Democrats and Disaffected Voters

This recent New Yorker article is a rich vein of information for Democrats wondering how they can connect with the supposed hordes of disaffected and distrustful voters in the next election. It suggests the tremendous opportunities for Democrats in capturing the votes of working-class whites—even some nominal conservatives—who are fed up with leaders who seem more concerned with raising money than listening to the people.

The New Yorker story is actually about Republicans—the so-called reformocons, whose hopes of fashioning a more moderate, broad-minded, Hispanic-friendly party were blown to smithereens by Donald Trump and Ben Carson. But there is much to learn here for Democrats—in particular from the interviews with disgruntled voters looking desperately for a candidate who can channel their inchoate frustrations with government.

The story is yet more evidence that Democratic candidates should be aggressively attacking the issue of reforming government—curbing the influence of lobbyists in politics, reforming campaign finance, and attacking the Citizens United decision.

Democrats must be seen as the party of reform. They cannot allow Republicans to usurp this issue. And it can’t just be Bernie Sanders and a few random candidates calling for reform—it must be a party priority from the top down. It should be a prominent plank of the Democratic platform, it must contain serious proposals, and it must be echoed by every Democrat, including those not up for election this year.

Why? Because, as the story shows, many conservatives and independents, disgusted by big-money in politics, are not that far away from Democratic positions. And because it’s not just white, working-class voters who are disgusted; everyone is fed up.

For example, we were struck by this passage from the story, about a 26-year-old Navy veteran and police trainee named Mark Lynch, “the son of a firefighter and a factory worker” and a Trump supporter, whom the author met at a New Hampshire town hall meeting for Republican candidate John Kasich:

“Trump is tapping into this belief that politicians are self-serving,” Lynch told me. “If you look at what’s controlling government these days, it’s lobbyists and all these big corporations.” Lynch liked Trump’s positions on trade, taxes, and Wall Street. “People don’t want to see billionaires getting richer,” he said. “If Donald Trump, a billionaire in his own right, is saying billionaires in Washington and New York should be paying more—that says something.”

Lynch sounded a bit like a Sanders guy. When I pointed this out, Lynch said that he couldn’t possibly vote for Sanders—”a self-proclaimed socialist from Vermont.” Lynch was a conservative, not so much on specific policies but in his values and in his ideas about America’s character. He didn’t want an overweening government creating costly programs and interfering in people’s lives. He just wanted a system that wasn’t rigged in favor of the rich and well-connected.

In Lynch’s eyes, his antipathy toward this privileged class didn’t make him an unwitting Democrat. “I don’t think Republicans are the party of big corporations and billionaires,” he said. “They’re for ordinary middle-class people.” The problem wasn’t conservatism but the dirty role of money in politics. Change would have to come at the hands of someone who wasn’t beholden to the system—a rich outsider like Trump.

So much to consider here. Is this a voter Democrats could capture? Not easily. He pretty adamantly self-identifies as Republican. But what if he (or millions of others like him who are slightly less adamant) could be persuaded that 1) Democrats are the party most serious about reforming government, 2) Democrats reflect “his values and ideas about the American character” (see The 7 Winning Messages), and 3) it is Democrats who are the party of “ordinary middle-class people” and Republicans who are, in fact, “the party of big corporations and billionaires”?

Every one of those three messages should be in the Democratic wheelhouse. Democrats just have to start broadcasting them—relentlessly and in unison. And Democratic politicians should be busy setting expectations—stating explicitly that they think many working-class Americans who used to vote Republican may be ready to vote Democratic.

Consider a couple of other passages from the New Yorker article:

  • An audience member who asked Kasich: “Doesn’t cleaning the system out start with changing our campaign-finance system, starting with overturning Citizens United?”
  • Or this tidbit from the author: “Last year, a Gallup poll found that 45% of Republicans think that the rich should pay more in taxes. Another poll, by the Pew Research Center, showed that more Republicans favor increased spending on Social Security, Medicare, education, and infrastructure than favor cutting those programs.”

Many moderate and independent voters are not so far from Democratic positions. And ultraconservatives may have overplayed their hand. In their zeal to slash government to the bone, they’ve left much of their party behind. Persuading those voters to switch parties won’t be easy, but it can be done with three approaches:

  • Championing government reform, including specific proposals. What those proposals are we’ll leave to the policy wonks and strategists, but they might include:
    • Moving the first presidential primaries to June in future elections, to shorten the fundraising season
    • Disclosure laws, so voters know who is funding PACs
    • More rules to rein in lobbyists
    • A constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United
  • Trumpeting Democrats’ 100-year history as the party of the American worker, and contrasting that with Republicans:
    • Democrats support labor unions; Republicans want to destroy them.
    • Democrats created Social Security and Medicare.
    • Democrats want to raise the minimum wage; conservatives oppose it.
    • Democrats helped millions of Americans afford health insurance; Republicans want to take it away.
    • Democrats want paid sick leave for all workers; Republicans oppose it.
    • Democrats support strong workplace safety laws;
      Republicans want cuts to OSHA.
  • Continuing to paint Republicans as the party of the wealthy by attacking the conservative agenda, such as:
    • More windfall tax breaks aimed at the rich and large corporations
    • Proposals to eliminate the inheritance tax for estates over $3.5 million
    • The Citizens United decision by Republican-appointed justices

The idea that Democrats could capture votes from disaffected working-class Americans isn’t just wishful thinking. The New Yorker article also offered this quote from a political scientist at the University of Akron in Ohio, who does polling research in his state and nationally: “A lot of white working-class votes are up for grabs in this election. In recent years, they’ve gone Republican, but this year the Democrats could get a slice of them.”

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