In What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004), Thomas Frank asked why so many Americans continue to vote against their own interests. I find myself asking that same question today, in light of the Republican tsunami that swept across the country on November 4th.
Election Day 2014 was a bad night for Democrats. It was disappointing for me personally, since I lost my bid for the Delaware State Senate, despite having a large base of energized supporters, having spent almost two years tirelessly pursuing the latest in campaign “best practices,” and having raised more money than anyone else in the county. But I take solace in the fact that it wasn’t just me. Every single Democrat who had an opponent lost in my county.
How can that be? Our county has so many problems, yet the majority of people who bothered to turn out on Election Day voted for candidates who have a track record of doing nothing about those problems or who will probably make things even worse.
What’s the matter with Sussex County, Delaware? Well, as it turns out, nothing in particular because the problem was not restricted to Sussex. It was a national problem. Democrats all over the country lost. Consequently, those who seek to place the blame locally — saying person x was not the right candidate for the district or that person y failed or should have done more — need a less myopic vision. Context matters and in this case the appropriate context is national.
What can we learn from this debacle?
Lesson 1: Party matters.
President Obama is unpopular right now and that hurt the Dems. Personally, I have a lot of problems with Obama’s policies and leadership skills, and I understand the desire of a candidate to speak only for herself. However, you can’t run away from the leader of your party.
The reality is that party matters. When you vote for a person, who is a member of a party, you are also voting for that party’s agenda. And on November 4th, if you had a D by your name, you were doomed.
Lesson 2: “It’s the economy, stupid!”
Many people seem to believe that the Democrats have not done a very good job of publicizing our own successes. And indeed the Obama administration seems inexplicably inept at touting its own accomplishments. Be that as it may, the fact of the matter is that all is not well. As Robert Reich explains:
If you want a single reason for why Democrats lost big on Election Day 2014 it’s this: Median household income continues to drop. This is the first “recovery” in memory when this has happened. Jobs are coming back but wages aren’t. … Most new jobs are in part-time or low-paying positions. They pay less than the jobs lost in the Great Recession. … [And] pay is less predictable than ever. Most Americans don’t know what they’ll be earning next year or even next month. Two-thirds are now living paycheck to paycheck….
So why is this called a “recovery” at all? Because, technically, the economy is growing. But almost all the gains from that growth are going to a small minority at the top. In fact, 100 percent of the gains have gone to the best-off 10 percent. Ninety-five percent have gone to the top 1 percent.
If things were great, people would know it.
Lesson 3: The Democrats need a progressive agenda.
As Frank argued in What’s the Matter with Kansas?, working people vote Republican against their own economic interests because the Democrats do not have an agenda that speaks to those interests. Some Democrats do not understand that. They are confused and think that the solution to not winning elections is to run as Republican Light — and nobody likes that.
In 2014, however, that strategy clearly failed. Conservative Democrats across the country lost on November 4th, while progressives won in Minnesota, Oregon, and Michigan. In addition, referenda on raising the minimum wage won in four states. Consequently, progressives need to take a page from the Republican playbook and really push Democratic candidates to support progressive policies. Electing Elizabeth Warren to the Senate Leadership is a good first step, but the battle within the party between centrists and progressives needs to be resolved.
What we need, however, is a larger vision that addresses the needs of not only low wage workers but also the middle class. It is absolutely vital that we move towards a living wage, a 30 hour minimum work week for low wage workers, paid sick leave, etc. However, we also need mechanisms that allow for upward mobility and that rebuild the middle class in America. And we need to frame it not only in terms of economic interests but in a way that speaks to the hearts and souls of our communities.
While I don’t have a summary of what that will look like, suffice it to say, I will be working on it over the course of the next year.