I just finished reading the third in a series of books meant to challenge my liberal beliefs and more importantly understand what motivated Donald Trump voters. Somewhere in the near future all three of them will reach the Recommended Reading list. I’m still as liberal as ever. However the books, coupled with my upbringing in the Rust Belt, made me pause just a bit and understand how people could end up voting for Trump. I know they made a disastrous decision which was neither in their best interest nor America’s. Understanding doesn’t necessitate agreement. Let’s explore.
As both a student and practitioner of political science I love to slice and dice the electorate into demographics. Experience and reason have taught me the limitations of this dissection of the electorate. Simply put, people fall into several demographics. I’ll use myself as an example. What influences me the most? Being male, older, white, reasonably well-educated, raised Catholic or any one of several other often conflicting demographics I fall into? With all this slicing and dicing I think the people who really control the Democratic Party, (in today’s America a progressive’s only real hope), have forgotten the most simple demographic: the haves and the have nots.
Before I continue remember we are talking about communicating a message and the only thing that really counts in communication is perception. That concept comes down to the demographic people identify with. If you think you are a have not, for the purpose of politics you are a have not. Plain and simple!
There is a large segment of the population that feels they are have nots and deserve to be haves. They feel the system has screwed them. It is the white person who feels the blacks and undocumented have taken their jobs away. It is the male who feels that all those women are getting away with everything. It is the former factory worker in the Rust Belt who just knows he’d have a good job if it hadn’t gone to China or Mexico. It is the white person in the South who knows their ancestor was a wealthy plantation owner (or at least an overseer), before Lincoln and that damn War of Northern Aggression (a/k/a the Civil War) stole their birthright from them; furthermore Lyndon Johnson supplemented it with legislation in 1964 and 1965. In my mind all of those examples, (and many others not mentioned), are false and in some cases asinine but that doesn’t matter because it is not my perception that counts here.
The biggest problem in American politics is the influence of money. That is irrespective of political party or philosophy. It is a systemic problem. In the quest for campaign money the Democrats have forgotten that they are the Party of the little guy, the downtrodden and oppressed. More and more time has to be spent chasing the dollars of the well-educated and well heeled. Those dollars don’t come without strings and the Democrats have begun supporting legislation that sometimes actually hurts Joe Lunchbucket. The big dollars have their ears more often than the little guys. The little guy used to be represented by his union. Starting under Ronald Reagan unions began to diminish in size and clout in America. This was not an accident! In the pursuit of big dollar donations the Democrats supported policies championed by their big donors which often were not in the interest of lower skilled working Americans.
I grew up in a Great Lakes/Rust Belt city where the auto plants and steel mills provided a readily available path to the middle class for the “C” student high school graduate. A male graduated from high school, did two years in the service, got a blue collar union represented job, got married, bought a house in the suburbs and raised a couple of kids without his wife ever having to go to work. His kids never went without food or clothing, he bought a new Chevy or Ford every few years, had a weekly bowling night out with the boys and even took a vacation every year or every other year. On Friday night he took the family out for a fish fry. On Sunday morning the family went to church and then out to breakfast.
The economy has changed and those jobs are gone or in very short supply. The Democrats told their people the answer was education. So the kids went to college. (As part of the killing of unions apprentice programs, which served the “C” high school student better, became all but extinct.) The supply of good jobs never kept up with the supply of fresh college grads. Too many graduated from college with significant student loan debt and few prospects for jobs commensurate with their education that provided a sufficient paycheck to purchase a middle class lifestyle while servicing those loans.
Along came Trump complete with his nationalistic and bigoted rhetoric. He promised the jobs would come back if only Americans voted for him. Part of his message, (supposedly aimed at African-Americans), was, “What have you got to lose?” So many felt they were in such a bad situation that their reaction was, “why the Hell not give this guy a try?”
Thus far I’ve painted a dark picture. But in the post-election despair I have found hope. The people have risen up. They are not doing it around any political party but around causes; mainly those they envision as injustices. Americans have a basic sense of fairness. They don’t like getting screwed and they don’t feel others should be either. Those rising up are almost exclusively the have nots (by their perception anyway) or liberals who sympathize with them.
In order to harness that energy Democratic candidates are going to have to embrace the issues of the little guy and genuinely offer themselves as his or her protector. Siding with the have nots is good electoral politics – there are simply more of them than haves.
This article is part of a series dealing with the path forward for progressives to start winning at the polls again.
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