Why Democrats Need to Win as Economic Populists

AP Photo/Gary Landers, Pool

Senator Sherrod Brown speaks during the U.S. Senate debate with Representative Jim Renacci at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. 

There has been a lot of argument about whether Democrats need to win by running more to the left or more to the center. In my writings, I’ve contended that the best way for the Democrats is to gain ground is to run populist on economics. 

Why? First, because that’s where the country needs radical reform; second, that’s where the Clinton-Obama Democratic Party lost its soul; third, if the election is all about identity rather than economics, that plays to Trump’s fear-mongering; and fourth, economic populism creates a politics of working people of all races against economic royalists rather than working people of different backgrounds against each other.

By working people, I mean not just the “working class,” often defined as the non-college educated, but anyone who lives on paychecks and is not independently rich. It’s a class politics Democrats can and should win. It’s also a politics that can allow Democrats to win back some disgusted voters who voted for Trump because they didn’t think either party spoke for their interests.

Trump has tried to make the election about us versus them, with them defined as Muslims, African Americans, and immigrants. But the real us versus them is everyone who works paycheck to paycheck versus Wall Street.

There are three different counter arguments that deserve careful scrutiny—and refutation.

Some keep insisting that Democrats should not run on pocketbook issues because the economy has improved. In fact, for most income groups the economy has barely made back its losses since the collapse of 2008. And the economy is vastly more precarious for regular people than it was a generation ago. That is the deeper source of Trumpism.

A second contention is that Democrats should just forget about the white working class—so many are racist anyway—and focus on the “emerging American electorate” defined as a new rainbow of African Americans, Latinos, other immigrant groups, liberal professionals, the idealistic young, and LGBTQ people.

That’s also a mistake because the white working class may be only 30 percent of the national electorate but it’s more than half the electorate in the states where Trump won the 2016 election—Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Indiana. In western Pennsylvania, the white working class is more than 60 percent. As pollster Stanley Greenberg has written in the Prospect, the emerging Democratic majority needs to encorporate both the new rainbow andthe white working class. 

The next Democratic presidential candidate needs to win big, not just to eke out a victory based on a coalition of minorities. A Democratic Party that turned its back on a major portion of the working class would not be worthy of the name. 

A third and opposite argument, advanced by groups that represent corporate Democrats, such as Third Way, holds that Democrats should not run as economic progressives because voters tend to self-identify as moderates rather than liberals. But of you dig deeper behind the superficial labeling, the majority of voters are in favor of defending and expanding Social Security and Medicare, and having a higher minimum wage. If that’s the definition of moderate, bring it on.

For Democrats, the only way to win a real mandate would be to win back some of the working-class people who voted for Trump—not all of them; winning back 15 or 20 percent of them would be huge. And they way to their hearts has to be through their pocketbooks.

But don’t take my word for it. Take a close look at Tuesday’s results, and see which winning Democratic candidates ran as economic progressives.

The Progressive Change Institute examined all 142 Democratic candidates in contested races, based on rankings from the Cook Report as well as material from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The group then looked at which Democrats could reasonably be considered economic progressives, based on their support for such issues as Medicare for All or a Medicare public option and expanded Social Security. 

Using these indicators, they found that in the 69 most competitive House races rated by the nonpartisan Cook Report as leaning Democratic, toss-ups, or leaning Republican (but possibly winnable for the Democrat), 52 Democrats, or more than three-quarters, were running as economic progressives. 

Take a good look at the spreadsheets. In dozens of districts held by Republicans, Democratic challengers have made major headway and are in striking distance of victory—by running as pocketbook progressives.

On Tuesday, we’ll see how these progressive Democrats did. Even where the Democrat did not win, we can also see how much better they did than the Democrat did in the same seat in 2016 or 2014, by using a clear progressive pocketbook message.

There are really two kinds of House races Tuesday. In some Republican-leaning suburban districts, where upscale voters are disgusted with Trump’s vulgarity, his condoning of violence, his baiting of immigrants, not to mention his concentration camps for toddlers on the Mexican border, the Democrats are likely to pick up some seats whether running as moderates or as progressives. But in working-class seats that went for Trump last time, they are more likely to win as economic populists.

Once the midterm is behind us, and we start thinking seriously about the presidential election in 2020, this debate about whether Democrats should run as centrists or progressives will only intensify. Tuesday’s results should inform that argument.

An earlier version of this article appeared at HuffPost. Subscribe here.

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