Nervous Democrats pore over the latest posts on the polling at
With decision day looming, the collective anxiety is getting more and more palpable. In between ranting about Russia and the Mueller investigation, the unthinkable question is on the tip of many a liberal’s tongue: could we actually blow it again?
As of this writing, it appears that the Senate—which was never really in reach—is out of the question but that the Democrats have a solid chance to take the House. This outcome would be a very good thing for the country as it would provide a much-needed check on the insanity in the White House. That said, what is still unclear is if the Democratic Party has discovered a core message that will help take back the other chamber and win the Presidency in 2020.
What gives? Why has it been so hard for the Democratic Party to come up with a message that appeals to ordinary folks other than not being Trump?
The endless stream of post-2016 election analysis aside, perhaps the most insightful observer of American Politics over the last decade is Thomas Frank, whose seminal book What’s the Matter With Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America nailed the “backlash populism” that has allowed the American right to steal the mantle of egalitarianism from the Democrats by redirecting anger away from the economic elite to the cultural elite and effectively enshrining the upside-down world where working class white voters lovingly embrace populist millionaires as they stick it to the snotty high-brow liberals.
Frank followed his important work on the triumph of the right with an equally important (though not particularly loved in Democratic circles) book that diagnosed what ails the former party of the toiling masses, Listen Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? This work, which quite accurately summarized the fatal flaws of the Democratic establishment that led to Hillary Clinton’s loss, rigorously documents how, over the last several decades, the party has abandoned its traditional loyalty to the working class in favor of a “professional class” liberalism that backs social issues over economic populism. This kind of New Democratic politics with its love of all things neoliberal opened the door for Trump’s nationalist populism and its adherents have yet to fully understand what they did wrong.
What is frustrating about this is that, in so many ways, the answers are fairly simple. As Frank pointed out in his last column for the Guardian before he took a leave of absence to write a new book:
For all their cunning, Republicans are a known quantity. Their motives are simple: they will do anything, say anything, profess faith in anything to get tax cuts, deregulation and a little help keeping workers in line. Nothing else is sacred to them. Rules, norms, traditions, deficits, the Bible, the constitution, whatever. They don’t care, and in
The Democrats, however, remain a mystery. We watch them hesitate at crucial moments, betray the movements that support them, and even try to suppress the leaders and ideas that generate any kind of populist electricity. Not only do they seem uninterested in doing their duty toward the middle class, but sometimes we suspect they don’t even want to win.
Indeed, when one considers that the road to victory in 2020 will not be through New York or California, but through the states that Trump barely took last time—Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—it is stunning to see a potential favorite like Elizabeth Warren lead the charge by running straight into Trump’s wheelhouse with the ridiculous DNA test blunder rather than leaning on her considerable skills to blast Trump’s unpopular tax plan and the Republicans’ goals of cutting Social Security and Medicare.
Defeating the Republicans won’t depend on getting angry voters to listen to the better angels of their nature or forcing them to finally acknowledge that Trump is a knucklehead. Frank again observes:
Beating the right cannot simply be a matter of waiting for a dolt in the Oval Office to screw things up. There has to be a plan for actively challenging and reversing it, for turning around the fraction of working class voters who have been abandoning the Democratic party for decades. The time is up for happy fantasies of office-park centrism and professional-class competence.
So here’s hoping that the Democrats win back the House without much of a plan and then get to work on learning how to lead with winning bread and butter issues that can steal back some of the folks who still don’t think anybody is speaking for them. Those voters may not all have politically correct views on every social issue, but they might just vote a little less badly if given a reason that speaks to their interests.