Public relations pros talk a lot about the power of “branding,” which is really another term for clarifying identity. Since the days of FDR, the Democratic Party has provided the better candidates for advocating reforms that benefit working people, in stark contrast to their Republican adversaries. In recent decades, however, Dems have failed to get credit for it. In PR terms, the ‘brand’ has dissolved in the chaos of modern politics.
It’s a built-in problem for the ‘big tent’ party. By welcoming a broad range of demographic and cultural groups with their myriad and quite legitimate grievances and agendas, the central, unifying message often gets garbled, buried or lost, and some demographic groups are bound to feel neglected and disrespected. In the case of the Democratic Party, the largest of these alienated constituencies is the white working-class, currently estimated to be about 45 percent of the eligible electorate, down from about 70 percent in 1980.
The Trump campaign deftly exploited white working-class discontent and narrowly flipped key Rust Belt states in the 2016 election for an Electoral College upset, despite Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s substantial popular vote plurality. Political analysts have offered a host of plausible explainations for the 2016 outcome, including voter suppression, Clinton’s ads, travel, email and Wall St. conections and F.B.I. Director James Comey’s ‘October surprise’ and others, all of which have merit. But most observers agree that Democrats badly underperformed with white working-class voters, a constituency that has little to gain from Republican policies and priorities.
The question arises, how can Democrats repair the broken bonds with white working-class voters, while strengthening their support from working people of all races? There is no short answer, but Robert Griffin, John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira open up the dialogue with their article, “Democrats Need to Be the Party of and for Working People—of All Races: And they can’t retake Congress unless they win over more white workers” in The American Prospect. Their article, which includes some fascinating maps and graphics, helps to kick off a series of forthcomming essays and forums presented in partnership with The Democratic Strategist, addressing “The White Working-Class and the Democrats.”
The challenge, as the authors emphasize, is not to win a majority of the white working-class in time for the 2018 and 2020 elections — securing that majority will likely take longer — but to win a bigger portion of this large constituency. “Democrats do not need to win FDR-level support among white working-class voters,” the authors write, “but they cannot afford to lose them by margins as high as 30 to 40 points in some key states—as they have in recent elections…The party needs to rediscover its roots as a working-class party, one that was initially exclusionary of people of color but that today can and must represent the interests and values of working people of all races.”
With that, we’ll encourage TDS readers to check out the entire article and the series, and to respond with their best insights and ideas.