by Landon Porter
Since its historic defeat in last November’s election, the Democratic Party has, like all of us, found itself facing an uncertain path forward in a dramatically changed political world. For the past year, it has continuously grappled with the question of how to reassert itself after being shut out of the halls of power all across the country. In the summer, the party began to hint at what its strategy would be in the upcoming midterms and beyond with the unveiling of its “Better Deal” platform. In it, the Democrats promise to “help build an America in which working people know that somebody has their back” by positing three main goals: raising wages and incomes, lowering the costs of living, and giving working Americans the necessary tools for success in the 21st century. These goals are then fleshed out more specifically, with sections referring to trade, prescription drug prices, and job retraining, among others. All of these proposals are obviously made in good faith and would probably improve the economic conditions of the working class by some minimal degree. Unfortunately, the “Better Deal” has one major problem: no one will vote for it.
To understand why that is, it may be helpful to examine some recent, yet vastly different political campaigns and how they relate to the crossroads the Democratic Party now faces. The most obvious starting point is with Donald Trump and the reasons for his success in last year’s election. Despite his racism, sexism, and blatant incompetence when it came to discussing anything of substance, the man was a master marketer. His ubiquitous slogan, “Make America Great Again,” contained the perfect amounts of specificity and generality, allowing it to get its main point across (making America great again) while leaving what exactly that would entail up to each individual supporter. This strategy was reinforced by Trump’s habit of making wild promises to appeal to whatever audience he happened to be in front of at the time, be it coal miners, religious voters, or people concerned about their healthcare. The upshot of Trump’s rhetoric was that people were actually excited to vote for him; he built up enthusiasm in ways that Hillary Clinton’s campaign couldn’t, and the Democrats will face the same risk when they run on their milquetoast “Better Deal.”
As I said before, I have no doubt that the Democrats’ current proposals are being made in earnest, with the hope that they will provide much needed relief for struggling Americans. However, the fact remains that not only do these technocratic solutions fail to excite anybody other than policy wonks, but history has shown that they are ineffective at actually accomplishing their ostensible goals of improving voters’ lives. Nobody goes to the polls eager to vote for an expansion of the earned income tax credit, which has done little to alleviate the problem at the root of poverty, the stagnation of wages since 1979. The idea of learning how to code is simply not enticing to the 55-year-old laid-off factory worker. “Bipartisan fixes for the Affordable Care Act” is not an exciting rallying cry for addressing the continually skyrocketing cost of healthcare when the Act itself is based on the flawed premise of a market-based solution to a problem that is fundamentally incompatible with markets. Even the name of the agenda, “A Better Deal,” has the air of premature concession about it. We’re not offering the Best Possible Deal, just a Marginally Better Deal.
Contrast this lukewarm foray into the politics of economic justice with what occurred this spring in the United Kingdom’s snap election. When Prime Minister Theresa May called the election in April, she did so with the expectation that her Conservative Party would be able to secure an additional one hundred seats, thereby increasing her leverage in the ongoing Brexit negotiations. However, as the campaign played out over the next two months, the Labour Party, headed by Jeremy Corbyn, began to make up the lost ground. The turning point came when the two parties released their “manifestos,” documents that laid out their overall visions and policy proposals. The Labour Manifesto, titled For the Many, Not the Few, laid out an array of potential policies, such as free childcare, the abolition of college tuition fees, and free school lunches. Not only would everyday people benefit from these policies, but it was easy to communicate exactly how they would benefit in a material sense, without needing to implore them to read seventy different white papers about the ideas’ economic underpinnings. By passionately pursuing ambitious goals that engaged and enthused voters, Labour managed to substantially expand their base, especially among 18 to 24-year olds, who had an incredible 72% turnout rate. As a result, the polls shifted decisively against the Conservatives, turning their expected one hundred seat gain into a twelve seat loss, a twenty-nine seat gain for Labour, and a hung parliament.
Could such a strategy be successfully replicated in the United States, with our different political landscape and window of acceptable discourse? I believe it could. In the last election’s Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders showed that a message much like that of the Labour Party, based upon the ideal that society should benefit the many, rather than the few, has a definite resonance in this country as well, especially with younger voters. It should be clear by now, after their decimation in state houses across the country and the loss of the presidency to a potentially senile game show host, that the Democratic Party must change its course. If we want to regain the iron grip on governmental power we held throughout most of the 20th century, we will have to once again offer the working-class, a voting bloc which encompasses all races and genders, things that will tangibly improve their lives. These can’t simply be impossible, spontaneous promises of the Trumpian variety, but rather promises of universal healthcare and education, higher minimum wages, and the de-concentration of wealth and power in our society, most of which other countries have successfully implemented to their benefit. In order to address the pressing problems of our time, this is the path that we Democrats will ultimately have to take.