Can you hear us now?By
“Out of touch” is a perennial criticism of candidates from both major parties. The Brexit vote in the UK was an exercise in politicians misreading their voters. This year, however, the presence of Donald Trump and His Amazing War Chest leaves Democrats at risk of developing a false sense of security. It doesn’t help that FiveThirtyEight predictions favoring Democrats just get rosier. But as I said last September, so long as the T-party controls state legislatures and the Congress, who Democrats elect as president won’t much matter.
From where many of us sit, the presidential race is a distraction unless the Democratic candidate sends sends us lawyers, guns and money, and provides coattails for our state-level candidates. Talk of landslides just worries me that Democrats will stay home and our local candidates will suffer. If voters are going to come out in November for a contest between two candidates with high disapproval ratings, they will need a reason, something to vote for.
That’s why op-eds like Sarah Eberspacher’s in the Guardian give me pause. She cautions against the tendency on the left to write off white, male, blue collar voters like those from her rural Illinois hometown (or here on the edge of Appalachia) as racist, sexist, and uneducated:
The Democratic party – and by that, I mean the party gatekeepers with power to wield media influence, which worked out great for the Brexit vote – are writing off those hardcore racists as an overblown minority that is making more noise than they can translate into votes. But overlooking “regular Joe” moderate voters like the ones who filled my childhood could be our undoing.
My party has gotten cocky, and I fear that condescending mentality will lose us this election. Because for all of his divisive bluster, Trump has gotten one thing right time and again: small-town America is not doing great.
Where my family lives, factories are closing. Schools don’t have enough money for teachers, and all of Barack Obama’s hope and change hasn’t done much trickling down in the last eight years. And just because the moderate voters living in these areas aren’t showing up at Trump rallies or plastering your Facebook wall with tirades about Muslims doesn’t mean they’re planning to support Obama’s heir apparent come November.
That describes a lot of our voters here. Gov. Howard Dean got this. Democrats at both the state and national levels win big in the cities but too often abandon rural America. Winning there again was what the 50 state strategy was about: if you don’t show up to play, you forfeit.
Stanley Greenberg wrote this time last year about the need to reclaim rural America:
These voters, as we shall see, are open to an expansive Democratic economic agenda—to more benefits for child care and higher education, to tax hikes on the wealthy, to investment in infrastructure spending, and to economic policies that lead employers to boost salaries for middle- and working-class Americans, especially women. Yet they are only ready to listen when they think that Democrats understand their deeply held belief that politics has been corrupted and government has failed. Championing reform of government and the political process is the price of admission with these voters. These white working-class and downscale voters are acutely conscious of the growing role of big money in politics and of a government that works for the 1 percent, not them.
It is possible that their cynicism about government is grounded in a fundamental individualism and long-standing American skepticism about intrusive government. And it also may be rooted in a race-conscious aversion to government spending that they believe fosters dependency and idleness—the principal critique of today’s conservative Republicans. If that is the prevailing dynamic, no appeal, no matter how compelling, would bring increased support for government activism.
Yet the white working-class and downscale voters in our surveys do support major parts of a progressive, activist agenda, particularly when a Democratic candidate boldly attacks the role of money and special interests dominating government and aggressively promotes reforms to ensure that average citizens get both their say and their money’s worth.
It is why, Russell Berman wrote in May, “The white, working-class voters that embraced [Hillary Clinton’s] message of resilience in 2008 have deserted her for Bernie Sanders in many primaries in 2016.” But I offer this not as a knock against Hillary Clinton, but to point out an opportunity.
Forget Trump’s bigotry and all the rest. He gets a lot of mileage out of talking about trade. Democrats need to pay attention, as Thomas Frank wrote in March, rural America doesn’t give a damn about punditry on trade being noble and “free”:
To the remaining 80 or 90% of America, trade means something very different. There’s a video going around on the internet these days that shows a room full of workers at a Carrier air conditioning plant in Indiana being told by an officer of the company that the factory is being moved to Monterrey, Mexico, and that they’re all going to lose their jobs.
As I watched it, I thought of all the arguments over trade that we’ve had in this country since the early 1990s, all the sweet words from our economists about the scientifically proven benevolence of free trade, all the ways in which our newspapers mock people who say that treaties like the North American Free Trade Agreement allow companies to move jobs to Mexico.
Well, here is a video of a company moving its jobs to Mexico, courtesy of Nafta. This is what it looks like. The Carrier executive talks in that familiar and highly professional HR language about the need to “stay competitive” and “the extremely price-sensitive marketplace”. A worker shouts “Fuck you!” at the executive. The executive asks people to please be quiet so he can “share” his “information”. His information about all of them losing their jobs.
For younger voters, the concerns are similar: their prospects are slim and too many politicians focused on the concerns of finance seem out of touch with that. As I wrote yesterday, voters want an economic system that treats them fairly. They’ll come out and vote for candidates who seems authentically more interested in making that happen than in their own power. Sending that message will be key to winning down ballot this fall. Are Democrats listening?
(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)