It’s been a long time since this was published, way back in 2005 when Democrats were trying to put themselves back together post 2004 disaster, but some of the talk in the comments got me thinking that it needed to be taken off the shelf, dusted off, and shared with people who hadn’t looked over it.
Now, I’m not David Sirota’s biggest fan by any stretch. I think he has a lot of good ideas though, and his Democrats’ Da Vinci Code is probably his best. To sum it up, Sirota basically lays out an alternative to the DLC and the Blue Dogs and the whole run to the right mentality, something that has never really gotten us anywhere. What Sirota suggests, with ample evidence that it works, is for Democrats to focus on the economic issues of poor, working, and middle-class Americans, rather than the economic interests of corporations under the guise of centrism. Sirota sums it up nicely:
Fight the Class War
If patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, crying “class warfare” is the last refuge of wealthy elitists. Yet, inexplicably, this red herring emasculates Democrats in Washington. Every time pro–middle-class legislation is offered, Republicans berate it as class warfare. Worse, they get help from corporate factions within the Democratic Party itself.
But as countless examples show, progressives are making inroads into culturally conservative areas by talking about economic class. This is not the traditional (and often condescending) Democratic pandering about the need for a nanny government to provide for the masses. It is us-versus-them red meat, straight talk about how the system is working against ordinary Americans.
In Vermont, Representative Bernie Sanders, the House’s only independent and a self-described socialist, racks up big wins in the “Northeast Kingdom,” the rock-ribbed Republican region along the New Hampshire border. Far from the Birkenstock-wearing, liberal caricature of Vermont, the Kingdom is one of the most culturally conservative hotbeds in New England, the place that helped fuel the “Take Back Vermont” movement against gay civil unions.
Yet the pro-choice, pro–gay-rights Sanders’ economic stances help him bridge the cultural divide. In the 1990s, he was one of the most energetic opponents of the trade deals with China and Mexico that destroyed the local economy. In the Bush era, he highlighted the inequity of the White House’s soak-the-rich tax-cut plan by proposing to instead provide $300 tax-rebate checks to every man, woman, and child regardless of income (a version of Sanders’ rebate eventually became law). For his efforts, Sanders has been rewarded in GOP strongholds like Newport Town. While voters there backed George W. Bush and Republican Governor Jim Douglas in 2004, they also gave Sanders 68 percent of the vote.
Sanders’ strength among rural conservatives is not just a cult of personality; it is economic populism’s broader triumph over divisive social issues. In culturally conservative Derby, for instance, a first-time third-party candidate used a populist message to defeat a longtime Republican state representative who had become an icon of Vermont’s anti-gay movement.
The same message is working in conservative swaths of Oregon, where Democratic Representative Peter DeFazio keeps getting re-elected in a Bush district. For DeFazio, the focus is unfair trade deals and taxpayer giveaways to the wealthy. When Republicans promote plans to “save” Social Security, DeFazio counters not by agreeing with privatization but with his plan to force the wealthy to start paying more into the system.
The message is also used by Mississippi Congressman Gene Taylor, who represents a district that gave 65 percent of its vote to Bush in 2000 and was previously represented in the House by Trent Lott. Taylor bucks his district’s GOP tilt by mixing opposition to free trade with what the Almanac of American Politics calls “peppery populism” and a demeanor that is “feisty to the point of being belligerent.” “Unlike the policy hawks who never leave Washington … I know the owners of factories, the foreman, and the workers, and they’ll all tell you it’s because of NAFTA that their factories closed,” Taylor told newspapers in late 2003, criticizing the trade deal signed by President Bill Clinton.
This message contrasts with that of the DLC centrists, who promote, for instance, Indiana Senator Evan Bayh’s free-trade, Republican-lite positions as a model for winning in red states. What they don’t say is that Bayh comes from one of Indiana’s most beloved political families and wins largely by virtue of his last name, not his ideology. Where a corporate message like Bayh’s has been put to a real challenge, it has been a disaster. In Louisiana, for instance, the state’s tradition of electing Democratic populists like Huey and Russell Long gave way to centrist politicians like Senator John Breaux, a man best known in Washington for throwing Mardi Gras parties with business lobbyists. When a Breaux clone ran to replace the retiring senator, he was crushed by a moral crusading Republican.
In North Carolina, instead of following John Edwards’ class-based formula, Democrats anointed investment banker Erskine Bowles as the nominee to replace Edwards in 2004. At the time, party insiders brushed off concerns that, as a Clinton White House chief of staff, Bowles was an architect of the free-trade policy that helped eliminate North Carolina’s manufacturing jobs. But Bowles’ opponent, Representative Richard Burr, made the Democrat pay for his free-trade sellout. “You negotiated the China trade agreement for President Clinton, which is the largest exporter of jobs not just in North Carolina but in this country,” Burr said at one debate, robbing Bowles of an economic issue that might have offset North Carolinians’ inherent cultural suspicions of a Democrat. On election night, Bowles went down in flames.
As I said, it’s good stuff, and it’s something progressive Democrats can put to work here in Arkansas to be successful. In fact, I’d argue that it’s the future of the Democratic party here. As it stands, we seem to be looking into an abyss, and if conservatives continue on their route to push the party right, we’ll fall right into it (and they’ll of course blame us progressives in the process).
The best part is that the economic ideas that Sirota suggests Democrats should run on aren’t just good politically, they make good policy. Fighting for small businesses against big corporations, protecting small farmers against big agribusiness, protecting the environment while appealing to sportsmen, going after white collar crime, making government honest and accountable, and using “the values prism” for something besides bigoted gay bashing would not only help us win here in the Natural State, when inacted as policy they would work to issue in change and renewal that are desperately needed.
The whole thing is worth a read, and it works as an effective counterargument to those that would suggest that only a right wing Democrat can win in states and districts like ours.