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In the weeks leading up to April 9th, 2017, and the eventual confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, I worked as an intern in the office of Senator Jon Tester. During the prolonged and grueling confirmation battles being waged over President Trump’s executive and judicial nominees, minority leader Chuck Schumer estimated that as many as 1.5 million calls a day were pouring into Senate offices of both parties. While the bulk of communications we received were the usual expressions of either encouragement from sympathetic Democrats or threats of eviction from office by newly emboldened Republicans, there developed a trend of increasingly frequent calls from a third faction – that of the Angry Progressive.
“Mr. Tester. I live in Billings, Montana and I am a lifelong Democrat. I voted for you twice, Mr. Tester, but if you vote to confirm Neil Gorsuch as Supreme Court Justice I swear I will not rest until you are defeated in the next primary.”
Jon Tester, as a Democrat in a state Trump won by a huge margin, must often tread a very fine political line. Like his Democratic colleagues from traditionally conservative states in the South and Midwest, Tester built his career by reaching across the aisle - his liberal principles tempered by a mixture of conservative values particular to his constituency. Mr. Tester’s office had become accustomed to Republicans periodically angry about their Senator caucusing with Washington Democrats, but the general understanding was that Montana Liberals were just happy to have a representative in office.
Perhaps not so anymore.
Mr. Tester did not in the end vote to confirm Justice Gorsuch. However, he did make decisions less popular with the left, such as voting to ease an Obama-administration regulation barring Social Security recipients who meet certain disability criteria from purchasing firearms. Shortly thereafter, office lines were flooded by complaints – the majority of them from out-of-state non-constituents. The threat this kind of outside pressure poses, should it continue to grow unchecked, cannot be exaggerated.
The State of Our Union
There is a fundamental disconnect between Democrats and Republicans in this country. In a poll that it has been conducting since 1994, the Pew Research Center found that there is currently a 36-point gap between Republicans and Democrats across 10 different political values. This number is far larger than any other societal cleavage (the second largest is ‘race’ at 14%). More than anything, this is due to a increasingly prominent lack of understanding – and therefore sensitivity - the two groups have for each other.
Take, for example, a study conducted by Wesleyan University analyzing the comparative substance of campaign ads run during the 2016 election. The study found that of Secretary Clinton’s ads, a little under 65% were personal in nature, 25% based on policy, and a little over 10% were both. In comparison, Donald Trump ran about 70% of his ads centered around policy. These numbers may come as a surprise to many Democrats, for whom Ms. Clinton is considered the preeminent policy wonk. The source of this confusion is also the source of the current problems facing the Democratic party. Among coastal liberals, it is a common assumption that President Trump’s political, and general, illiteracy does not translate to effective or informative messaging. Therefore, his election by large, predominantly white swathes of the country must be due to latent biases that finally found an outlet in the man prominent writer and activist Ta-Nehisi Coates dubs, The First White President. And yet, when Gallup polled what people had “read, seen, or heard about Hillary Clinton” during the campaign, the most common responses were email, lie, scandal, and various other closely associated words like FBI and investigation. Before attributing this in its entirety to a potent Republican attack strategy, understand that Donald Trump, a character not short on controversy, was associated with words like Second Amendment, Mexico, ISIS, and even the word policy. While there is certainly merit to the argument of white cultural backlash, to consider such an interpretation as adequate is as convenient as it is irresponsible. Before Democrats can begin to tackle the problem and establish a game plan for the future, they must codify one central assumption on which to build a foundation: ‘deplorable’ America has real policy preferences and they are very distinct from those of urban liberal bastions.
It is no secret that American liberals tend to concentrate in urban areas and conservatives in rural ones. The consequent cultural divide is often both underappreciated and misunderstood. Underappreciated in that for many who have not experienced it, it is hard to comprehend fully how much everything from labor markets to demographics differs between urban and rural communities. Misunderstood in that these differences permeate almost every facet of life and to a great extent dictate policy priorities. Take the concept of ‘economic anxiety.’ The notion of economic anxiety is often derided by certain elements of the left as being dog-whistle rhetoric enabling bigotry in all its many forms. However, the numbers tell a different story. The Hamilton Project, launched as an economic policy initiative by the Brookings Institute, published a study charting disparities in economic recovery from the Great Recession. While total employment reached its pre-recession levels in April of 2014, that recovery has been far from evenly distributed. The two major discrepancies between those who have recovered and those who have not? Geography and educational attainment. Overwhelmingly, the largest employment-to-population ratio differences between 2007 and 2017 were concentrated in Western and Southern states, with states like South Dakota and Alabama recording differences as high as -4.2% and -3.3% respectively. For those with a Bachelor’s or Graduate degree, employment-to-population ratios reached pre-Recession levels shortly before 2016 and have since surpassed those levels. On the other hand, for those with either ‘some college or associate’s degree’ or ‘high school or less,’ the ratio is still hovering between -2% and -3%. Unsurprisingly, 22 of the 25 states in the lower 50th percentile of ‘Most Educated States’ voted for Donald Trump in 2016 (New Mexico, California, and Nevada were the exceptions).5
Why do these numbers matter? Most importantly because they demonstrate the value in paying close attention to the way voters perceive candidates. While Donald Trump may have been short on specifics as to how he would enact his policy vision, loudly railing against the plight of the Forgotten Blue-Collar Man (a concept conspicuously absent from any 2016 platform on the left) was enough to turn an enormous constituency on to him. Thankfully, the problems facing middle-America also highlight encouraging avenues of electoral opportunity for the Democratic party.
A Grave of One’s Own Digging
More important than what the Democratic party and its sponsored candidates should do in the future, is what they should not do: ignore the cultural realities of differing constituencies. It is up to the Democratic party to lead the country in a positive and productive direction, but liberal purity politics has the potential to do permanent damage to the single most important objective of the party – to strengthen its caucus and broaden its appeal. The argument here is not for national candidates to adopt empty-vessel platforms and follow opinion polls. Rather, it is that anointed Democratic candidates for statewide office must better represent the constituencies for whom they are competing.
The worry is not necessarily how best to win over divided liberals in purple/red states (the key voting demographics in these areas tend to be swing voters and persuadable Republicans), but that influential institutions within the party - the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee – which play a critical role in recruiting and grooming potential candidates are not co-opted by the “Bernie-wing” of the party, or as they have now become: the liberal base. Positions in party leadership are generally occupied by members with leverageable networks among the liberal donor elite concentrated in coastal cities. While practical for fundraising purposes, it is imperative that these institutions strike a careful balance between appeasing their sources of income and doing their job: winning elections. As proof of the potential Democratic politicians have to win in traditionally conservative areas, two states in particular are in prime position to serve as live-action case studies.
It’s Been Done
In 2016, Donald Trump won 56.5% of the vote in Montana while Hillary Clinton came in a distant second with 35.97%. Clinton only won in 6 out of more than 60 counties, and then only by very thin margins. And yet, Montana has both a Democratic Senator, Jon Tester, and a Democratic Governor, Steve Bullock. In 2012, Jon Tester had an A- rating from the National Rifle Association. In 2006, while he was first running for the Senate, he was accused of not wanting anyone to know he, “…opposes a gay-marriage ban. Thinks flag-burning is a right. And supports higher taxes.” His response was that he supports neither gay marriage, nor flag burning, but is opposed to amending the Constitution for either (he has since endorsed the right to same-sex marriage). For his part, Governor Bullock has been openly critical of Bernie Sanders and his platform.
In West Virginia, Trump won by a 42.2-point margin, the second largest of any state. In 2012, Democrat Joe Manchin III beat his Republican challenger 60.6% to 36.5%. Senator Manchin had an A rating from the NRA in 2012, and has regularly attacked the Environmental Protection Agency for its efforts to limit greenhouse gases.
Understandably, to many a committed liberal some of these positions might seem unconscionable. I grew up 30 minutes away from Sandy Hook Elementary School. It was horrifying to watch the man for whom I worked vote to allow social security recipients clinically unable to manage their own benefits access to firearms. Still, the exercise in cultural sensitivity lead to a clearer understanding that issues and values are not universal, they are local. For example, over 89% of the population in Montana is ‘white only;’ the second largest demographic is ‘American Indian and Alaskan Native’ at a little over 6%. Expecting a platform of racial equality to bear any sort of relevance to such a constituency is naïve at best. In the top 10 coal mining counties in the country in 2012, coal jobs in rural areas accounted for over 39% of total wages in 2012. West Virginia is the second highest coal producer in the country. Needless to say, it is hard to imagine a pro-environmental regulation platform gaining any traction.
The answer is not to abandon the fight for civil rights, or a healthier planet, or restricted access to firearms for the mentally ill. The national stage is the perfect arena for liberal stalwarts to establish their vision for a more progressive society, but engaging in a ‘mission to civilize’ is counterproductive and will undoubtedly deal lasting damage to the very platform it hopes to establish. The most universally relevant Democratic principles - shared economic prosperity, inclusive health-coverage, access to educational opportunities – should form the core platform of any candidate while allowing for flexibility in tailoring the message to a particular constituency. Change comes from the bottom-up. For all intents and purposes, the progressive agenda is the right one for the country. The issue is how best to realize it. The job for the next generation of liberal leaders is to address at the local level the root causes of misinformed voting, bad policy, and inequality of opportunity. Increasing the efficiency of public schools, developing programs to encourage the transition to institutions of higher education, minimizing the social cleavages created by rapidly evolving racial and cultural demographics – these are all challenges that will demand our time and energy. For now, let’s start worrying about winning.