When the new Wisconsin Legislature and U.S. Congress convened earlier this month Republicans settled in to majorities that are way out of proportion to the popularity of their policies.
Republicans control 63% of the 132 seats in the Wisconsin Senate and Assembly, the largest majorities they've held since the 1950s. And they have 57% of the new Congress. Their majority in the House is the largest the GOP has enjoyed since 1930.
Yet, party identification is almost the exact reverse of those numbers. Fifty-five percent of Americans who choose a party call themselves Democrats. In Wisconsin, just two years ago, President Obama won for a second time with 53%. That same year, in a race for an open U.S. Senate seat, liberal Madison Democrat Tammy Baldwin beat the iconic Republican former Gov. Tommy Thompson with 51% of the vote compared to Thompson's 45%.
And several polls give Democrats the edge or even strong majorities on dealing with issues like immigration, Social Security, health care, education and more. These same polls found that Americans, by substantial percentages, found Republicans to be more confrontational, extreme in their views, less willing to make government work, and more influenced by lobbyists and special interests than Democrats. And by a 53% to 34% majority, Americans said that Democrats were "more concerned about the needs of people like me" than are Republicans.
The people who are supposed to represent us don't reflect majority state and national views on the issues. Moreover, they are out of touch with where the country is going culturally. We're becoming more accepting of gays; Republicans remain opposed to same-sex marriage. We're becoming less religious; Republicans have a strong evangelical Christian bent. Vast majorities of Americans, even gun owners, support at least some modest firearm regulations; Republicans are adamantly opposed to the smallest improvement. Sixty percent of Wisconsinites support reproductive rights; the Republicans plan to propose new abortion restrictions here. Two-thirds of Wisconsinites support an increase in the minimum wage; the Republicans won't even bring it up for a vote.
This is a prescription for growing frustration, not on the part of a put-upon liberal minority, but on the part of a majority of Americans and Wisconsinites, who have a right to believe that their government should represent them. Our state and our nation as a whole are purple trending blue, while our representative bodies grow darker red. This kind of frustration breeds a lack of confidence in the system itself.
So how can our representative bodies be so out of whack with where the public is on the issues and where we're going culturally?
We can find partial explanations in money, redistricting and the turnout in off-year elections. But none of these things is as important as demographics. Democrats are hemorrhaging independents and white voters, especially white men. Scott Walker won independents by 11 points. He won white men by 25 points. When independents are one out of four voters, and white men are 44% of the electorate in Wisconsin, that's a huge problem. And it's the same story at the national level.
The problem is that the party has gone all in for the idea that all its leaders needed to do was excite their base, that they could pretty much ignore independents and white men if in the process they could turn out more women, young folks and people of color.
But it turns out that the numbers are not there to make that work; certainly not in an off-year election and maybe not even in a presidential year like 2016. Mary Burke won 96% of black women, but they made up only 4% of the vote.
The answer is to be more inclusive. Look at Bobby Kennedy's campaign for president in 1968. Kennedy is still an iconic figure among liberals, yet he won among factory workers in states like Indiana and farmers in states like Nebraska. He was even beating more conservative candidates who were less outspoken on social justice issues or on the Vietnam War.
He was able to do it because he came off as genuinely concerned about working people regardless of who they were. In his first speech in Indiana he said that we need to "make an honest effort to understand one another and move forward together." Four years later the Democrats had become obsessed with identity politics and George McGovern got trounced by Richard Nixon; the party hasn't regained its standing among blue-collar voters since.
Today the Democratic Party has the policies that reflect where the country is at, but it can't govern because it has needlessly ignored or alienated large parts of its former base. The answer is for the party to rediscover a genuine affinity for working people, no matter their race or gender.
Paradoxically, by reconnecting with white guys, Democrats can regain the majorities they need so that they can reflect where the state and the nation are on all kinds of issues, including social justice.
Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave.