Democrats: Big Tent, Yes, but With Parameters

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 named 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:

  1. improve its messaging and the Democratic brand;
  2. focus our policies on jobs and the economy;
  3. reconnect with voters from the Heartland; and
  4. 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.

David Atkins wrote over a year ago,

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 clear 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.”

Stanley Greenberg in The American Prospect:

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.

17 thoughts on “Democrats: Big Tent, Yes, but With Parameters

  1. Baseball has a term for what you have just done, it is like hitting for the cycle or something.  For all of us who get inundated with emails from Nancy Pelosi with stupid surveys or money requests, lets just copy this, send it to her, and assuming she can read, give her the biggest party donation she ever received .  All for the cost of a little printer ink, a stamp, an envelope, and a little work.  It is pure simple effective and necessary ground level effort.  

  2. The formula since Bill Clinton has been to serve two  masters. Minorities and Big Money. Representing the second group has made party elders rich but it's sucked the energy out of progressive democrats. 

    I don't think the heartland is solid red because of jobs and shrinking wages. The message from dems has been one of pandering to minorities for votes and delivering the goods in legislation for the rich. For an illustration, look at the source of Hillary's campaign money. DWS reversed DNC policy to accept large sums from K Street and PACs. Obama isn't innocent though he was better than either Clinton in sources of campaign funds.

    Democrats are the party of big business in the heartland and the other party of big business in blue areas. Part of the problem is messaging. Everything Maha said there is right. It's not a question of packaging only. There's a source of the stench that's repelling voters. Big Money. 

    You don't have to pander to identify groups to say EQUAL MEANS EQUAL. It's a mistake to build a platform around bathroom rights. That doesn't mean abandoning LGBTG rights, but the message has to resonate for all.

    The ONE thing democrats could do and hammer on is the source of campaign funds. To prove you aren't a tool of big money, quit taking big money. Then run on a platform of equality and prosperity for everybody.

    The map doesn't describe how narrow the margin is in, say, the closest half of red districts. I would guess 6 percent would turn half the red blue. We won't convert bigots, but we can permanently take voters repulsed by Trump if we offer more than being against Trump.

  3. 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.

    I don't think this can be emphasized enough. Apart from clearly distinguishing the Dems as for economic positions that benefit the working class, ending the colossal waste of the MIC (military industrial complex) and its endless wars would certainly strike a chord. It will take someone with real guts to stand up to decades of brainwashing and the way people in the service are held up as heroes. But militarism as a sacred tenet of Americanism is the road to bankruptcy on so many levels, and has got to end.

    I think of that clown governor you have in Missouri, who posed holding the popgun, proud of shooting up cornfields – this is the nonsense that is absolutely epidemic in this country, and got to be called out for what it is: little boy immaturity, that's bankrupting this country.

  4. There's a great article in the Nation – "This Political Theorist Predicted the Rise of Trumpism. His Name Was Hunter S. Thompson."

    "In Hell’s Angels, the gonzo journalist wrote about left-behind people motivated only by “an ethic of total retaliation.” Sound familiar?"

    "[Hell's Angels] grew out of a piece first published in The Nation one year earlier. My grandfather, Carey McWilliams, editor of the magazine from 1955 to 1975, commissioned the piece from Thompson—it was the gonzo journalist’s first big break, and the beginning of a friendship between the two men that would last until my grandfather died in 1980. Because of that family connection, I had long known that Hell’s Angels was a political book. Even so, I was surprised, when I finally picked it up a few years ago, by how prophetic Thompson is and how eerily he anticipates 21st-century American politics. This year, when people asked me what I thought of the election, I kept telling them to read Hell’s Angels."

    The only thing missing is Pepe the Frog.

    I don't know how to do html anchors in the (new) mahablog editor, so you'll need to search for the article – author is Susan McWilliams.

  5. moonbat,

    The late HST also made solid predictions in "Generation of Swine."

    I regret that he didn't live long enough (he committed suicide) to see Obama elected.

    HST would have exulted at his election.    And his pithy and on-the-money criticism would have followed, and been well worth looking at to make future changes.

  6. After our party left Main Street for the bubbles, baubles, and blow of Wall Street, how does the party go back?

    Effectively, I mean.

    And still be authentic in that return?

    Sure, you can drop "choice," and helping immigrants and minorities.  But then, you're a Republican, not a Democrat.

    Focus on jobs?

    Mining jobs ain't coming back.  Neither are manufacturing jobs. 

    Hell, most union jobs are gone.

    Why?  Because conservatives convinced the non-union people that, instead of fighting for the same salaries and bene's that union people enjoyed, by forming their own unions (or joining existing ones), that union workers didn't work as hard, but still got more money!

    And they tied union jobs, to race.

    How do we change the minds of the, now long-time, Red District/State voters?  Hell, how do we even convince them to give a listen or look at what we have to offer?

    It takes a lot to get people to look past their racism, misogyny, homophobia, religious intolerance, etc…, to see the hope that we offer.

    That hope had better be pretty damn good! 

    A lot better than a word on a poster with a (talented) pol's image on it. *

    * This is not to diminish the accomplishments of President Obama.  Who, with even an atom of cooperation from the Republicans – who cared far more for their party than our country – could have really made some positive changes.


  7. Oh boy, you did a lot or research and gave your essay a lot of thought. I 

    liked it a lot! Thanks, Helen

  8. gulag – HST's ex-wife commented about how badly we needed him during the Bush/Cheney years, and how much his lifestyle choices (to put it politely) contributed to him being sidelined during this time. And then the suicide. A huge talent wasted.

  9. There's a deeper issue about jobs that nobody is really addressing, and that's automation. Driverless cars and trucks are coming, and this will kill the last bastion of decent paying blue collar jobs. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

    The discussion that needs to happen is what do you do when 30-40% of the workforce isn't needed?

    So what will happen, if we're lucky, is a reprise of the 2008 Obama election. Revolted by the Republicans, the voters turn to the Democrats. If the Dems can come up with a program that genuinely serves the bulk of the population, they can stay in power for years. If they can't, then the population will, in 2024/28 elect a Republican. Ping pong.

  10. Read Al From's The NEW Democrats and the Return to Power. These are the people who now control the Democratic party. In the 1970s they made the conscious decision to abandon the New Deal, saying it was outmoded. In 1983 they got together and formed the Democratic Leadership Council, which was the force that got Bill Clinton elected. Their recipe really didn't work, as shown by the fact that W got enough votes to allow the Supreme Court to steal the election for the Republicans. I certainly agree with this article, but there are a lot of younger Democrats who have come up with ties to the New Democrat/DLC/Third Way/Blue Dog paradigm that they don't want to change the policies favoring Wall Street. They don't want to restore union power. They don't want to have universal health care. They don't want to reduce wealth inequality. We somehow have to recapture the party from them.

  11. Amen, moonbat. The economic model we have is shifting as industry can produce more and more goods with less and less human participation. We're developing a system where we could meet the needs of humanity (food, shelter, clothing, medical) but the wealth and the purchasing power gets more and more concentrated at the top. Automation could free humanity, but under capitalism it is successfully enslaving more and more of the global population, including the US. 

    A radically different system may be necessary where there is a guaranteed income and jobs are a privilege you earn. Such a system could thrive with free enterprise but not capitalism. Even getting the discussion started will be a war – the media is a huge profitable quasi-monopoly. They will not want the idea to catch on.

  12. People may find this article of interest. 🙂

    I like the penultimate paragraph:

    “Frequently, the people you really want in office are the people who have a life,” Kreiss-Tomkins said. “They have jobs, and successful businesses, and other stuff.” These are people who aren’t necessarily ambitious—for whom the pay cut and time away from their families are “a sacrifice, in the noncontrived, nonplatitudinal sense of sacrifice,” as he put it.

  13. Moonbat, I think you overestimate the degree to which you're talking about technological change rather than policy decisions.  We've *always* had technological change, but how much they affect workers is down to policy decisions.  (That's just leaving aside the fact that driverless cars don't really seem to be on the horizon any time soon.)



  14. I agree with EVERYTHING you say here, Maha.

    I also agree with Procopius. It's not just "Washington," some Democratic voters are perfectly satisfied with the present state of the party. Still, I agree with you, the party has to become an alternative to the hyper-capitalism that is literally destroying this country and the world. Not the capitalism of small businesses, but the hyper-capitalism of Wall Street that makes obscene profits by financializing all existence. If the Democratic Party goes in this direction, it will win. If it does not, it will continue to lose.



  15. Step #1 must be to clear the stench from the air.  Repudiate and reject the Clintons and their neolib nonsense.  Do it openly and in full view of Republicans.  Admitting that your mistake is the first step to recovery. 

    I know, I know… Hillary got more votes.  But looking at exit polls, she is viscerally repugnant to huge majorities of voters …  especially non-voters – the people we need back in the party.  Bill only became president because Republicans were split between Bush and Perot.  The "third-way" into Republican policy was a major mistake for the Democratic party.

    Instead of circling the wagons around the most disliked people in the history of the party, let's set them free on Wall Street.   Who really cares if they scam billionaires?   Know that neolibs will work tirelessly to rot the party from the INSIDE.

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