David Michael Miller
When you’re down and out, the first thing to do is to recognize where you are and try to figure out how you got there.
And the Democratic Party is very far down and very far out. Consider:
- Republicans control the presidency, both houses of Congress and, soon, the U.S. Supreme Court.
- Republicans control the Wisconsin governor’s office, both houses of the Legislature and the state Supreme Court.
- Nationally, Republicans control 33 governorships and more state legislative seats than at any period since the 1920s.
Moreover, the Republicans are pulling all this off even while they hold positions on issues that don’t agree with the majority on reproductive rights, immigration, climate change, gun control and gay marriage, just to name a few.
If you’re a Democrat and you accept that the role of a political party is to win elections, can we at least stipulate that your party is really bad at this?
That the Democrats are bad at their reason for being (i.e., winning elections) should be self-evident. Why they’re so bad at it is a matter of hot debate. They had plenty of money and organization in this last election. They used every modern technique available to target, identify and get voters to the polls, and they had resources to do it. This was one election that money and technical expertise didn’t decide. Democrats lost because not enough people were buying what they were selling.
I know. You’re going to say that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. She did, and the Electoral College should be abolished. But Clinton and her legions of consultants and pollsters knew how this game is played, and they didn’t win where they needed to win. And they were running against the worst candidate in the history of candidates.
I also know you’re going to say that, at the state level, the Republicans gerrymandered their way to a majority. Happily, a federal court agrees with you on this point. But to actually lose at least two seats in the Legislature when you were expected to pick up as many if not more?
I agree wholeheartedly with columnist Frank Bruni’s assessment: The party has been dominated by an identity politics that has ignored working-class white Americans when it hasn’t condescended to them or outright insulted them.
Even to hear my own tribal members talk after the election you’d think that everyone who voted for Trump was a racist, misogynist, xenophobic pig. God knows, there was some of that, but my take on it is that the election came down to a simple referendum on the establishment. Clinton was it; Trump wasn’t.
In Wisconsin half of all blue-collar whites had an unfavorable opinion of Donald Trump but almost one in three still voted for him, probably just because he represented change and Clinton represented more of the same.
Trump won no less than 22 Wisconsin counties that the nation’s first black president Barack Obama won twice. Most of those were rural and overwhelmingly white. So much for an “ism” being a crutch that Democrats can cling to.
So, the answer isn’t in more money or organization. And it isn’t even necessarily in policy changes because, for the most part, the Democrats already steadfastly support things like minimum-wage increases, unionization, child care, public education and health care reforms that would benefit working people.
The problem is the narrative. Ever since Ronald Reagan, the Democrats have allowed the Republicans to set the narrative, the dominant story of American life. It goes something like this: The answer to all problems is an unfettered free market. Taxes and regulations are always bad. So any tax increase, even one on the very rich that would be used to help improve your kid’s education, is bad for you in the long run. And any regulation, even one that would help you breathe cleaner air or drink clean water or work in a safer environment, will kill jobs.
Clay County, Kentucky, is a painful case in point. Arguably, no state has benefited more from Obamacare than Kentucky, and few counties have benefited more than Clay. Uninsured residents of Clay went from one in four to one in 10 thanks to the Democrats. And Trump took 87 percent of the vote in Clay County. That, folks, is what we call a problem of messaging.
The Republicans have also been incredibly successful with their dog whistles about race (until Trump gave up the dog whistle for the bullhorn). Put that together with their anti-government tirades and you've got yourself a powerful message that just overwhelms Democratic protestations that they’ve got the better party platform and the wonkish studies to back their policies.
It does no good to say that blue-collar voters just don’t understand their own interests.
As New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote, “The Democratic Party is losing badly on the local, state and national levels. If you were a football team you’d be 2-8. Maybe you can do better than responding with the sentiment: Sadly, the country isn’t good enough for us.”
So, here’s a suggestion. Just go back to the simple and brilliant Bill Clinton formulation: If you work hard and play by the rules we’ll make sure you get ahead.
The beauty of that idea is that it applies equally to everybody. It’s not a race- or gender-based promise, but of course, it works for issues related to race and gender. It doesn’t say that you’ll rely on government, but it implies that government will be there to make sure that you get an even break.
The lineage of that sentiment has a powerful history. At similar tumultuous moments in our history we had Teddy Roosevelt’s Square Deal and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. These were simple concepts that everybody could relate to, yet they supported far-reaching and complex policies. But they were all linked together around the idea of fairness. The government, in this narrative, is not taking your money or killing your jobs, nor is it your nanny. It’s simply there to support the American Dream: Work hard, be a good citizen, take care of your own business, and you will be rewarded. And nobody gets an unfair advantage.
For almost 40 years we’ve tried it the other way. Cutting taxes on the rich has not resulted in prosperity for the working class. Trickle-down economics was a gushing torrent at the top and less than a true trickle at the bottom. Yet, the narrative hangs on despite all the evidence to the contrary because the Democrats haven’t found a compelling story of their own. Instead, they essentially concede the Republican narrative and talk about how they’d change the details. It’s like buying the same house but then proposing different furniture for the living room.
It remains true that demographic changes are likely to start turning the tide in a more liberal direction. But that was supposed to happen this election cycle. Instead, it was a disaster for Democrats and, it may turn out, for the country. Simply put, the Democrats have to win back some blue-collar white guys while holding on to their broader coalition. To do that they have to regain control of the story we tell ourselves about how America works and who we are as Americans.