation on Earth.” When he and Clinton closed the 2016 campaign in Philadelphia, Detroit, Miami, Chicago, Raleigh, Cleveland, and Columbus with their upbeat take on America’s future, they symbolically aligned the Democrats nationally with the economically and ascendant cities, and they barely noticed anything amiss in smaller cities and towns and rural America.
This is the plain truth. I keep saying that the 2016 Democratic message was tone deaf to the national mood. That was not the year to exude smug satisfaction, but smug satisfaction was the primary vibe of the Clinton campaign. I realize that there were proposals in the Democratic platform that would have been beneficial to working-class people, but our general election candidate didn’t bother to mention those things in her television ads. So most folks who are not die-hard politics nerds never heard about them. People wanted change. The guy who promised to shake things up sounded more appealing, even to more nonwhite voters than we’d like to admit.
This survey found a significant drop in support for the Democratic Party among black women, for example. Are the Democrats getting anything right?
So, as a great many people keep saying, the Democrats need to clarify bold economic goals and craft a message around those goals that resonates with people, but not compromise on civil rights. And Democrats need to stand with working people, period, instead of trying to please corporations while saving crumbs for working people. Unfortunately, the leadership of the national party is still mostly in the hands of the same people who ran the party into the ground over the years.
I fear we’re not going to get the fresh direction we need until we get new leadership. And that may be too late. In particular I fear the top leaders of the party, who are grotesquely out of touch with younger voters, never mind working class ones, will continue to keep their thumbs on the scale in 2020 when we’re choosing a new presidential nominee instead of letting actual voters decide.
The Young Folks
Finally, I direct you to a document called “Autopsy: The Democratic Party in Crisis” by, um, a bunch of people. It’s got lots of good stuff in it, and I urge reading it. I want to speak to this part in particular —
It’s important to note that young voters are increasingly more left-wing than their counterparts a generation ago — on social and political issues as well as ideology. In addition to their overwhelming embrace of self-described socialist Bernie Sanders, young people are more and more rejecting capitalist politics — with one January 2017 poll showing 43 percent of voters under 30 favorable toward socialism vs. only 26 percent unfavorable. (The generational trend is glaring, with just 23 percent of those 65 or older favorable toward socialism.) In an April poll by Harvard, a majority of young people responded that they do not “support capitalism.”
This generational shift was on stark display during one post-election CNN town hall when an NYU student cited the Harvard poll on millennials’ loss of trust in capitalism and asked Rep. Nancy Pelosi about the party moving left “to a more populist messag” on economic issues. The Minority Leader bolted out of her seat and insisted, “I have to say, we’re capitalists, that’s just the way it is” before letting out a chuckle. The combination of knee-jerk dismissal and “just the way it is” cynicism perfectly distilled the problem the party has selling itself to today’s youth.
At the core of this disconnect is what, at first, appears to be a paradox: young voters are getting more left-wing but also less likely to identify as Democrats. According to a recent Brookings survey, only 37 percent of youth in 2016 identified as Democrats — down from 45 percent in 2008. But the percent who identified as “liberal” in 2016 was 37 percent, up from 32 percent in 2008. So how is it, young voters are moving leftward but identify less with the nominally “left”major party?
And, of course, the Democrats are not a “left” party, not in the same way the Republicans are a “right” party.
With Republicans, you know what you’re getting, like it or not. With Democrats, at least half the time you can vote for a guy who campaigns with noises about fighting for the little guy, and then later we find out he voted to let Payday Loan companies stay in business, or weaken workplace safety rules, or let cheating bankers off the hook, or some such. And that’s been going on for years. We can blame campaign finance laws for that, I guess, but Democrats need to get a clue that all the campaign cash in the world won’t help you if voters just plain don’t trust you.
I’ve quoted Matt Yglesias before —
But though Democrats are certainly the more left-wing of the two parties — the party of labor unions and environment groups and feminist organizations and the civil rights movement — they’re not an ideologically left-wing party in the same way that Republicans are an ideological conservative one. Instead, they behave more like a centrist, interest group brokerage party that seeks to mediate between the claims and concerns of left-wing activists groups and those of important members of the business community — especially industries like finance, Hollywood, and tech that are based in liberal coastal states and whose executives generally espouse a progressive outlook on cultural change.
I’d say the young folks really need and are looking for a genuinely left-wing ideological party, and are frustrated with the Dems that they aren’t.
So, stands on cultural issues have cost Democrats with some voters, but their squishiness on economic issues, especially the problems being caused by what we might call over-reliance on capitalism, is costing them with much of the rest of the voters. The answer is not “centrism” — please — but fresh thinking and clarity on what working-class Americans throughout the nation really need from their government. And then, be champions for that.
The “Autopsy” document also has a section on “War and the Party.” It begins,
The most audible dissent inside the 2016 Democratic National Convention came during the two speeches that most forcefully touted policies of perpetual war. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was taken aback when delegates repeatedly interrupted his primetime address with chants of “No more war.” The next night, just after Gen. John Allen encountered the same chant during the convention’s final session, the Washington Post cited poll numbers that indicated the chanting delegates represented a substantial portion of views among Democrats nationwide.
The wisdom of continual war was far clearer to the party’s standard bearer than it was to people in the U.S. communities bearing the brunt of combat deaths, injuries and psychological traumas. After a decade and a half of nonstop warfare, research data from voting patterns suggest that the Clinton campaign’s hawkish stance was a political detriment in working-class communities hard-hit by American casualties from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I personally think that a message of not spending trillions on endless military adventures overseas is one that would have broad appeal now. Older Dem leaders are people who came up through the ranks in the years after George McGovern, and the prevailing wisdom then (and, indeed, since the 1950s) was that Dems can’t be seen to be “soft” in foreign policy. We can’t be soft on Communism (hence, the Vietnam War) and we can’t be soft on terrorism (hence, a bunch of Dem senators who should have known better voted for the October 2001 war resolution that got us into Iraq).
In this, and in so many other ways, the 2016 campaign was out of touch. This has got to change.