It’s hard to find a political entity in worse shape right now than the Democratic Party, who somehow managed to lose a presidential election to Donald freaking Trump, the least-liked and least-appealing presidential candidate in recent memory. Trump was good at exactly one thing – making grandiose speeches to cheering crowds – yet against the milquetoast Hillary Clinton, who projected an image of a condescending schoolmarm at best faking real humanity and generally projecting the perfect image of a droning wonky politician, that was more than enough to attract the attention of enough voters to win the electoral college. Even considering voting for Trump was enough to get you branded a racist bigot to be lumped into the “basket of deplorables” (never mind that when Hillary used that term she was warning against that mindset) with little to no consideration for the reasons why one might consider voting for Trump, which only served to make those voters think the Democrats were actively dismissing their concerns and thus pushed them further into the Trump camp. The Hillary campaign, and the left in general, seemed to assume that Trump was so obviously boorish and unfit for office that they didn’t even need to bother winning over voters, even though they had trouble keeping parts of their own base from defecting and casting counterproductive votes for Jill Stein.
The results of the election sent the party into a deep identity crisis, not helped by the fact that the misdeeds of Trump and the Republicans don’t seem to be helping the Democrats that much. The party has found itself split between the old-guard centrist establishment and a wing of former Bernie Sanders supporters who believe the party’s path back to relevance lies in energizing the base with a hard-left message of economic populism to serve as an antidote to Trumpism, a strategy whose focus on the “white working class” the establishment fears would amount to abandoning the party’s focus on helping the disenfranchised and discriminated-against in favor of accepting and appealing to bigotry. Indeed, the “resistance” sometimes seems to be as much against the left’s own party as the Republicans, calling out any Democrat that doesn’t engage in every bit of obstruction and no-voting the Republicans would have and did pull against Obama. Even that wing of the party isn’t necessarily improving the party’s image; in recent polls, the majority of Americans disapprove of Trump and over 40 percent want him impeached, but a majority of Americans also don’t think the Democrats stand for anything other than opposing Trump, including some of the very people the establishment is afraid of losing.
It’s clear to me that any attempt to craft a firm message, one that can confront the uphill battle the Democrats have to take even one house of Congress in 2018, will need to provide a real alternative to Trumpism in some way. Think of it in terms of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: it’s easier for people to support things that don’t benefit them directly, like curbing racism, sexism, and homophobia, when they have the basics taken care of, having a job that allows them to feed and shelter their family, feeling protected from terrorist attacks or the government, and generally feeling well-enough off that they feel they have a stake in the well-being of others in society rather than feeling threatened by everyone except them getting a piece of the pie. The cosmopolitan urban base of the party, and the tech workers in the Pacific Northwest and Silicon Valley, may feel this is the case, but for many used to jobs in traditional manufacturing fields in the Rust Belt, the modern economy has left them behind.
So it was that last week, the Democrats rolled out their agenda they intend to use to appeal to voters in the 2018 midterms. It’s off to a good start with its title, “A Better Deal”, which invokes populist programs of the past, especially FDR’s New Deal. But is it a deal that can actually appeal to the voters the Democrats are trying to win over?
In his New York Times op-ed, Chuck Schumer says that Democrats are promising “three simple things. First, we’re going to increase people’s pay. Second, we’re going to reduce their everyday expenses. And third, we’re going to provide workers with the tools they need for the 21st-century economy.” These are all fine things, but they’re more goals to achieve than actual tools to achieve them, and Schumer admits in the next sentence that it will take several months to roll out all the policies the Democrats have to achieve these goals. The implication is that the “better deal” will involve throwing out a bunch of policies and expecting them all to stick to voters, the same wonky approach that has backfired on Democrats in the past. Both Trump and Sanders stunned the establishment by simplifying their message and proposing a few key, concrete policies that directly appealed to voters that felt left behind by the establishment. By putting out nice-sounding platitudes without focusing on core proposals, the Democrats are presenting themselves as more of the same establishment politicians the 2016 election season was all about rejecting.
The proposals the Democrats have already floated – a $15 minimum wage, paid family and sick leave, and an infrastructure plan – go some distance towards achieving the first two goals (not necessarily the third), though whether they appeal to average voters is more mixed. Unfortunately, Schumer only gives them a sentence before focusing the rest of the op-ed on “three new policies”. These are also worthy policies, though the first, fighting to curb the cost of prescription drugs, is rather specific and mostly appeals to specific demographics, and won’t win over those segments of the party’s base clamoring to adopt a full-fledged single-payer health care system. The second, beefing up antitrust laws to make it easier to break up big companies and harder for them to merge, is broad-based and appealing enough to win over voters, and the third, “a large tax credit to train workers for unfilled jobs”, at least starts to address the party’s third goal, but again might not do enough to win over the base.
The problem the party faces with the third goal, though, is that a lot of the reason for continued unemployment despite a supposedly booming economy for most of the Obama years has increasingly been chalked up to automation: jobs taken not by immigrants or outsourcing, but not replaced at all and instead filled by robots. One of the oldest problems in American politics is that voters reward politicians that tell them what they want to hear, not what they need to hear, and telling people that spent their whole lives in the coal mines or in manufacturing jobs that those jobs aren’t coming back no matter what they do won’t go over well (though Obama seemed to at least try in his farewell address). The Democrats’ “tax credit” idea assumes that there are enough other jobs out there that these people can be “retrained” for. For older people, especially those for whom mining and manufacturing are part of their identity, such talk could end up ringing hollow, while younger people may see more appeal in Sanders-like policies to reduce the cost of college itself, or even with the idea of a universal basic income (as is becoming increasingly popular in Europe) to make work more of a choice than a necessity.
Schumer promises that among the future ideas to be presented will be “fundamentally changing our trade laws to benefit workers, not multinational corporations”, tackling another source of Trump’s and Sanders’ popularity. Unfortunately, many of the ideas presented on that front may engender skepticism as to whether they would actually work. The first two bullet points are about creating new bureaucratic positions, a “trade prosecutor” to go after “unfair trade practices” by foreign countries, and a “jobs security council” that would supposedly stop acquisitions of American companies by foreign ones that could cost American jobs. Color me skeptical that any measures to ensure the transparency and openness of the “security council” will really succeed in insulating it from regulatory capture in the long term, turning it into just another rubber stamp big mergers need to get, nor am I optimistic that the “trade prosecutor” will be particularly successful in anything not supported by big corporations, even if Democrats have the best of intentions. Leading their trade proposals with these two things is not getting off on the right foot, and proposing reforming NAFTA when many people want to junk it won’t do much to win back the crowd – especially when that’s the only entry on the list directly addressing trade agreements, which need to be addressed more generally. Many of the later proposals to punish outsourcing could be appealing, although I saw Hillary Clinton’s “exit tax” ads enough times to be skeptical that they’ll really work.
I don’t mean to denigrate the wonky or specific proposals, only that they shouldn’t be treated the same as the firm, broad-based, bold proposals that can rally Americans. Democrats need to settle on a small list of front-line proposals to hammer home in the minds of the American people and shove everything else onto their web site for the wonks to pour over. Here’s my list: a $15 minimum wage; transparent negotiation of trade deals; penalizing outsourcing; breaking up mega-corporations; maybe paid leave; plus some Sanders proposals not on the Better Deal web site, namely free college tuition and raising taxes on and removing deductions and loopholes for the wealthy. Or to boil it all down to a slogan: let’s give every American the chance to prepare for and obtain 21st-century jobs paying a living wage that won’t be taken away capriciously at the whim of huge mega-corporations. Or to lengthen it a bit again so as not to be as vague as the Democrats’ goals: tax the rich and break up the corporations to pay for free college to prepare for good, stable, fulfilling, $15/hour jobs and protect them from being outsourced to or undermined by other countries.
Reaction to the “Better Deal” agenda seemed to be largely unimpressed, chalking it up to the same timid, incrementalist proposals that put the Democrats in this predicament in the first place. Some of these things could have been fixed before rollout, such as the aforementioned tax reform, education reform, a single-payer health care system, and halting and reversing the decline of unions, all of which would have done more to energize the left and convince working-class Americans that Democrats were really offering real solutions. Others are rooted in distrust that Democrats could overcome their fealty to wealthy donors and powerful special interests – and given their reputation for big government, Democrats have more of a need for a proposal to “drain the swamp” than the Republicans do. Such a proposal, coupled with the more radical proposals mentioned earlier, is probably the only real way to address the criticism that the “Better Deal” is basically the same Obama agenda the Republicans obstructed, raising doubts about whether the Democrats could pass it even with control of the White House and both houses of Congress. (Remember, Democrats’ control of the Senate was cloture-proof and Obamacare still ended up heavily watered down to appeal to centrists like Joe Lieberman.) Some of the problems can’t really be fixed, namely that talk of “retraining” and “education” won’t excite working-class Americans as much as “we’re going to bring the jobs back”, even if the latter isn’t actually possible, and telling them such won’t go over well.
Perhaps the biggest and most telling problem that Schumer and the Democrats can’t fix themselves has nothing to do with what the message is or how it’s delivered, but who’s delivering it. Progressives and swing voters alike don’t trust that the same establishment Democratic leadership that threw away the considerable political capital given them in 2008 and managed to lose to Trump can really learn from their mistakes and present a real response to Trumpism. In the end, the only thing that can really revitalize the Democratic Party might be a Tea Party-esque movement from the Sanders wing to replace such anodyne establishment politicians with true believers that will stand for the courage of their convictions and present a message that can actually win over middle America and get my generation energized enough to actually show up for the midterms. If the Democratic establishment insists on holding on to their prerogatives and taking control of the shape of the “resistance” and “better deal”, it may already be too late to save them.