Democrats Need To Reclaim Their Heart and Soul

Credit: Qingyi Dong/ Credit: Qingyi Dong/
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It’s a well-worn political cliche to say that rival factions within a political movement (e.g. the Tea Party vs. moderate Republicans) are “fighting for the soul” of their party. And the same cliche has been used time and again in the aftermath of 2016 to describe the tension within the Democratic party between its progressive movement and its more moderate “establishment.” Like most cliches, this characterization isn’t without truth — elements within the Democratic Party certainly are vying to shape its message and determine its strategy. But like most cliches, this is also a somewhat stale and hackneyed way to describe what’s going on. In truth, the party is struggling to rediscover its soul altogether.

A recent report from The New York Times showed that approximately one in four white working class voters who had voted for Barack Obama in 2012 switched to vote for Donald Trump in 2016. Factors like a voter’s political party and their previous voting history are typically some of the strongest metrics analysts can use to predict who someone will support in an election. But in 2016, an unusually high amount of registered Democrats and Obama voters switched to support Trump, often switching to vote for Republicans down the ballot as well. Although much has been made about turnout — high turnout in rural areas of key swing states and low turnout in urban areas — The New York Times argues that the real story — the real puzzle — of 2016 was why so many Obama voters favored Trump.

More puzzling still, the very voters that jumped the Democratic ship in 2016 and handed Donald Trump the White House were once the heart and soul of the Democratic Party. The white working class has long been a core Democratic constituency, but they have been steadily bleeding from the Democratic Party over the past few decades. Their departure has been fueled by declining union membership, escalating culture wars, and economic disaffection. Even though Clinton couldn’t have expected to win this block of voters given recent voter trends, her paltry performance among them, including even those who had voted twice for Obama, should warn Democrats that they need to act quickly to reclaim the voters who were once their base.

Ultimately, it all comes down to message and political strategy. Fortunately for Democrats, we don’t have to figure out something totally new. We just have to return to the messages and strategies that have served Democrats for decades. We need to rediscover our heart and soul. That’s how we’ll win.

Democrats already have the best policies for this block of voters. Nobody benefits more from strong unions and a higher minimum wage than the working class. Nor does any group stand to gain more from a robust social safety net, universal healthcare, and strong investments in public education. But ask any white working class Trump voter why they voted for Trump, and jobs and the economy will be at the top of the list. Those of us cloistered in our ivory towers and cosmopolitan utopias often muse condescendingly about why poor white voters “vote against their self-interest.” Well, they don’t. At least not what they understand those interests to be. Nobody goes out and votes for what they think will hurt themselves. Politics is about who can make the better argument. And Democrats have lost the argument about which party is better for working people because our message has been flawed. Democrats need to return to the messages that resonate with all voters: “We will help you get a well-paying job. We will help your family and your community thrive.”

Democrats also need to return back to the strategic models that have helped them win elections in the past. Historically, Democrats have a built-in advantage when it comes to grassroots organizing, field strategy, and voter turnout operations. When Democratic campaigns are at their best, they are fueled by people: union canvassers, energetic students and young people, Democratic committee people and their families, etc. When Democratic campaigns win, it is because they have a groundswell of people behind them; people who are passionate about their causes and bring electricity to the campaign.

But Democrats have been seduced by the siren song of money in politics. This is where Republicans excel, and Democratic leaders have sought in recent years to beat Republicans at their own game. But that is a foolish exercise. Republican voters simply have more money than Democratic voters. Far more millionaires and billionaires support Republicans. Ditto for corporations. Democrats have made raising huge sums of money from wealthy voters and corporations central to their strategy, convinced that if they can bring in the most money, the rest will fall into place. Certainly, money has an unfortunate power in today’s politics, and if Democrats can’t fundraise, they can’t compete. But Democrats will never be able to raise money the way Republicans do. And when they try to cozy up to wealthy donors and Wall Street, all they end up doing is alienating the people at their base.

If Democrats want to win in the future, they need to embrace grassroots fundraising models like the one employed by Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I–VT) campaign. In 2015-2016 Sanders raised millions upon millions of dollars from small-dollar donations averaging just $27. If Democrats can emulate this model, they can bring synergy between the need for money in today’s politics and their greatest strength, which is their people.

Democrats shouldn’t be battling for their party’s soul. Instead, the different ideological factions within the party must work together to rediscover what once made them a great and successful political movement. Democrats have always disagreed. We’ll never be of one voice on every aspect of policy. But Democrats succeed when they have a strong message about the economy, and when they fuel their campaigns not with big money, but with committed people. That’s where the heart and soul of the Democratic party lies. It’s a party comprised of ordinary people fighting for policies that help ordinary people. Going forward, Democrats need to put working people back at the center of their platform, their message, and their political strategy.