The Democratic Party is in search of its soul. From FDR through LBJ, its message was economic-oriented, focusing primarily on workers’ rights and safety-net programs—Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—along with a muscular foreign policy and national defense.
In the 1960s, a sea-change occurred in the Party with the rise of the Civil Rights, anti-Vietnam War, and environmental movements. As it veered more onto the social justice and environmental paths, it lost the support of culturally conservative blue-collar and rural voters who would rather vote against their economic self-interests than for candidates who supported changes that conflicted with their values: e.g., civil rights, equal pay, reproductive freedom, same-sex marriage. Those voters also became wary of environmentalism, not because they bought into climate-change deniers’ junk science but, instead, of proposed safeguards and protections and the new direction—green energy—impacting their ways of life and livelihoods.
That was then.
Today, with Republicans on their suicidal, lemming-like dash to the hard-right, the cultural revolution being decided in favor of personal liberty, working Americans feeling the yoke of the “free market” with deflated wages, and health care increasingly inaccessible, opportunity presents itself to the Democratic Party. The question: Can it pull itself together or will it continue internecine war over policies, identity politics, and class/cultural antagonism?
Tribalism is part of our DNA. It’s what causes individuals to bond with like-minded others. Sub-tribalism within a group can cause fissures. Among Democrats, that has expressed itself along urban-rural and blue collar-upper class divides.
Since 1988, while the Democratic vote in urban centers has skyrocketed, in rural counties it has steadily declined. In the 2016, Hillary Clinton trounced Donald Trump among the people, but it didn’t matter.
Because legislative districts are based on population and geography, a similar dynamic played in Colorado over this past decade. Its concentration of votes in Denver-Boulder compared to the dispersed Republican electorate cost Democrats the Senate majority. Winning by forty points in Boulder doesn’t make up for losing by two in Lamar (numbers hypothetical).
Democrats are elated about new registered voters. But if a voter doesn’t vote, being registered is moot. A telling truth is that in non-presidential elections, Republicans dutifully vote while Democrats slack.
That’s the third challenge for Democrats: Turning out its voters.
The first two are outreach and message. Will the Denver-Boulder bubble give more than lip service to bridging the urban-rural divide? Will Boulder wine sippers consort with Pueblo beer drinkers? Can same-sex marriage, reproductive freedom, and the right to bear arms be wedded in a shotgun-marriage?
They can because in the end, as Bill Clinton famously put it: “It’s the economy, stupid!”
The Party’s message should be the Party of Trump is betrothed to uber-money interests and hasn’t done and won’t do squat to help working and rural Coloradans. It needs to talk about pensions being under assault and Social Security and Medicare in the POT’s crosshairs. It needs to talk about how corporatized health care and environmental degradation are devastating them and their communities.
The Party needs to point out how, beginning with Reaganomics, the system has been corrupted, its mission morphed to transferring wealth from small businesses and workers to investors and others to play the roulette wheel of wealth. Which has worked beyond the one-percent’s wildest dreams.
The Party’s message needs to focus on the hard work of rebuilding the American middle class and America’s infrastructure, from health care to bridges, sewers, and highways, and how that work requires all of us to roll up our sleeves.
Then there’s Trump. The message there, while certainly not ignoring his indefensible salacious behavior, is that he isn’t their savior.
Democrats need the right leader to unite heretofore divisive issues under one umbrella. On the national scene, former vice-president Joe Biden—Middle Class Joe—fulfills that role. Who, though, in Colorado?
With the current stable of Democratic gubernatorial candidates being Denver-Boulder centric, the nominee needs to tap a young, articulate rural Democratic leader for his/her running mate, perhaps a hunter-angler-environmentalist, to talk to rural Coloradans in their language.
America wasn’t made great by men-in-black tycoons, but by the sweat, blood, and tears of everyday, hard-working folks from every race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. After forty years of defenestration, it’s time to re-empower them. That’s the Democrats’ message.