Democrats Face an Intersection
We Won Big, Thank Goodness: But How Do We Keep It Going?
It was a joy, and frankly a relief to see that Democrats can sometimes win big elections. And it was a huge victory, not just in the marquee governor’s race in VA and in the stunning pick-ups in their House of Delegates, but all over the country.
NJ Democrats dominated everything. Dems picked up control of the Washington State Senate. Maine passed a Medicaid expansion ballot initiative by a big margin. Historically Republican Delaware County, PA now has Democratic control of the county commission. Democrats swept aside Republican mayors in Manchester, NH; St. Petersburg, FL; and Charlotte, NC. Progressive people of color and transgender folks won competitive races in multiple places. A transgender woman, Danica Roem, beat incumbent Virginia Delegate Bob Marshall, the same guy who sponsored the state’s bigoted bathroom bill -- talk about poetic justice!
As Joe Biden would say, it’s a BFD. We now have solid proof that people of color, as well as suburban liberals and millennials, are fired up to vote against Trump, his party, and his tactics; that suburban moderates are moving away from the Republican Party at least for the time being; and that Republican dissension has the potential to hurt their turnout. It means that a truly sweeping Democratic victory in 2018 is within reach if we keep Democratic activist and voter enthusiasm high, and talk to people about the issues that matter to them.
Amidst the joy and relief, though, I have to offer a cautionary note. Our path forward is still really complicated. Both Virginia and New Jersey are states dominated by racially diverse, high income, and well-educated suburbs. They are states Hillary won relatively easily in an otherwise bleak election, and neither are subject to the kind of intense voter suppression that exists in many states. We are still way behind on how to use the medium of the future, social media, and we still do a lousy job talking to voters about our vision for the economy. We have a party divided in terms of the path ahead, with the 2016 primary still being fought by the partisans who cared about that race.
There’s a popular misconception by pundits, by many leaders of the Democratic Party, and by many progressive activists that there are only two big competing forces struggling over the future of the party. Because of the bitterness of the primary fight between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in 2016, the assumption is that the fight is between Team Hillary and the Berniecrats, the left and the center, the establishment versus the lefty insurgents. And the divide between those two forces is not going away anytime soon.
But that explanation for what troubles our party, and what the solutions are for getting out of this mess, is too easy. There are in fact four major kinds of thinking in this all-important brawl over the future of the party— and indeed, the country, because if Democrats can’t get their shit together, Republicans will destroy the civic institutions Americans know and love. If Republicans keep winning elections, we can say goodbye to civil liberties, civil rights, Social Security, Medicare, the labor movement, decent wages for workers, environmental laws, funding for public schools, and student aid— pretty much everything that makes America a good country in which to live.
The first mode of thinking within the party comes from the establishment wing. Us progressive populist types have to give them a nod: they won big yesterday, although with a ton of help from progressives. Their strategy is to focus on higher income suburban swing voters, and to heavily bash Trump in their messaging to motivate suburban moderates and progressive base voters. That worked out pretty well for them. The problem is that this strategy, because it is so focused on higher income, economically more conservative moderates, relies on either a mushy or non-existent message on the economy, which hasn’t worked out so well for Democrats nationally in recent years.
In addition to arguing that the most important swing voters are upper income moderates in the suburbs, establishment Democrats argue that we need all the campaign contributions we get from Wall Street and other business groups when we are more sympathetic to them. They think we need to be more pro-business to win over those all-important moderate suburbanites. They don’t represent a lot of rank and file Democrats these days, but they do represent some big names in the party, some very influential strategists, and a lot of the biggest money that goes to Democrats, so they still have a lot of juice.
The second element in the party is arguably the most visible and engaged one, the populist progressives. A lot of people call them the ‘Berniecrats,’ but things are more complicated than that. There are plenty of people who strongly identify with this camp, but either supported Hillary, including much of the labor movement and populist Midwesterners such as Sen. Sherrod Brown and former Senator Tom Harkin, or in some cases stayed neutral, including electeds such as Elizabeth Warren and groups such as PCCC. (Full disclosure: I place myself in this populist progressive world, and was one of those who decided to remain neutral in last year’s primary.
Complicating things further, some of the people who supported Bernie do not consider themselves part of the Democratic Party at all— 5% of them voted for Trump; some of them voted for Green Party candidate Jill Stein; and many were so disillusioned by the primary that they didn’t vote at all last year.
This group strongly identifies with holding Wall Street accountable, attacking Big Money’s domination of politics and monopoly capitalism, opposing trade deals like the TPP, and fighting for Medicare for All and free college for everyone. They believe that if we focus on these kinds of populist economic issues in our messaging and policy-making, we will start consistently winning elections again.
Speaking of outsiders, there’s another group of people who argue, with a great deal of merit in my view, that they are too often ignored or condescended to by party insiders. Tellingly, they tend to be left out in all the Berniecrat-versus-establishment discussions. These are the people of color-led movements, groups, and leaders who have demanded that party leaders stop avoiding or down-playing the issues of vital importance to them: criminal justice reform, immigration reform, the destruction of home prices, the resulting foreclosure crisis in Black and Latino neighborhoods after the financial crisis, and the lack of decent jobs in inner cities and Indian reservations.
Organizations like Black Lives Matter, Color of Change, Presente, Center for Community Change, and Mijente have demanded that Democrats respond to them, and have shouted down politicians who they feel are too willing to compromise. Strategists such as Steve Phillips have made a well-researched and persuasive case that the vast majority of consultants that Democratic Party committees hire are white; that the vast majority of campaign spending is focused on persuading white people who are harder and harder to persuade; and that not nearly enough money is being spent on turning out people of color, who are much more likely to vote for Democrats. I would describe this school of thinking as the Obama coalition on steroids: demography is destiny. If we just turnout big numbers of people of color, young people, urban liberals, and unmarried women, we have plenty of votes to spare in winning at least national elections.
It’s important to note that even though they are also populist progressives, these people-of-color leaders and movements are not automatically aligned with white progressive populist leaders. Black Lives Matter activists protested Bernie saying he wasn’t paying enough attention to their issues, and Hillary won the large majority of votes from people of color in the primary last year. White progressives can’t speak for, or represent, people of color even if they overlap on many issues.
The sum of the people in these two groups make up the overwhelming majority of Democratic voters and activists. If you combine the 45% of Bernie primary voters with the votes of progressive union members who voted for Hillary because of their union’s historic relations with the Clintons, and add to that the votes of African-American and Latino voters who are progressive on most major issues, you are probably talking 70% or more of Democratic voters.
The final school of thought that I think is important in the debate over the Democratic Party’s future are the people focused on working class and rural voters (two highly overlapping demographics). Naturally, this includes political leaders from more rural states, such as Montana Governor Steve Bullock and former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, but it also includes some important strategists like Stan Greenberg and Celinda Lake. Their argument is that we can’t win purple states or enough House districts to retake majorities or win the presidency without appealing to the swing voters in working-class and small town America.
This group includes much of the labor movement, and there is some overlap with the populist progressive folks mentioned above, especially regarding the centrality and dominance of economic issues in our political message. But this space is much more diverse ideologically and is more complicated than a pure progressive populist orientation. Some of the people in this grouping are more conservative on many issues, worried about what they describe as “identity politics” and other social issues. Partly that’s just a reflection of where politicians from rural states are from: you won’t get very far being a strong advocate of gun control in Montana. And if most of your constituents are white working class folks, you tend to get more nervous when the issue focus turns to how black folks are being treated by the police.
With these four different strains of thought about how the Democrats should move forward politically, where does that leave us? There is certainly some overlap among some of these views, but there are also some clear contradictions. You can’t devote most or all of your resources to organizing and turning out people of color and white working-class swing voters simultaneously. You can’t be close to Wall Street and at the same time support taking them on aggressively a la Elizabeth Warren. You can’t focus almost entirely on economic issues without also talking about criminal justice and immigration reform.
We’re going to have to make some strategic choices here, but I also believe strongly that Democrats can’t win with what I call ‘either/or politics.’ While we absolutely have to make some big choices (more on that in a moment), we can take the best ideas from different strategies to forge a path that not only ekes out narrow wins in some elections, but builds the kind of enduring governing majority that FDR created in the wake of the New Deal.
First, let’s talk about the big choices. The outlier in these four paths is the establishment route. I call it an outlier because it is the only strategy that neither appeals to any part of our base, nor appeals to the white working-class and rural swing voters that used to be part of those New Deal majorities. Winning elections while ignoring these key constituencies isn’t a winning strategy for the long term, despite our success in Virginia.
Good policy makes good politics, and the reverse is true as well. Deregulating Wall Street, allowing massive consolidation in many major industries, designing trade deals to help big business, and allowing the labor movement to get steadily weaker have not resulted in improving most workers’ standard of living. They have made working class voters of all ethnic backgrounds much more surly at both political parties. Democrats need to focus on policies that improve working people’s lives, not on helping big business.
Even though I am not a believer in the establishment strategy, I think there is one part of it that does have value, something I believe is essential for Democrats in building that enduring majority I discussed above. We must have a message and policy that welcome parts of the business community, and we should be far more conscious of incorporating them in our platform.
While Democrats should proudly take on big corporations that abuse their power, exploit their workers, and pollute the environment, they should also craft policies that help the good guy businesses. Being tough on anti-trust policies and the enforcement of marketplace rules helps small businesses and entrepreneurs compete against the big players. Investing in renewable energy companies helps build a new industry that could employ millions of workers while preserving our environment. Reining in health care and prescription drug costs helps every business outside of the health care industry with lower costs. A strong public education and college financing system leads to a better workforce. Building and repairing infrastructure helps businesses in many different ways. Democrats must proudly talk about all the progressive policies that help businesses prosper and create more jobs.
In terms of the other choices we must face, I refuse to believe we have to choose between reaching out to white working-class folks or reaching out to people of color. Winning campaigns, and winning electoral coalitions, have always done both. For all the talk about the Obama coalition, which succeeded at getting enormous levels of turnout and vote percentages from African-Americans, Latinos, young people, unmarried women, and urban liberals, Obama’s campaign won in swing states by getting solid numbers of white working class votes, even getting 38% of rural/small-town voters (nine points more than Hillary). The bottom line is that we can speak to working class voters of all colors and creeds in both urban and rural America far better than we do now if we focus on the issues that matter most to them.
Which brings me to the economy. I am one of those people who believes strongly that economic issues need to be at the heart of our message, and that we need to have a bold, well-defined economic agenda that shows we are on the side of everyday people instead of the wealthy and well-connected. That kind of message and agenda can appeal to both base voters and working-class white folks.
I don’t think for a moment that this focus on the economy means our candidates shouldn’t fully engage on issues like immigration and criminal justice reform. These issues are incredibly important to people of color (and should be to everyone), but they are also economic issues, because you don’t see many rich people or corporate lobbyists being killed by the police. The activist community calls this ‘intersectionality.’
Politicians like Keith Ellison have forged important ground in bringing civil rights and justice issues together with economic issues, and I think all Democrats should be working to do the same thing. White progressive populists need to do a far better job about talking about economic issues with a lens to which people of color can relate. Too-big-to-fail Wall Street banks and the big insurance and pharmaceutical companies screw just as many people of color as white people.
An economic populism with a bold agenda that doesn’t ignore the needs of either communities of color or white working class folks, that is conscious and purposeful in reaching out to and embracing both, is the path that leads to Democrats to victory in the years to come. But Democrats face an intersection: we can embrace this path forward together, or we can continue to chase moderate voters and kowtow to the 1% at the expense of everyone else. The former can lead us to a lot more victories in 2018 and 2020, the latter will keep us stuck in the past.