Every so often the coastal elites who shape the Democratic Party decide they need to better understand people in the center of the country, you know, that big area west of the Hudson River and east of Sacramento?
So the party commissioned a study of what they call “Factory Towns” (nothing one-dimensional about that) in Wisconsin and five other states. The study was driven by polling data gathered by Celinda Lake. That’s the first sign of trouble. Lake has been a Washington-based Democratic pollster since Adam was a pup. She makes her living off of telling Democratic interest groups and officials what they want to hear.
And what they want to hear is that their problem is not their social policies. No, really the only issue is that they’ve been so darn busy doing so darn much good for the economic best interests of blue collar voters that they just haven’t taken the time to tell them about it. If people only knew the details of that chip bill all would be well.
The first reader response to yesterday’s New York Times story on this captured it perfectly:
I live in a traditionally red suburban Missouri county that voted 40% for Biden. Residents here are weathier and more educated than most of the state, and donations to Trump & Biden were actually about 50/50. In other words, this is a perfect place for Democrats to try and make inroads. So what is the local Dem Party doing for its upcoming fundraiser? A drag queen show. They could have hosted a forum on healthcare or jobs or the economy, or maybe a family-friendly event celebrating policies that support women & children. You know, things that most people want in their lives, no matter who they vote for. But instead, it’s all about this stupid spectacle of identity politics, putting drag queens and trans people and social justice activists as the face of the party. And they wonder why they struggle to connect with “real” Americans??
Yep. That about sums it up. If Democrats really wanted to win in the Midwest here’s what they would do.
First, focus on building the farm team. Run Democrats for county clerk, treasurer, district attorney and sheriff. Better yet, run candidates for school board, town board, county board and city council. The great thing about those local races is that candidates run on a nonpartisan ballot so that they aren’t tainted with the toxic label “Democrat.” Once voters get to know these people and see that they’re doing a good job in the local office they might be willing to consider them for state representative or senator. They’ll say, “yeah, he’s a Democrat, but he’s okay anyway.” Reclaim the party’s image one local candidate at a time. This is the way Dave Obey, Jim Doyle, Sr., Pat Lucey, Gaylord Nelson, Bill Proxmire, John Reynolds, Jerry and Nelda Madison and others rebuilt the Democratic Party in the 1950’s and 60’s.
Second, talk about values. What was so classic about Lake’s analysis was that it centered on policy. Democrats always make this mistake. They think everything is about some 10-point plan. Instead, it’s about 10-point bucks. It’s about culture. It’s about values. Before you talk “infrastructure” talk about the value of hard work. The best formulation of Democratic Party values came from Bill Clinton: If you work hard and play by the rules you should get ahead in America.
Third, keep talking about the economic policy choices, but blend in free market messages. Lake isn’t entirely wrong, she just overemphasizes policy and she only wants to talk about half of the equation. It is true that Democratic policies on health care, wages, environmental protection, investments in jobs and more are good for workers. But workers don’t want to hear about largesse from Washington or Madison. They want to hear about what they can earn. And they want to hear about how that bolsters the free market. They will be repelled by anything that smacks of “socialism.” Where Bernie Sanders’ mouth is concerned a little duct tape would go a long way.
Fourth, run from woke. It is not the job of a political party to transform the culture. It’s their job to win elections. Let the culture be transformed in other realms and then catch up to it when it’s safe. I think it’s possible that my party could actually do my first three suggestions. This one is simply out of reach because everything tied up in the catch-all word “woke” is so important to the party’s elites. The guy from Missouri hit it on the head with the drag show fundraiser. That sort of thing is very popular among the hard-left, precisely because it is still (even now) shocking to people that the hard-left detests. Democrats could bridge this gap by returning to the idea of simple fairness, the notion that nobody should be discriminated against because of their race, gender, religion or anything else that isn’t relevant. But they won’t because party elites are enthralled by the idea that the only way to correct past discrimination is through current discrimination. They are enthralled by this idea because they are insulated from its implications. Affluent and well-educated, they have nothing to lose by promoting exotic (and toxic) notions of reckoning. But this will always be a losing idea in politics.
Lake concluded that woke is just annoying to blue collar voters, but not determinative of how they vote. I’m not so sanguine. I think it’s far more damaging than people like Lake want to admit because admitting it would mean having to abandon something that is in their very soul. Democrats will be tarred with woke, it will continue to hurt them a whole lot more than it will help them, and yet there’s not a heck of a lot they can do about it because the loudest voices in the party simply will not let it go.
Still, if you do the first three things, maybe the fourth will be less damaging.
The Democrats could have saved themselves a lot of money and gotten to a much more sound plan if they had just spent a couple hours with Wisconsin State Sen. Brad Pfaff. Pfaff finds a way to win in a 50-50 mostly rural district in southwest Wisconsin. He narrowly lost a race to succeed long-time Democratic Congressman Ron Kind in large part because the national party, listening to people like Lake, abandoned him.
Democrats will never do well in our part of the country as long as they look for answers from people based on the coasts who see the Midwest as foreign and vaguely menacing. You want to do better in the heartland? Follow the lead of people who actually live here.
4 thoughts on “National Dems Don’t Get Us”
I couldn’t agree more. Are “they” too focused on appealing to the younger demographic?
Well, “they” are. That’s fine, but older people vote more. Also, I think we need to pay more attention to geography than to demographics. If they ever want to take back the Wisconsin Legislature, even under fair maps, Democrats need to appeal to rural voters.
Your friendly conservative libertarian chiming in (Goldwater with some Bush ’41, mixed in). I agree with what you wrote, except for part of #1. The elected officials in Madison and most of the Dane County board, negates alot of the of work of a Brad Pfaff. Then expand that to the state senators and Assembly members from/around Madison and our Congressman.
Of course the GOP is being held captive to the Trump nonsense and before that the Christian conservative crowd is nothing to cheer for either. Nor Bush ’43’s disastrous Iraq policy, worse than half-baked idea, and unable to find his veto pen for spending.
Keep up the good work! Would love to have a beer(s) or your drink of choice, sometime.
This study is fascinating and I’m glad that the Democratic Party is taking it seriously. I believe that the only issue is that they haven’t been able to focus on the middle class and they need to start doing more to focus on this.