Andy Schmookler: The Democrats’ wrong-headed diagnosis

Andy Schmookler

After this November’s elections, Democrats understandably wrung their hands and asked where they’d gone wrong. Surely the Democrats had gone wrong in some way, but many also went wrong in diagnosing the problem.

That mistaken diagnosis was along the lines of “We as a party have not been sufficiently attentive to the needs of the working class. Therefore they abandoned us.”

That this misunderstands the real problem is not hard to prove.

It’s true that life has become more difficult for a great many middle and working class Americans. (Only the wealthiest, and especially the wealthiest of the wealthy, have seen their lot improve.)

And it’s true that the Democratic Party has become a less reliable champion of the average citizen than it once was. Politics is about power, and as the labor movement lost power while the corporate system gained, the Democrats served working people less well than they had before.

But how can that “we neglected them” diagnosis explain anything when the voters in question supported a political party whose policies were consistently far more antagonistic to their interests than the Democrats’?

Voters had to choose between two parties. And whatever the shortcomings of the Democratic Party in serving working Americans, in every single political battle the two parties have fought in recent years — in which the interests of average Americans were pitted against the interests of the rich and mighty — it was the Democratic Party that invariably fought for the middle and working classes.

For example, the efforts to:

• Extend unemployment benefits during the terrible Great Recession, when there were six applicants for every job opening;
rebuild our decaying infrastructure and providing employment for laid off construction workers.

• Reform our political system so that Big Money could not sideline the average voter.

• Raise the minimum wage so that people who worked hard at a full-time job did not live in poverty.

• Provide relief for average families wanting to get their children a college education.

• Make sure that people did not have to choose between getting life-saving health care and paying the rent.

On each contested issue, it was the Democratic Party that better represented the interests of average Americans.

Although the Democrats may not have been the ideal champion of working families, they were by far the better champions than the Republican Party of the needs of voters whose choices the hand-wringing post-election inquiry sought to explain.

So what sense can it make to imagine that — if the Democrats had only been more interested, more concerned, more caring — those working class people would have voted differently?

No, the Democrats need to be asking questions that point in a different direction.

Democrats need to be asking: why did those voters support a party that, at every turn, has worked against their interests?

Why did people whose complaint was that government wasn’t working for them vote for the party that – with its across-the-board obstructionism — made it their priority, for eight years, to prevent the government from accomplishing anything?

And such questions could be expanded:

Why did people in coal country believe that the loss of their jobs was due to some “Obama war on coal,” when everyone who studied the situation said that those environmental rules were pretty irrelevant, and that the reasons were the automation of coal mining combined with competition with cheaper natural gas?

Why did so many people believe that their sinking fortunes were due to immigrants living here illegally flooding the labor market — whereas the net flow of illegal immigration was negative (back to Mexico) in recent years – rather than to the way corporate power was stacking the deck against them?

All those questions – and many more that could be added — have to do with messaging.

The Democratic Party should be asking, why is it that they have been losing the messaging battle to the Republicans, despite having the advantage of being far more aligned with the truth?

What could the Democratic Party have done differently, that would have prevented this outcome of the messaging battle in recent years – an outcome disastrous not only for the Democratic Party but for America as well?

And what can the Democratic Party do now to help turn that outcome around, so that more average Americans have a more accurate picture of the issues of concern to them, and of what political forces have their needs and interests more at heart?

Andy Schmookler is an award-winning author, and was the Democratic candidate for Congress in Virginia’s 6th District in 2012. His newly published book is “What We’re Up Against: The Destructive Force at Work in Our World – And How We Can Defeat It.”