The Choice for Democrats
Freak Out Over the Culture War, or Take the Side of Working Families in the Economic War
I am a long time Democratic consultant who spends a lot of time studying and thinking about working-class voters. I was born and raised in Nebraska, where my dad grew up on a dairy farm; went to a working-class high school three blocks from the biggest factory in town; married a farmer’s daughter from Northwest Missouri; and spent close to a decade doing politics in Iowa (including a stint working for the Iowa AFL-CIO). In the last year, I wrote a report on the need for Democrats to invest more attention and resources into rural America, and started a new project called Factory Towns devoted to changing the political dynamics in small and midsize counties with a high concentration of manufacturing in the local economy. Just last week, our Factory Towns project released a new poll on the working-class counties in America’s industrial heartland outside the big metro areas.
Given this background, you would think I would be joining all those Democrats spending a lot of time wringing my hands over the effects of the culture war on working-class voters. So as to not hold you in suspense, I will cut to the chase: I’m not.
It’s not like I don’t see the tough issues our party has to deal with in this area, and I don’t doubt the effectiveness of the GOP attack machine. Republicans are really good at dividing people, really good at stirring up hate and fear of “the other.” They are also great at amplifying anything that any activist in the streets puts on a sign and convincing a lot of people that all Democrats believe in it, even when most Democratic candidates make it clear that they don’t.
I also agree that, as my old friend James Carville says, too many Democrats talk as if they are elite college professors instead of regular folks. There is no doubt that people on our side acting like politically correct language police is irritating to working-class voters and hurts the Democratic brand among working-class folks. I am not for using slogans and language that most people don’t understand or, worse, immediately put people off. I know it’s weird, but I prefer using the language that working-class voters use to communicate with the voters we are trying to win over.
But here’s the main reason why I don’t stay up nights worrying about the culture war and the unhelpful things some Democrats say: an economic message, attuned to the things most voters care the most about and progressively populist in its focus, trumps Republican culture war messages and helps change perceptions of the Democratic brand among working families. Our new Factory Towns poll, as well as the other research we have been doing, prove this conclusively.
Full disclosure: there are some Democrats who disagree with me. Writers Bill Galston and Elaine Kamarck, who were part of the Clinton administration with me in the 1990s and helped start the DLC, have just written a report that comes to the opposite conclusion. They are convinced that what I just wrote in the above about an economic message trumping Republican culture war attacks is a myth. Other Democrats like Josh Gottheimer are convinced that the left is dooming us with identity politics.
But these culture war Chicken Littles don’t point to much specific evidence to make their case. If they are testing their message and agenda with the populist approach our polling points to, I haven’t seen that data. And every poll, every focus group report, every analysis I am seeing is telling me the same thing: if we talk about the economic changes we have delivered on (which most voters aren’t aware of yet), and the economic changes Democrats are fighting for, that message wins out over the strongest culture message the Republicans have. Pollster Celinda Lake and I have released a memo that talks about how we win in 2022. Our conclusion is that in spite of all the doomsday stuff out there on how the Democrats will lose big in 2022, Democrats can win this year by focusing on a populist economic message targeted to working-class voters, working-class voters of all races, not just the white working-class voters some strategists fetishize.
What our Factory Towns poll shows is that it is clear that working-class voters in those small and midsize towns aren’t big fans of the Democratic Party brand, but they don’t like the Republicans -- whom they associate with looking out for Big Business and CEOs -- very much either. And there is a clear path for winning these kinds of voters. The three entities Factory Towns voters dislike the most of all the things we tested? Corporate media, big corporations, and corporate CEOs. The thing they like the most of everything we tested? Labor unions.
These non-metro America working-class voters, who are over 40% of the electorate in all the states we studied, and whose counties saw a 2.8 million vote decline in Democratic margin from 2012 to 2020, are in a bad place economically. Over half of them said that they or a family member have suffered from recent job loss, loss of a pension or retirement savings, chronic health problems, addiction issues, and long-term disabilities. And while they do have some enmity toward taxes and government spending, they mainly blame corporations taking jobs overseas and the top 1% rigging the rules to take advantage of regular folks like them for their troubles. These folks are too concerned over the big problems they and their neighbors are having to be too caught up in worrying that the Democrats are too politically correct.
What they do want Democrats to do is actually work to better their lives and make their hardship less hard. Their biggest negatives toward Democrats? That they are weak, ineffective, and don’t have a plan for the economy that will help them.
It isn’t just our poll that suggests the progressive populist approach either. Another Democratic strategist and pollster, Stan Greenberg, wrote a great article in The American Prospect on progressive populist economic messaging vs Republican messaging. His testing shows clearly how strong a progressive populist message is in doing both of the two big things Democrats need to do to win: motivate Democratic base voters to vote, and appeal to the gettable working-class swing voters.
So while the culture war bullshit does have some impact on voters, I am convinced we can overcome it with a clear, focused, and populist economic message. What a lot of the DC pundits don’t get is that the biggest reason working-class folks have soured on Democrats over the last 20 years is not irritating language or identity politics, it is their real economic circumstances which have hurt them badly. Factories have closed down because of trade deals written to benefit big business. It’s harder to find decent jobs with decent health care and retirement benefits, and wages haven’t gone up much in the last few decades until this year. Opioid addiction and suicide rates have devastated working-class towns. Health care outcomes have declined while health care costs have gone up dramatically. And these voters feel like neither political party is doing much to help them. They are mad at the Republicans for being in bed with Big Business, but they are mad at us for not taking on Big Business effectively and improving their lives.
So are out-of-touch language and bad slogans hurting us? Yeah, some. But if Democrats actually started delivering tangible benefits to people (as they are beginning to in the Biden years), and then talking about them to voters (as they mostly haven’t yet), it would overcome the culture war problems.
However, I do have one other concern about the war over culture wars that does trouble me a little more: the constant whining that some Democrats do about itis self-destructive in and of itself. In publications and on cable news, the chattering class in DC worries incessantly about how identity politics lefties are making Democrats unpopular.
Not that many actual voters read these articles or watch these shows, but a word of caution to my friends trying to help the Democrats: when you say and write stuff talking about how extremist identity politics leftists are taking over the Democratic Party, the occasional voter who sees this stuff might think you’re right. What they might say to themselves is, “Hey, I thought I liked what Joe Biden was doing with childcare and building roads and cleaning up drinking water, but now I’m not so sure.”
It is also ironic that many of the Democrats who most decry the harm that the lefties are doing to the Democrats have been the same ones opposing or weakening economic policies most Democrats have been trying to pass. You know, the things most popular with working-class Democrats: forcing pharmaceutical companies to lower drug prices, lowering the cost of childcare and health care, cutting taxes for parents with children, expanding Social Security benefits, stopping trade deals that hurt American manufacturers, and passing a $15 minimum wage while ending lower wages for tipped waitstaff.
Here’s another article, not from an active Democrat, but from a journalist (Matt Bai) who says he is kind of a Democrat but now is having trouble deciding whether fascist authoritarianism or identity politics is worse. In it, he says that yeah, Trumpism is bad, but that the Left has tossed aside the ideals of equal opportunity and free expression, used Soviet style tactics to cut off debate, and sought vengeance instead of justice.
Folks like Bai and Gottheimer need to chill out a little, maybe stop paying so much attention to their Twitter feeds. I know people on social media can be a little mean sometimes, but look, I am a lifelong progressive who has spent a lot of time on progressive social media, listservs, and conference calls. Occasionally I get pushback for views I express; occasionally the dialogue gets a bit heated. But even though I am a White guy who doesn’t think the slogan about defunding the police was the smartest thing to do politically, even though I think we shouldn’t use a recently invented phrase like Latinx that 97% of Hispanic folks either have never heard of or strongly dislike, I have never once had someone from the Secret Progressive Police break into my house in the middle of the night and send to me to a gulag in Siberia.
It is centrists’ own overheated reaction, no doubt aided by Twitter trolls, that is making the problems of the culture war worse than they already are for Democrats. So yeah, I think some progressives talk in ways that are a little too politically correct, and I wish they wouldn’t. But that problem is relatively easy to overcome if we just mind our Ps and Qs, and get real things done about the economic issues that matter the most to working-class voters of all races: more and better jobs, higher wages, lower health care and grocery and energy and childcare costs. Our party is mostly united on these pocketbook issues, outside of a few people who call themselves centrists who listen a little too much to Big Business lobbyists.
Getting tangible things done for working families (even if it means taking on corporate fat cats), and then communicating about what we have done and want to do more of, is the path to Democratic victories in 2022 and 2024. Let’s not get distracted by our own hand wringing.