Phillip Thompson, president of the NAACP’s Loudon County, Virginia chapter, was not impressed with the economic strategy recently released with much fanfare by Democratic leaders. With an eye toward reclaiming Senate and House majorities in next year’s mid-term elections and returning a Democrat to the White House in 2020, the plan relies heavily on populist rhetoric designed to appeal to disaffected, working-class white voters — and leaves much to be desired for people of color.
Thompson expected to hear Democrats plot a course to rebuild the coalition that elected Barack Obama president in 2008. He wanted to hear specific proposals that would excite black voters, like himself, to more fully participate in upcoming elections. Instead, Thompson heard an appeal to chase working-class white voters who fled the party last year and helped elevate Donald Trump to the White House.
Nothing, he said, was aimed at faithful Democrats like himself or legions of other voters in communities of color.
“I don’t know why I was thinking or expecting the Democrats to say or do anything different from than what they did,” Thompson said in an interview this week. “I shouldn’t have raised my hopes too high because, judging from all I’ve read and seen, the Democrats are buying into the jargon that they lost last year because disenchanted white Democrats have left them behind.”
“Democrats are buying into the jargon that they lost last year because disenchanted white Democrats have left them behind.”
A self-described social and political activist, Thompson offered a critical analysis of the Democrats’ so-called “Better Deal” plan. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (NY), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (CA), and a host of other Democratic congressional leaders unfurled their set of economic policy prescriptions last week, just before they were scheduled to return home for August recess. Key proposals offered by the Better Deal include: recommitting to previous party plans calling for creation of jobs with a $1 trillion infrastructure program, raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, and providing paid family and sick leave.
But, the new plan contains more than warmed-over ideas from the past. In an op-ed in the New York Times, Schumer said he and other Democratic leaders are committed to stopping prescription drug price gouging and demanding lower drug prices for the elderly, combating big business consolidation with beefed-up anti-trust regulations, and offering employer tax credits to train workers for unfilled jobs as new policy ideas to persuade voters to join the Democrats next year. As Schumer put it:
In the last two elections, Democrats, including in the Senate, failed to articulate a strong, bold economic program for the middle class and those working hard to get there. We also failed to communicate our values to show that we were on the side of working people, not the special interests. We will not repeat the same mistake. This is the start of a new vision for the party, one strongly supported by House and Senate Democrats.
To be fair, the Democrats’ plan, if enacted into law, would benefit people of color. After all, working class is a broad and flexible label. Any policy to enrich the lives of working Americans is sure to help Latinos, African Americans, women, and young people — as well as white Americans.
Rather, the Democrats seem to have their signals crossed in communicating their ideas. The problem isn’t so much with the policies as it is with the leadership’s clumsy messaging; it’s overt in supporting working class whites but vague about how it helps others who make up the Democratic voting base. Rep. Cheri Bustos (IL), for example, told Roll Call she’s going to talk about the Democrats’ plans while attending roundtables and meetings with constituents in her district. “I’m branding our entire August district work period as ‘a better deal for the heartland,’” she said.
But Thompson and other progressives argue that Bustos appeal to “heartland” voters is a kinder, gentler way of offering policies tailored to white voters — with no corresponding better deal for black or minority voters.
“They know that a certain amount of black and minority voters will come out for them regardless, so they take those votes for granted and offer nothing in exchange for them,” Thompson said. “What we know in the minority community is that our vote isn’t as strong as it could be. But rather than make specific proposals to get even more of our votes, they’re comfortable with the status quo, but have decided to go all-out for that so-called disenchanted white vote.”
Thompson would have been delighted if the Democrats thought creatively to say specifically how people in inner-city communities will benefit from their legislative proposals or how the policies are specifically designed to improve their lives. For example, he suggests a program that teaches computer coding to inner-city residents to help them find 21st century employment. Instead of relying on vouchers to fix urban schools, he said, Democrats might push for public boarding schools.
“They know that a certain amount of black and minority voters will come out for them regardless, so they take those votes for granted.”
Thompson isn’t alone among progressives in his analysis or lack of enthusiasm for the Democrats’ strategy.
Steve Phillips, founder of Democracy in Color and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, attacked party leaders who covet the affection of Trump voters. “The Democratic Party’s fixation on pursuing those who voted for Mr. Trump is a fool’s errand because it’s trying to fix the wrong problem,” he wrote in a recent The New York Times op-ed. “The country is under conservative assault because Democrats mistakenly sought support from conservative white working-class voters susceptible to racially charged appeals. Replicating that strategy would be another catastrophic blunder.” (Editor’s note: ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed at the Center for American Progress.)
Meanwhile, Elisabeth Pearson, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, questioned whether it’s wise for Democratic gubernatorial candidates running this year and next in 38 states to embrace the federal lawmakers’ plan. In an interview with Politico, Pearson cautioned her association’s membership to think independently. “We’re counseling people to put forth their own focused economic agenda about how they would move their state forward,” she said.
All of this may very well be a moot point. Considering Trump’s low national popularity and the GOP-led Congress’ failure to produce meaningful legislation, Democratic candidates might be on the verge of a wave election. Backlash to the extremism of the Trump administration and displeasure with the current Republican congressional leadership may persuade voters to seek out Democrats for yet another swinging-gate change in Washington.
Even if the winds of change are blowing in their favor, however, Democrats don’t have the luxury of sitting back and letting it all play out.
Thompson persuasively argues that the party’s leaders need to rethink their strategy for success by including targeted messaging to bolster their strongest base of supporters. “Democrats lose whenever they run away from black voters. With the exception of the Obama years, that’s what [Democratic politicians] have done over the past 20 years,” he said. “And that’s why they’re in the minority in Congress and have Trump in the White House now.”
Perhaps during their summer recess, as they serve up the weak-tea ideas aimed at courting the working-class white voters they’ve already lost, Democrats will get the message that building a winning coalition requires tailored polices and messages that inspire the most loyal voters to cast a ballot.