Democratic Pessimism and Our Relationship with the Working Class
Data analyst David Shor is having a moment. Feature articles and quotes from him are popping up everywhere. His central argument is that Democrats should be very pessimistic about our future because of our disconnect with working-class voters. These two topics -- pessimism about the party’s future and our disconnect with the working class -- are profoundly linked, but I have a very different view about how they interrelate. Shor and I, along with many Democratic analysts by the way (this isn’t a new thought), agree that the national Democratic Party has a big problem with working-class voters. The difference between us is that Shor apparently thinks this means intractable doom for our party, whereas I believe that we can solve this problem and build a governing majority lasting for a generation. Optimism + Realism For a party that has won the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections and has just won the presidential election and control of both the House and the Senate, we are an awfully pessimistic bunch. Democrats have won four Senate races in Georgia and Arizona over the last two election cycles, and in 2020 both states went for the Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since the 1990s. We almost won both the Senate and presidential race in North Carolina, and the Democratic governor there was re-elected by a wide margin. Texas has become much more competitive in recent years, and as my allies from Change To Win point out in their brilliant new study, if we target and mobilize people of color and the young, Democrats can grow our numbers in the South and Southwest. The Democratic Party has big challenges to overcome, but we need to stop being mired in pessimism. We must figure out how to marry the great new mobilization strategies that Way To Win is espousing with a renewed passion for winning working-class voters of all races who are sliding away from us. Our biggest challenge as a party, the factor that is keeping us from winning a permanent governing majority even as we gain new advantages in the Sunbelt, is winning back the hearts and minds of those working-class voters, especially those who don’t live in big urban centers. American Family Voices, the organization I chair, and 21st Century Democrats recently co-commissioned a major new report about this dynamic which has generated a lot of discussion. Our report looks at the small and midsized factory towns of the industrial heartland, many of which used to be heavily Democratic and heavily unionized, but now have turned Republican. Desperate after a decade-plus of factory closings, the loss of good paying union jobs, the opioid epidemic, and rising rates of suicide, voters there feel abandoned by Democrats. They have become much more susceptible to right wing misinformation and angry rhetoric, and more responsive to Donald Trump’s twisted version of rightwing populism. Winning Back Working-Class Voters We will have to win these blue-collar voters back issue by issue, year by year, election by election. This will not be easy or happen overnight, all the more reason to invest heavily in Way To Win’s mobilization strategy. But the Biden agenda of investing in working-class communities and taking on the harms to these communities caused by big corporate predators -- if we can deliver, communicate, and organize on it -- gives us our first big opportunity to make progress. In our approach to these left-behind heartland communities, pessimism is our worst enemy. We Democrats absolutely must be realistic about the hole we have dug for ourselves, but there is nothing unchangeable about American politics. The New Deal coalition was going to last forever until Reagan swept it aside. Democrats in the 1980s thought they would never be able to win a presidential election again, until 1992, when they started a winning streak of the popular vote seven of eight times. After the 2004 elections, leading analysts in the party were writing gloomy predictions about how the voters were structurally locked in to voting against us, and we probably wouldn’t have a major election victory in either the presidential election or congressional races for many years, and Karl Rove was bragging about his permanent Republican majority. But in 2006, we swept the table and won back both houses of Congress, and built dramatically on those victories in the first Obama election two years later. At that point, Democrats were telling themselves demographic changes would lock in a governing majority for decades to come. You know what happened in 2010, and you also know that very few people predicted Trump’s victory. My point in recalling all these times when the number crunchers and prognosticators were wrong is simply to say: big changes that most of the experts miss are quite often right under the surface. Making this change may require new strategies, and sometimes different kinds of candidates. But there is no reason to think that things will remain exactly as they are today with the electorate as a whole, or with particular segments of it like those working-class voters we’ve been talking about here. Decisions by policy makers and strategists matter a great deal. Bill Clinton was about ten points behind Bob Dole in every poll through the first half of 1995, but after Clinton stood up the Republicans on the government shutdowns, he was ahead by about the same percentage in every poll from then on. If George W. Bush had not launched a campaign to privatize Social Security and had not been lackadaisical about Katrina, Democrats never would have won Congress back in 2006. If Obama had been tough on holding Wall Street accountable in 2009 rather than letting them off easy, and if the stimulus package that was passed by the Democrats hadn’t been too small, the economy would have recovered far faster and Democrats would not have lost control of Congress. Joe Biden’s Agenda and the Working-Class Center of American Politics If Democrats back Joe Biden and deliver for the hard-pressed working class, we could usher a new era of Democratic Party governance by rebuilding the bridge between our party and the working class. The numbers are there for everyone to see: if we add just a few percentage points of Democratic performance among working-class voters to increasing mobilization of people of color and young voters, we build a long-term governing majority. To give up on these voters, or to say they are tough to win back, makes winning a serious long-term governing majority in this country almost impossible, whereas beginning to win them back will change the nature of American politics for good. The reason I am so focused on fighting Democratic pessimism and all the wrong predictions of the establishment analysts is that decisions based on these premises have serious consequences: you target the wrong states, districts, and sets of voters. The Democratic Party should stop being so pessimistic about blue-collar voters in small and midsized towns that they give up on them. Note here that I am not talking about only the White working class, as working-class voters of all races, especially Latino and Black men, have been performing at lower percentages for Democrats than they did in the Obama elections. Blue-collar voters of all races, especially those outside of big metro areas, tend to be mostly ignored by the pundits and party strategists focused on the big city suburbs, which they think of as being home to most swing voters. The voters in these small and midsized counties are inundated with rightwing media and social media misinformation, and they are alienated by what they perceive (sometimes rightly) as the condescension of big city liberals. They feel like the trade deals that have been negotiated by both parties have left them behind. They feel like Big Pharma and Wall Street get away with screwing them while politicians of both parties ignore them or condescend to them. They feel like the ultra-wealthy aren’t paying much in taxes while they have to play by the rules. And they are right about all those things. We need a strategy that combines policies that truly help these kinds of communities with the kind of active, online pushback against disinformation that groups like Fair Fight have successfully used in Georgia. Finally, Democrats of all stripes need to understand what the Biden team seems to get deep in their bones: that the true center of the American political debate is not in defending the privileges of the wealthy, as the small number of Democrats opposing the president's Build Back Better plans are doing. The large majority of the swing voters in the battleground states we studied in our Factory Towns report are not high income suburbanites worried that their taxes might go up or that their stock dividends in the drug and big tech companies they are investing in will go down. Instead, they are hard pressed working-class voters who desperately need for good new jobs to be created, for their wages to go up and their health care costs to go down, and for long-needed answers to the high cost of child care. Democrats desperately need to deliver for these voters, and the best way to do that is by passing Joe Biden’s agenda. If we start to remind voters we care about them and will fight for them, we can start the process of winning factory town voters back. And if we begin to win those voters back, and combine it with a strategy that mobiles people of color and young voters, we will build a long-term majority so durable that fascism cannot overcome it.