Citizen Green: I may have been wrong about the suburban strategy

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stacey abrams
Then-Georgia state Rep. Stacey Abrams at the Barbara Jordan Forum in 2012. (Flickr)

I’ve taken the Democratic Party to task over the past 18 months over its strategy of doubling down on an investment in upscale, highly educated, suburban voters in its quest to counter the Trump effect.

Since my most recent swipe at the issue in mid-June, the party’s efforts to carve into GOP majorities in Congress and state legislatures has shown some signs of life. I’ve received some pushback that goes something like this: The media keeps hammering at a false narrative that the Democratic Party can’t do anything right. That criticism discourages participation, and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A mild correction may be in order, on my part. It’s apparent that the Democratic Party can pick up seats this fall. And whether it’s curbing the GOP majority in Congress or putting a Democrat in the Georgia Governor’s Mansion, any gains would significantly help the odds of resisting the Trump agenda as the Mueller investigation barrels towards a constitutional crisis. As for the suburban strategy, admittedly Democrats don’t have much choice in the short term. The name of the game in the three months between now and Election Day is picking up every loose vote on the table, and the low-hanging fruit is in the suburbs. But I’ll stand by my assertion that over the long run, the suburban strategy creates structural challenges because its dependency on wealthy donors and upscale voters will frustrate the party’s ability to deliver policy objectives like police accountability and rising wages to its working-class and African-American base.

Fundraising is the first clue that the Democratic Party is harnessing real energy to challenge GOP dominance. In race after race for the NC General Assembly, including two House contests in the Triad, Democratic challengers are out-raising Republican incumbents. Anita Earls, a state Supreme Court candidate favored by Democrats in North Carolina, recently announced that she raised almost $500,000, with more than 70 percent coming from small donors who gave $100 or less. And Kathy Manning, the Democratic nominee for the 13th Congressional District has raised $1.9 million, compared to $1.2 million by one-term Republican incumbent Ted Budd. The money pouring into the coffers of Democratic candidates attests that the suburbs around Greensboro, High Point and Winston-Salem are the battleground in these legislative races.

Manning is running as a centrist gun-control advocate in the 13th, North Carolina’s most flippable district, stretching west from Greensboro and High Point through Lexington, Salisbury, Mocksville and Statesville. In Georgia, Democrats nominated Stacey Abrams, a solid-left candidate who is the first black female to be nominated for governor by a major party in US history. Brian Kemp, her Republican opponent, is an unapologetic Trumper who is running a campaign ad where he says, “I got a big truck just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take ’em home myself. Yep, I just said that.” Abrams similarly has not shied away from the cultural battles dear to her base. Last August, following the deadly white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Abrams decried the giant carving of three Confederate war leaders on Stone Mountain, saying it “remains a blight on our state and should be removed.”

Even as a history-making black woman who advocates for economic fairness and removing symbols of white supremacy, Abrams’ path to victory runs through the suburbs. Ironically, Democrats are looking for crucial votes in rapidly diversifying suburban counties like Gwinnett, Cobb and Henry that previously helped Republicans take control of state politics 30 years ago.

While Democratic wins will be crucial to restoring balance in state and federal government, their base will expect results if the party tips the balance. Supporters will be demoralized if Democratic lawmakers don’t hold Immigration & Customs Enforcement accountable for separating families at the border and don’t take significant action to address widening wealth inequality. At the same time, any proactive policy or truth speaking by Democratic elected officials is guaranteed to prompt paroxysms of rage by right-wing patriot militia activists. The problem for the Democratic Party establishment is that they can’t merely move the country back to the pre-2016 status quo, assuming the anticipated blue-wave election. The status quo — including record deportations under Obama, persistent police violence and mass incarceration against people of color, and astronomical wealth inequality for all — is unacceptable to key segments of the party’s base.

Whether Democrats or Republicans prevail in the fall, we’re likely headed for a battle for the soul of the nation that takes place beyond the ballot box. Hopefully, it won’t be a shooting war, but some kind of reckoning seems inevitable.

If Trump fires Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller and pardons himself with the support of 40 percent of the population, institutions and particularly a supine Republican Congress are not likely to save us. The culture of democracy — the idea that people who hold different beliefs and backgrounds can come together and work out problems for the benefit of all — has already failed. How could it be any other way when the right is hostile towards not only people of color, immigrants and Muslims, but center-left “libtards”?

“If radicalism be defined as perception of need for radical change,” the great American philosopher John Dewey wrote in his 1935 text Liberalism and Social Action, “then today any liberalism which is not also radicalism is irrelevant and doomed.”

Melvin Rogers’ July 25 meditation on Dewey in the Boston Review bears consideration: “Placing the fate of democracy in the domain of culture requires us in our day, as it did in Dewey’s, that we see our present moment as a fight about what kind of people we want to be and what kind of society we long to create. This way of thinking ran through Reconstruction, the ambition of the New Deal (even as Dewey argued that it could be more radical), and the Civil Rights Movement. Dewey made it the centerpiece of his thinking, and we must make it the cornerstone of our engagement today.”

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