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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Truth-Telling, Populism and Inspirational Politics

By John Halpin
The Third Way authors provide a useful service in pointing out a problem that many progressive activists frequently fail to recognize. A political message that essentially says, “Here are 50 reasons why your life sucks,” is not a compelling way to attract anyone to the progressive cause let alone reach the all important middle-class voters who have abandoned the Democratic Party in droves. Barring severe or sharp economic decline, attempts to browbeat people with negative statistics and a barrage of scary anecdotes will almost always lose out at the national level to a more hopeful and optimistic vision.
At the same time, the authors’ attempt to replace downer politics with a message about a “new era of middle-class opportunity” is ultimately insufficient for meeting the Democrats’ long term need for conviction, passion and a clear public philosophy and worldview. More specifically, the suggested frame of middle class opportunity suffers from three interrelated problems that reduce its impact:

  • First, by eschewing pessimism in favor of optimism, the message does not acknowledge the truth about the condition of the middle class today (a truth readily acknowledged by voters themselves);
  • Second, in renouncing populism as wrong and counterproductive, it fails to clearly articulate to voters how the political system itself, through GOP control, is rigged against the middle class; and
  • Third, by focusing solely on the economic conditions of the middle class rather than on the success of the entire nation, the message fails to offer an inspiring vision for the future or to call on people to participate in a project that is greater than their own economic needs and self-interest.

Acknowledging economic truth
As Elizabeth and Jacob have convincingly shown, the middle class today faces a host of challenges that threaten its status and future prospects: rising income and wealth disparities; increased costs for basic needs like health care and housing; rising household debt; reduced social protections; and overall economic anxiety caused by the shifting of risk away from the government and private sector and onto the backs of the middle class.
These are not just arcane academic ideas captured in cool-looking graphs. As seen in numerous surveys over the past few years, these trends have a real impact on peoples’ lives and are causing identifiable problems for the middle class.
Interestingly, the Third Way authors defend their assertion that middle-class voters are feeling positive by drawing on numbers from a 2005 Pew Research poll entitled, “Economic Concerns Fueled by Many Woes: Gas Prices, Jobs, Housing, Debt Burden and the Stock Market.”
Far from stating that the middle class feels confident, Pew’s research clearly shows the opposite:

The public continues to be wary in its assessments of the health of the U.S. economy, despite recent improvement in some key economic indicators. Only about one-in-three Americans think the national economy is in good shape, and optimism about the future is markedly lower than it has been over the past three years. Closer to home, the percentage of the public rating its own financial situation positively has declined since the beginning of the year from 51 percent to 44 percent [emphasis mine].1

When asked what is the biggest problem facing them today, Americans by a double-digit margin say “not having enough money,” “paying bills” or “making ends meet.” The high cost of health insurance comes in second.
The Pew poll does show that Americans-particularly those who own stock-are somewhat more optimistic in assessing their financial situation for the immediate future (51 percent report that their financial situation will improve some in the next year and 10 percent saying it will improve a lot). But when less than half of Americans rate their current financial situation positively, including a mere seven percent of Americans who rate their own personal financial situation as “excellent”, attempts to talk up the economy will likely fall flat.
Geography also matters in terms of what is happening to the American middle class. Recent data from Democracy Corps shows that citizens in hard-hit rural areas are deeply concerned about their economic status. Sixty percent of white rural voters in the July 2006 Democracy Corps poll agree that, “The economy is not doing well. Jobs are scarce, incomes stagnant, and benefits are being cut back.” Only 38 percent of rural whites agree with the countervailing sentiment that the economy is doing well.2
By a nine-point margin, white rural voters say they are more likely to vote for a Democratic candidate who states that “parents are working harder to keep up with the cost of living, taking them away from home and family”-an explicit acknowledgement of pressures facing the middle class-over a Republican candidate who focuses on lower taxes and traditional moral and religious values.3
Additionally, although middle-class voters may not be drowning in their economic sorrows as the authors suggest, there is compelling evidence that many voters are drowning in debt and facing real financial challenges in years to come.
Polling conducted by Anna Greenberg and Bill McInturff for the Center for American Progress and the Center for Responsible Lending shows that eight in 10 Americans (from across the ideological spectrum) believe that the problem of household debt is getting worse. One third of Americans report that their own debt has gone up over the last five years with another 36 percent saying it has stayed the same. Less than three in 10 say their personal debt has gone down.4
In more colorful terms, Americans report they are more worried about falling deep into debt than they are about being the victim of a violent attack or losing their home in a natural disaster.5
More importantly, by a 79 to 19 percent margin, the public believes the problem of rising household debt is an obstacle to middle-class families and not just an issue affecting low-income citizens.6 While personal spending decisions factor into rising debt, people are more likely to attribute their own rising debt load to external factors like the cost of living, the overall economy, and rising health care costs. The middle class squeeze that Elizabeth talks about is real. Americans in our poll acknowledge that rising costs on fundamental needs are driving them into unmanageable debt.
This does not sound like an American public content with either the overall economy or its own economic standing.
When one third of Americans report that they hold more than $10,000 of non-mortgage debt, and only 51 percent report that they are able to pay off their credit card bills every month, it is difficult to argue that people are “richer, more optimistic, and more firmly in control of their lives than they think,” as the Third Way authors claim.
These are not abstract facts and figures. These are actual sentiments of voters that progressives and Democrats are trying to reach. Rather than dismiss genuine economic anxiety as pessimistic, we must do more to show voters that we understand what they are facing in their daily lives-not through depressing stats and rants but through strong advocacy of universal programs and protections that provide both security and a chance to get ahead.
As President Bush and his various Treasury secretaries know all too well, the real disconnect lies in trying to argue these things away through overly generous interpretations of the economy and the state of the middle class.
The system is rigged
The Third Way authors’ dismissal of “what’s-the-matter-with-Kansas analysis” seems flippant and devoid of empirical evidence. I understand and basically agree with their implication that Democrats cannot just ramp up the populism and expect to crack 48 percent nationally.
However, the point of Tom Frank’s best selling book is not to denigrate voters as stupid and overwhelmed by economic false consciousness, but to highlight the ways in which the Republican Party successfully turned a once radical state into a rabid right-wing environment. It is no red herring to argue that the modern GOP is a venal and extremist entity that exists solely to enrich its corporate benefactors through taxpayer-funded kickbacks, all the while touting “American values” like discrimination against immigrants and gays and opposition to life-enhancing stem cell research.
If Democrats are unwilling to call this farce for what it is, then they have no business calling themselves the party of the people.
The GOP did solidify power in Kansas and other states through cultural appeals that had far more emotional resonance than the party’s real agenda of slashing taxes for the wealthy and giving corporate America free reign to abuse workers and pollute the environment. Third Way itself has an entire culture project designed to mitigate these appeals.
You do not have to believe in a full-scale, conscious culture war scheme designed to trick the middle class to know that every successful political party needs a powerful enemy. As Frank rightly describes, Republicans have benefited greatly in electoral terms from their trumped-up image of elitist liberals subverting the virtuous middle class.
Anger and distrust of others is a strong motivator for people and the American middle class has numerous reasons to be angry at those in power today.
Survey evidence strongly supports the notion that middle-class voters are irate with a Republican party that caters hand-and-foot to business and the wealthy. A scant 35 percent of voters in a July 2006 Democracy Corps poll believe that the Republican Party “puts the public interest first” while two-thirds say the party is “more for big business than the average person.”7 These numbers have been consistent for years.
However, as this same poll shows, only 48 percent of Americans believe Democrats are able to stand up to big special interests.8 The party is not likely to get very far in its populism if it is perceived to be complicit and timid.
The problem lies with a Democratic Party establishment that is unwilling or unable to call it like it is in a larger sense. Not just Shrum-style bashing of oil and drug companies, but clearly explaining to Americans how the GOP-controlled system is rigged against the middle class on everything from taxation and social spending to corporate welfare and military service. Progressives believe that government should serve-not exploit-the common good and ensure the protection and prosperity of all people. Despising government itself, extremist conservatives believe that government should function as a quasi-corporatist state where middle-class taxpayers funnel funds to business interests and the wealthy.
The American public understands that Republicans exist to serve those at the top. In arguing that Democrats should avoid stating the obvious, the Third Way authors seek to take away a powerful motivator for middle-class voters who are excluded from the corporate elitism of today’s conservative politics.
Fortunately, there is homegrown push back against both forms of Republican extremism-radical economic libertarianism and social dogmatism. The people of Kansas and other states are angry and on to the GOP’s chicanery. Nine Republican candidates in Kansas have renounced their party label this cycle and are now running as Democrats, including candidates for attorney general and lieutenant governor. My friend and former colleague, Raj Goyle, recently moved back to his hometown of Wichita to take on a Republican stalwart in the state legislature who was the lone vote against the prohibition of marriage for children as young as 14 years old.
These are promising signs completely consistent with the themes outlined in Frank’s book and not just a political distraction as the Third Way authors claim. Democrats should be encouraged to fight this so-called populist battle rather than ignoring it and letting the other side get away with its corrupt and misguided behavior.
Vision and inspiration
The Third Way authors are correct to say that opportunity is an important part of the overall progressive and Democratic project. But, with all due respect, the likening of “a new era of middle-class opportunity” message to the grand visions of Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy is too far-fetched to swallow. The presidents who gave us the Economic Bill of Rights, the Fair Deal and the New Frontier, respectively, provided a far bolder vision for America than merely helping middle-class kids get into college.
These progressive presidents argued strenuously for non-negotiable foundational rights to housing, old age protections, guaranteed wages, education, health care, and civil and voting rights. These accomplishments and unrealized goals are not something the Democratic Party should toss into the civic books because it has had a bad couple of election cycles. These ideas are precisely why many people are drawn to the Democratic Party.
As Ruy and I have highlighted in other work, the single biggest problem for Democrats is a double-digit identity gap that leaves voters with no clear impressions of the Democratic Party. Months away from the 2006 mid-terms, only 45 percent of voters believe that Democrats know what they stand for. Nearly 70 percent of voters say the same thing about Republicans.9
Although “a new era of middle-class opportunity” is seemingly innocuous, it is a philosophically mushy message that compounds perceptions of Democrats as feckless and risk averse.
Democrats would be wise to remember President Truman’s words from his 1949 radio address on Democratic Women’s Day:

The Democratic Party does not dodge issues or seek to gloss them over. We state them boldly. We propose concrete and practical action to solve them. Our program consists of measures which have come up from the grassroots-of ideas and proposals that have been discussed and hammered out among unions, in farm groups, in city councils, in county boards, and in State legislatures. Our program is as American as the soil we walk upon. It is a program unshakably founded on the principle that the power of government should be used to promote the general welfare. It is a program based upon the experience of the Democratic Party in using the power of government to establish actual conditions in which the people can achieve a better life for themselves and for their children. It is a program of what should be done and what our experience tells us can be done.

John Halpin is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress focusing on progressive theory, strategy and opinion analysis. His current research and writing is focused on developing and communicating a progressive public philosophy centered on the common good.

1Economic Concerns Fueled by Many Woes,” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, June 1, 2005, p. 1.
2White Rural Survey, Frequency Questionnaire,” Democracy Corps, July, 2006, p. 9.
3Ibid, p. 20.
4All the data in this paragraph come from “Center for American Progress/Center for Responsible Lending/National Military Family Association/AARP Frequency Questionnaire,” Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, April, 2006.
5Ibid, pp. 1-2.
6Ibid, p. 5.
7Frequency Questionnaire,” Democracy Corps, July, 2006, p. 8.
8Ibid, p. 8.
9Ibid, pp. 7-8.

One comment on “Truth-Telling, Populism and Inspirational Politics

  1. Sam on

    Our problem is not that we don’t stand for anything; on the contrary, American political parties are and always have been diverse coalitions of broad swaths of interests, ideologies, and worldviews. To stand for one vision would be to limit our party to a narrow, exclusive view. The difference between the convictions of Democrats and Republicans is a difference in PERCEPTION. Republicans SEEM to speak with a unified coherent voice because when their party leaders get together and decide something in a small room, the rest of the periphery (1) do what their leaders tell them! and (2) Follow the focus-grouped talking points given them, with exact precision. Democrats need to realize their error in two misconceptions (created by our own ideological beliefs) to return to the majority: first, we have to realize that it is not a betrayal of our beliefs to bury our own disagreements from the party line, and we will fail if we refuse to accept the authority of our party leaders (at least in public). Second, we have to accept that simply telling the truth is NOT enough. Public opinion research is valuable, and staying on message is paramount to victory.

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