During the 2016 election progressives comforted themselves with an unquestioned faith that, as Republicans coalesced behind the Trump crazy train, voters would recoil at the GOP nominee’s ostentatious sexism, disrespect for military veterans and other profound liabilities, and punish the party as a whole.
Instead, Trump swiped a handful of Democratic-leaning Rustbelt states and won the election, while Republicans retained control of Congress.
When Trump won, progressives only recalibrated their delusion, reasoning that the backlash against the new president would present new opportunities for Democratic inroads. This Pollyannaish certainty has continued with an unfounded confidence that the Republican Congress’ inept efforts to overturn Obamacare and the Trump’s mounting troubles related to the Russia scandal will ensure a Democratic resurgence at the polls in 2018.
That a blowhard real-estate mogul from New York City could win the favor of the working-class white voters who formerly comprised one of the Democrats’ primary constituencies should make it clear how much trouble the party is in. Measure for measure, the Democrats’ prescriptions on healthcare, student debt relief and childcare assistance hold more promise for improving the lives of working people, but the party’s economic message is muddled and its leadership is generally removed from the struggles of ordinary people, preventing any real prospect for electoral gains.
In short, there’s a profound disconnect between the elite class of candidates, consultants and donors operating the party machinery and the people they’re courting as a political base. The party hasn’t cultivated leadership by people with the day-to-day experience of struggling to earn a livelihood, while raising children or caring for aging parents. Considering that the political system is awash in corporate cash, maybe it’s understandable that only high-rollers can play the game, but the unfortunate result is a kind of paternalism, where working people recoil from well-intended political elites who try to tell them what’s best for them.
The Democrats’ deteriorating relationship with working-class voters is underscored by the fact that the party’s big play for flipping US House seats is Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, an affluent patch in the northern suburbs of Atlanta formerly represented by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, rather than de-industrialized swaths of Ohio, Pennsylvania or West Virginia. The limited options before the party leadership are evident by the amount of cash poured into the special election for the 6th District scheduled for June 20 — now the most expensive US House race in history.
It’s also telling that in New York’s 19th Congressional District — considered one of the most promising Democratic pickups in 2018 — party volunteers are appealing to second-home owners from Brooklyn and Manhattan to try to bolster their ranks, as Frank Bruni reports in the Sunday New York Times. The district covers much of the Hudson Valley, and Bruni writes that the Democrats’ 2014 nominee, Sean Eldridge — “a pampered foal… who is married to the Facebook multi-millionaire Chris Hughes and qualified for the race by purchasing a $2 million country house just an hour from the $5 million country house the couple already owned” — never captured the hearts of the region’s beleaguered dairy farmers.
The 2016 nominee, a Bernie Sanders-style progressive named Zephyr Teachout, lost to Republican John Faso. Now, Bruni reports, the leading contenders for 2018 are Antonio Delgado, a Harvard-educated lawyer who works for the Manhattan law firm Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld; Brian Flynn, who wasn’t even registered to vote in the district during the last election; and Gareth Rhodes, who while stressing that he “grew up rural and religious, working on a farm,” is a 28-year-old law student at Harvard.
All the wailing and teeth-gnashing on Facebook threads about working-class voters failing appreciate the wisdom of the party platform won’t change the results.
My friend Christina James, a disability rights activist in Marietta, Ga. and former Whole Foods employee, summed up the party’s credibility challenge well. She noted on my Facebook page that the Affordable Care Act’s half-measure approach and Democrats’ faith that Republican state governments would expand Medicaid to help pay for it wound up causing unintended harm.
“I had continuous health insurance prior to the ACA through my husband’s retail job,” James wrote. “After the ACA, retail jobs across the country cut hours for employees purely to avoid being required by law to pay for insurance. Often, this was with companies that had previously provided insurance (Whole Foods is a good example of this).
“Yes, the ACA helped many, many people and changed our national discussion about healthcare, but the backlash and capitulation by Democrats to make it less robust hurt many of us profoundly,” she continued. “Democrats’ failure to acknowledge or make any strides to correct this fact has done more damage to the party than they realize.”