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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

How Dems Can Win Back Working-Class Communities

One of the questions of intense concern for Democrats in the nearly six months since the presidential election is how to win a larger share of white working-class voters, particularly rural areas. in In his  article, “Can the Democratic Party Be White Working Class, Too? While Hillary Clinton was losing Montana by more than 23 points, Steve Bullock was elected governor running as a progressive Democrat. What can the rest of us learn from Montana?” in The American Prospect, Justin Guest explores the phenomenal success of Montana Democrats in meeting this challenge, focusing on current Governor Steve Bullock. As Guest writes:

In the race for the White House, the Democratic presidential candidate has won steadily fewer U.S. counties with average incomes under the national median and with populations that are more than 85 percent white in every general election since 1996. Concentrated in the Midwest, Appalachia, and the upper Rocky Mountains, there are 660 such counties today. Hillary Clinton won two of them.

…So what does Steve Bullock know that Hillary Clinton’s army of consultants and advisers missed? Indeed, how can local politics inform a more national strategy for general elections and down-ballot races? In a predominantly white working-class state, Democrats have won four straight gubernatorial races, maintained one U.S. Senate seat since 1913, and recently won a series of other statewide races until losing the incumbent secretary of state and attorney general last autumn. Do Montana Democrats have a template that can be applied elsewhere?

Those are two great questions, which have significant implications for the future of the Democratic Party, especially in a region they would very much like to mine for support — the mountain west. Regarding Bullock, Guest observes,

While Hillary Clinton lost Montana by more than 20 points in 2016, Bullock was narrowly re-elected, winning by a margin of 50 percent to 46 percent…“I’ve never spent time with Donald Trump, and I don’t govern the same way,” he finally said. Quizzically, the second-term Democrat added, “20 percent of my voters supported him on the same ballot though…

I think Montanans knew that I was fighting for them. I spoke about public education, public lands, public money, and those are things that affect us all. We hunt, we fish, and I asked whether we are promoting all Montanans’ interests or only narrow special interests, and how we are going to build folks up individually.”Perhaps realizing that this doesn’t exactly coincide with most people’s impression of the president, he added, “If there is overlap, it’s making people know that I will fight for them, and that I work for them. I’m not sure that the values are that different in Manhattan, Montana; Manhattan, Kansas; or Manhattan, New York. People want to feel safe, have good schools, and want their kids to do better than they did.”

What Democrats have in Montana is a Governor, who is no bomb-thrower like Trump, with a personaliy that impresses his constituents with humility and sincerity, rather than braggadocio and bombast. Bullock is also a guy who does his homework, shows up prepared and is driven by a passion to serve, rather than gratify his ego. “Bullock is connecting with his brand of progressive populism,” writes Guest, ” —a focus on providing solid public education to level the playing field, protecting access to public lands, and maintaining public services without increasing taxes or instituting a sales tax.”

Guest provides several revealing quotes from his interviews with Montana workers who voted for Trump and Bullock. They provide insights like, “I don’t care about the wall, but I do care about infrastructure and focusing on this country. The reason why Donald Trump got elected is because the general working guy is infuriated by what’s happened in Washington.” Guest also flags the frequency of his interviewees expressing appreciation for candidates like Bullock who “show up” and connect on a human level with their constituents. “In an era when so much of politics is mediated by cable news, scripted social media missives, and airbrushed web profiles,” writes Guest, “showing up reveals candidates’ humanity. It is where bonds are born.”

As for the way Democrats navigate Montana’s homogeniety (the largest minority is native Americans, who are 6 percent of the population), Guest observes,

That same homogeneity benefits Democrats in Montana. For example, whereas Georgia Democrats must bond with Atlanta’s cosmopolitans and African Americans before rural white voters down the I-75 corridor, Montana Democrats’ focus is undivided.

“Yeah, I suppose it’s a benefit, the homogeneity,” Bullock told me, upon reflection. “But if the premise is that Democrats have lost white working-class men, then that could be a [national] problem, yeah. In 2020, you could weave together a coalition based on identity politics. If that’s the bedrock foundation, you might win the presidency, but you’ll lose the country. I don’t want to be part of a party that ideologically only reflects the East and West Coasts. And while our experiences are different, I think a Native American, Latino, or me, as parents, have the same aspirations for our kids. Your hopes are the same.”

Currently, searching for rural Democrats in the national party caucus is, as they say in Montana, diggin’ where there ain’t no taters. There is little space for Pat Williams who was broadly against gun control, Brian Schweitzer who supported the construction of oil pipelines, John Tester who pushed for the once-endangered gray wolf to be fair game. In turn, the party of diversity appears quite exclusive and inhospitable for key electoral constituencies, like the working-class voters of Montana.

The Montana experience suggests that Democrats must either compromise or risk being ideologically “pure” but confined to their strongholds in coastal cities.

Guest has a lot to say about how the Democratic Party lost credibility in working-class communities by embracing globalization and identity politics, while cozying up to Wall. Street and financial hustlers, beginning in the late 1980s. He quotes Leo Gerard, president of the Steelworkers Union: “Step by step, Democrats tried to broaden their base at the expense of working-class families…You didn’t lose the [2016] election because you had a shortage of rich white voters; you lost because working-class people, unionists, had nowhere to go.” Guest continues,

I think of these white working-class people as the “Exasperated,” as I wrote in Politico in February: “They feel betrayed by the countless politicians who have stood in front of shuttered mills and smelters and promised to bring manufacturing and mining economies back to life. It’s why they have swung from party to party, from year to year—often reacting to the failures of previous candidates to deliver.” They choose to sit elections out. “They are not ‘Independent’ so much as they are just constantly disappointed. The Exasperated voted against Clinton in 2016 because, as a longtime member of the Washington establishment, she portended more broken promises. They voted for Trump because he was the first politician in a generation to make a deliberate, authentic pitch for their support.”

Guest quotes pollster Celinda Lake and Democratic strategist Joe Lamson, who observe,

“America is not a pretty place when things are contracting,” said Lake, who hails from Montana and now runs a prominent polling firm in Washington, D.C. “Racism and sexism emerge when people think that America is losing its place—when things start to feel zero-sum. And identity politics accentuates that. We articulated ‘Stronger Together’ with a divisive candidate and ‘Together’ didn’t seem to include white, blue-collar types. They don’t think they’re part of that togetherness.”

“Hillary’s campaign could not fathom losing the Rust Belt,” and they weren’t speaking to their particular issues, said Lamson. “People just couldn’t relate to her because they thought that she would take away their guns and shut down the natural resource industry. It was hard to go anywhere after that. … I mean, why are we spending all of our time talking about bathrooms? It’s not that it’s not important; it’s just a matter of perspective.”

Lake recalled a line Brian Schweitzer liked to use: “Yeah, I’m for gay marriage rights, but I think you care a whole lot more about whether there’s grain on the High Line.”

Guest closes his article with a message that deserves consideration from every Democratic candidate seeking votes from working-class communities:

Integrating Montana’s template into Democratic success will entail integrating Montana’s constituents—white, working-class, often rural voters who, despite their cultural differences, face many of the same frustrations with debt, health care, and labor as other working-class people in the Democratic coalition.

No doubt, much of the national partisan landscape depends on how Donald Trump and congressional Republicans govern. But for Democrats, this is also a question of how inclusive their party really is.

If the Democratic candidates want to be considered truly inclusive, they are going to have to reach out, ‘show up’ and proclaim their support for white working-class constituents, along with women, people of color, youth, seniors and all other identity groups. When that becomes an active principle of every Democratic campaign in every state-wide, congressional and state legislative district, Republican domination of American politics will disintegrate into a bad memory.

2 comments on “How Dems Can Win Back Working-Class Communities

  1. Jack Olson on

    The Democratic Platform recommends raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Governor Bullock took no position in that, according to OnTheIssues.org. The same platform wants to require employers to offer up to 12 weeks of paid family leave. Bullock took no position on that. The Democratic Platform favors amnesty for illegal aliens. Bullock took no position on that. The Democratic Platform wants repeal of right-to-work laws; Bullock took no position on that. The Democratic Platform opposes voter-ID laws; Bullock took no position on that. About the only Democratic platform planks Bullock supported were support for same-sex marriage and laws mandating wage quotas for women. If Governor Bullock is suppose to illustrate how Democrats can win state offices even in states Trump won in 2016, and even in states with Republican majorities in their legislatures, then it seems the way to do it is to refrain from supporting most of the official Democratic Platform.

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