When a political party loses a big election (especially an election they clearly should have won), and finds itself out of power at every level of government, a debate needs to be had about the future of that party. The Democratic party is having such a debate, but when the frame of the debate is as twisted up as it currently is, we aren’t going to make much headway in terms of finding the best answers.
Debate framing, bad definitions, and false questions are popular in Washington, DC. For years, I have been bemused by the inside the beltway definition of “centrism”, which consists mostly of being pro-trade deals that benefit big business, pro-cutting Social Security and Medicare, and in favor of helping the big banks on Wall Street soften the few regulations that hold them back. None of these positions have any popularity with the actual centrist swing voters that helped decide this election- or any in the last couple of decades- but in DC circles, this kind of “centrism” has for years been all the rage.
The same pundits who define centrism in this manner are now trying to frame the debate over the future of the Democratic party as a debate over whether the party should become more progressive or whether we should reach out to swing voters. The problem with this frame is that the message and issues that have the best chance of appealing to the working class swing voters Democrats lost in 2016 (and 3 of the last 4 elections) is the same one that fires up the Democratic base of young people, people of color, and unmarried women: the economic populism of Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, Bernie Sanders, and Keith Ellison. Those kinds of progressive populist politicians, the Democratic base, and swing working class voters all believe that the system is rigged in favor of the wealthy and big business special interests; they all believe Social Security should be expanded and Medicare should be preserved and strengthened; they all believe in trade and other economic policies that will bring back good paying manufacturing jobs to this country; they all believe in spending a lot more money on infrastructure, creating jobs building and rebuilding roads, bridges, schools, airports, electric grids, as well as adding new jobs in solar and wind energy; they all believe in getting tougher on Wall St, including prosecuting those in the financial industry who commit crimes and breaking up the Too Big To Fail banks; they all believe in taxing the wealthiest Americans and reining in CEO power; they all believe in a higher minimum wage and more rights for workers.
And you know what else (speaking of a false debate): progressive leaders and our fired up Democratic base are all pro-business, too. According to the Washington Post and other traditional media sources, the Democrats are at war with progressives on one side and the “business-friendly” wing of the party on the other. But here’s the deal: progressives strongly support all kinds of business-friendly policies. We want for small business and start-ups to be able to compete with corporate conglomerates trying to corner the market, and so we favor vigorous enforcement of anti-trust law; we encourage people to sign up for community based banks and credit unions; we have pushed hard to develop solar, wind, and other energy sources that do not contribute to climate change; we worked with retailers to fight Wall St on swipe fees, and are working with them now on attacking this crazy Border Adjustment Tax idea in the Ryan budget because it is essentially a sales tax that mostly working class and poor people will pay; we are fighting to defend hospitals, especially rural hospitals, from the Medicaid cuts Republicans are trying to do in repealing the ACA; we are working alongside the taxi and hotel industries to keep Uber and Airbnb from destroying millions of jobs, creating major problems in housing markets in big cities, and violating people’s ADA and civil rights; and we are standing with family farmers and ranchers as they fight the big food and pipeline companies that are trying to take away their ability to make a good living.
Just because progressives oppose big business from getting sweetheart deals and tax loopholes from government, just because we want to stop overheating the planet with climate change, just because we want highly profitable businesses to pay their fair share of taxes and pay their workers decent wages and benefits, just because we want to safeguard the main street economy from irresponsible speculation by Too Big To Fail banks: none of that makes progressive Democrats “anti-business”. Quite the opposite: we are for promoting businesses that are good members of their community, and want to do everything in our power to help them.
Here’s another example of a false debate: having to choose between white working class voters in rural and small town America and the urban Democratic base. For starters, note the issues I mentioned in the 3rd paragraph above: as I said, the base and rural voters have very similar views on most of those issues. While there are enough differences and disagreements on some issues to keep Democrats from getting a majority of rural votes anytime soon, there’s a big difference between losing them 62-38 as the ultimate urbanite Barack Obama did in 2012 and losing them 71-29 as Hillary Clinton did in 2016. Those Democrats who are arguing we should walk away from rural voters and rural districts because we haven’t done well there the last couple of cycles are essentially dooming us to permanent minority status given how rural voters and states are favored disproportionately in terms of their relative power in the House, Senate, and electoral college. And we have plenty of issues we can make a stand on in rural America, including saving rural hospitals from an ACA repeal, saving rural schools from Betsy DeVos’ obsession with urban charter and voucher schools, stopping the Border Adjustment Tax which will be a heavier tax on people in rural areas than in urban areas, and making sure roads and highways and schools are built in rural America as well as urban America.
It is worth noting, by the way, that the stereotype of rural areas being all white and conservative is wrong: there are a ton of Democratic base voters and people of color living in rural America. Bernie Sanders did very well in rural America, winning most of the small states outside of the South. Native American reservations are 100% in rural areas. And throughout the Midwest and Southwest are rapidly growing numbers of Latinos in rural America. One example: my home state of Nebraska is now over 10% Latino, with small towns like Scottsbluff, Grand Island, and Lexington being over 25-50% Latino. The percentage of these rural Latinos and Native Americans who did not vote in 2016 was astronomical compared to most other demographic groups, as the Democratic party and Clinton campaign did not spend much money targeting them. I am a big advocate of Democrats doing more to reach out to working class rural swing voters on a populist economic platform, but if all we did was focus on turning out our base voters in rural America, we could cut the margins we lost there dramatically.
Democrats need to stop listening to the beltway pundits telling them they need to make false choices. We don’t have to decide between base voters and working class voters: in fact, most of our base are working class people who have been as hard hit by this economy’s heavy tilt to the top 1% as anyone, and populist economic messages work for both base and swing voters. We don’t have to choose between being populists and being pro-business: progressive populism is very much aligned with the small businesses, start-ups, green energy companies, and good neighbor companies that we ought to be helping. We don’t have to choose between rural and urban America, as progressive policies on energy, health care, Wall St, farming, anti-trust, education, the minimum wage, and health care are major assets in both big cities and small towns. Democrats need to stop playing either/or politics and stop having debates between ourselves that don’t make any sense.