Democrats lost their base and must now rebuild
The attempt by Democratic Party leaders to re-brand with the slogan “a better deal,” reach out to lost voters and offer modest economic and jobs proposals is a first step and a recognition of the work they need to do to win back working and middle class voters. However, its resonance with voters remains a question.
Economic decline and job insecurity for the non-college-educated exacted a political toll on the Democratic party. The party lost support over the past decades as it became a post-economic liberal party with a focus on issues other than the economic concerns of the working and middle classes — the demographic that had kept it in political power from the Great Depression until recent years. This is relevant when we consider that just one third of Americans have four-year college degrees.
Urban, affluent, well-educated, and the culturally liberal set the tone and provide the leadership and political strategists for the party. They mistakenly believe social safety net programs are the equivalent of the dignity and security of livable wage employment. They respond defensively to the characterization of the Democrats as a post-economic liberal party. They claim that the party is economically liberal as witnessed by the safety net programs the party supports.
The party leadership has lost touch with working-class, middle-America. The party is mainly urban, coastal, social issue-directed, identity politics-focused, global in outlook, and digital economy-oriented. They are losing elections by not projecting a compelling message to working-class, middle-America.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll illustrates the Democratic party problem (and the Electoral College victory of Donald Trump in key Midwestern states). The poll asks which party would do a better job of reflecting the interests of the middle class. In 1990 the Democratic party was favored by 29 points, by 2011 the advantage was 20 percent, and this year the advantage slipped to 13 percent. Respondents were also asked whether they believed the Democratic party was the advocate of the middle class. Among Midwestern voters only 33 percent responded in the affirmative and among rural voters only 31 percent responded positively. Further, among white male voters without a college education, only 25 percent believed that the Democratic party championed their interests.
Only 20 percent of independent voters felt that the party did a more effective job of reflecting middle-class concerns. These are not good numbers and help explain ongoing party losses.
Princeton University Professors Anne Case and Angus Deaton have studied the dramatic increase of midlife mortality among white citizens with a high school education or less. This they refer to as “deaths of despair” — deaths caused by alcohol, drugs and suicide and to a slowdown in progress against death from heart disease and cancer. They find these deaths of despair are “accompanied by a measurable deterioration in economic and social well-being”; declining marriage and labor force participation rates; and “reports of physical pain,” general poor health and mental health issues. They correlate this to the decline of the blue-collar economy due mainly to race-to-the bottom globalization, unfair trade practices, and the 2007-2008 financial crisis and slow recovery that followed.
Democrats engage in social media exchanges and demonstrations. They hope that this will bring out voters for party candidates. They have not had much success. Their target audience (millennials, young, minorities) does not vote in large enough numbers and does not necessarily vote for Democratic party candidates.
Democrats will likely continue to lose elections. To avoid this fate, the party must continue to lay a foundation on which to build a new relationship with the working and middle classes.
It will take more than a new slogan.
Joshua Sandman is a professor of political science at the University of New Haven, where he has studied the American presidency for nearly 50 years.
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