One of my political mentors was the late John Maloney. He taught me a lot about politics in a few simple lessons. Don’t bother googling him. He was not famous. He was just a good Democratic foot soldier who in his later years was willing to impart some of his wisdom on a young man who, though somewhat experienced, still had many lessons to learn. I’m now in my later years and hope I can pass this and other lessons on to others. Today I want to tell my readers what Mr. Maloney (I never called him by his first name) taught me about the kitchen table.
Mr. Maloney told me Democrats would always be successful in our neck of the woods because we were on the right side on the kitchen table issues. A little background before I get into exactly what he (and now I) defined as the kitchen table issues. We were both of working class backgrounds, lived and operated in the Buffalo, New York metropolitan area. We both came from laborer and union backgrounds. Mr. Maloney had retired after a successful career working on the railroad. (Perhaps someday I’ll share his definition of success with you; it’s a great story and was another learning experience for me.) Neither of us was financially wealthy and neither were most of those we interacted with (especially politically). We both believed in the face-to-face, door-to-door, ground game of politics. We came from neighborhoods that were stable and despite Buffalo being a big city there was a good chance you knew several members of somebody else’s family. I’m also going back some 30 or more years.
Mr. Maloney taught me to define kitchen table issues as those things a husband and wife talked about at the kitchen table after the kids went to bed. Too often they also worried about them in their bed as they fought for sleep. I’m talking about things like how they were going to make the mortgage and car payments next month. How they were going to get the prom dress for their daughter and the new fielder’s mitt for their son. Where were the couple of bucks for the church envelope and Girl Scout cookies coming from? What would they do if the union went on strike? Wouldn’t those couple extra bucks come in handy if the union negotiated a good contract?
The decline of unions and the secure, well-paying jobs they brought with them increased the anxiety. One of the biggest criticisms of the Democratic Party I have is that they failed to support unions and union members as well as they could have starting in the ’90’s. This made Reagan’s attack on the American worker all the more successful. It has come back to bite the Democrats at the voting booth and on the street. Unions were among the largest suppliers of Democratic foot soldiers. If you needed people to man phones, stuff envelopes (in the old days) or knock on doors you called the unions and they supplied the troops. Those troops voted Democratic as did their families and the vast majority of people they interacted with. It is simple arithmetic, less union brothers and sisters equals fewer troops which yields fewer voters. What would have been our solid voters and in many cases ground troops became so disillusioned that in desperation they actually voted for the false prophesies of a Donald Trump. I remember tracking the state by state results last election night. It was when we lost what had been reliable Rust Belt state’s that I knew it was over. A close win in Virginia or a loss in North Carolina was always in the cards. Losing in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan was what killed the Democrats in 2016. Do you really think Trump could have taken Michigan in the old days of the auto unions? Or Pennsylvania in the days when the steel unions were kingmakers?
I firmly believe that even with the “abandonment” of the unions the Democrats still are the better deal for Joe Lunchbucket. The challenge will be communicating that to him and his family. This is not the only demographic problem but it is one that must be overcome in order to be victorious.
I besiege Democratic candidates and operatives to think about the late night conversations at the kitchen tables of working class families when they formulate their policies, outreach strategies and campaign schedules. Above all else I beg them to remember that communication is all perception of the receiver of the message! If Joe Lunchbucket doesn’t think you are the best deal for him he is not going to vote for you whether in reality you are or not. A desperate and despondent man (and woman) will believe the charlatan if he communicates effectively. We saw that in 1930’s Europe and we saw it again in 2016 America.
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