March 2018Strategy

How Democrats can win: don't shy away from populist themes

Recent polls showing that Trump’s approval ratings bottomed out several months ago -- coupled with a reduced Democratic advantage on the generic Congressional ballot -- has dampened Democrats’ hopes for a landslide in the mid-terms. Continued job growth, slowly rising wages, and possibly the passage of the Republican tax bill in December have apparently redounded to the GOP ‘s benefit.

All is not lost for those hoping for an end to Republican hegemony in Washington, however, as recent victories on seemingly unfavorable terrain have shown. Even more exciting, the winners are blazing a winning path that Democratic candidates can and hopefully will follow in upcoming elections. This past November, Doug Jones won in Alabama and Allison Ikley-Freeman prevailed in blood-red Oklahoma. Just last week Mike Revis became a state representative after garnering 52% of the vote in a Missouri district that Hillary Clinton lost by 28 points. Besides having upset Republicans, Jones, Ikley-Freeman, and Revis are united by the fact they campaigned as economic populists.

Doug Jones extols the benefits conferred on Alabamians by FDR’s New Deal. He insists that “health care is a right” and that workers should be paid “a living wage.” Jones does not ignore group identity politics by any means. For example, he decries voter suppression, praises the heroes of the civil rights movement, and calls for “equal pay for equal work.” But Jones’s insistence that all Americans be paid a living wage may have alleviated the concerns of some working-class men that Jones’s play to equalize pay between the sexes would lead to lower pay for men.

Allison Ikley-Freeman won a special election in conservative west Tulsa by ripping Republican efforts to reduce the budget deficit through “cuts to services and the working class who were asked to support a disproportionate share of the burden.” Instead, Ikley-Freeman promoted “access to quality public education from birth to death” through “increase[d] funding for public education programs.” Ikley-Freeman also touted more funding for mental health treatment and daycare assistance.

On his campaign website, Mike Revis unabashedly criticizes the Show Me State for “robbing” public schools to give money to charter schools thereby “hurting” kids and “driv[ing] up property taxes. Using explicitly populist language, Revis calls Missouri’s new “right-to-work” law a 60-year old “bad idea, pushed by corporations to lower wages.” He condemns the “constant assault on working men and women . . . funded by just a few multi-millionaires who buy influence with elected officials.” He also promises not to oppose cuts to health care and senior services.

If you compare the language that these Democratic victors use with that employed by Hillary Clinton on her 2016 campaign website and of Democrat Jon Ossoff, who lost a special Congressional election in Georgia last year, you can see real differences. Neither Clinton nor Ossoff mentioned the New Deal or right-to-work laws. While Clinton did say in a couple of magazine articles that health care should be a right, she was careful to distance herself from policies, like Medicare-for-all, that would have made that right a reality. Ossoff did not use that expression.

Clinton and Ossoff lost what many experts believed were winnable races. The lesson is clear. Democrats maximize their chance to win elections when they champion better economic policies for poor, struggling, and working-class Americans.

Hal Ginsberg is a Montgomery County activist and frequent contributor to the Washington Socialist.  He blogs at http://halginsberg.com/  This article was published February 16 on the Progressive Maryland Blogspace. 

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