Democrats—who’d had little to celebrate since Donald Trump’s shocking election a year ago—are exulting in last week’s sweeping victories in Virginia and New Jersey, the first signs that the party can spin Trump’s abysmal public approval ratings into electoral gold.
Yet there’s also a danger of over-interpreting these odd-year election results. New Jersey is a deep blue state, and a combination of demographic change and political pragmatism in Virginia has made Democrats ascendant once again in the Old Dominion. More fundamentally, however, the party can’t engineer a political comeback solely on the strength of an anti-Trump message.
That’s because Democrats’ core dilemma – their lack of competitiveness across America’s broad midsection – is structural. It started before Trump burst onto the political scene and reflects deep cultural and economic changes that have left rural and working class voters feeling forgotten and left behind.
Since Bill Clinton left the White House, Democrats have had little to say to those voters. During the Obama years, the party instead chased the elusive butterfly of an “emerging progressive majority” composed of growing forces in the electorate: minorities, millennials, single women, secular voters, and professionals with graduate degrees. Yet even as Obama rolled up presidential majorities, the party’s base steadily narrowed outside its urban and coastal strongholds.
These geographic and demographic realities explain why Republicans now dominate national as well as state politics. They also highlight Democrats’ strategic imperative: Expanding the party so that they can compete and win anywhere in America.
That’s the mission of New Democracy, a new organization I direct of elected Democrats from all over the country who are determined to stop ceding political terrain to Republicans. While political theologians in Washington obsess over who is or isn’t a “true progressive,” these Democrats are asking a different question: How can the party start winning again in the places we’ve been losing: outer suburbs and exurbs, smaller cities and towns and rural communities?
The answer has two parts. First, Democrats need a “big ideas” vision that inspires public confidence in our ability to create a new and inclusive prosperity and a healthier spirit of civic unity. Second, Democrats need a “big tent” political strategy that reaches beyond core partisans to also woo moderates, independents, rural and working class voters and the growing ranks of disaffected Republicans.
Unfortunately, the party’s establishment has moved in the opposite direction. Rather than speak to Americans’ common economic aspirations, Washington Democrats imitate Trump in serving up an angry, backward-looking populism. As Trump works overtime to pit Americans against each other, the national party emphasizes preferred identity and interest groups, rather than transcendent American values that unite all citizens. And at a time when liberal democracy is under siege around the world, party leaders seem to have lost confidence in our country’s ability or moral standing to champion the cause of economic and political freedom abroad.
Instead of paying the usual claque of Washington-bound consultants to tweak a stale and uninspiring agenda, Democratic leaders ought to listen to voters and Democrats who run and win the America’s vast red and purple places -- in the Midwest, Appalachia, Mountain West, Great Plains and the South.
Here’s a sampling of what they would hear:
Pragmatic Democratic leaders want the party to stop obsessing about social issues (“bathrooms” comes up a lot) and make working families’ struggles to make a decent living their central concern.
They want Democrats to recognize that low unemployment rates aren’t enough – working people need more jobs that pay middle-income wages.
They want Democrats to create new incentives for small business creation, including less regulation and easier access to capital. That’s how to help Main Street, not Wall Street.
They want Democrats to stop "speaking to people in silos" and instead address all Americans as citizens with common rights and responsibilities.
They want Democrats to take seriously their worries about a broken U.S. immigration system, not just demand a humane pathway to legalization.
They want Democrats to defend and improve Obamacare, not indulge in an impractical crusade to “repeal and replace” it with a single payer scheme.
They want Democrats to create more effective and affordable ways to help them get skills employers value, not promises of "free college" that many working families don’t want or need—but know they will have to pay for anyway.
They want Democrats to push digital technologies and economic innovation out to rural and small town communities, so their kids won’t have to move away to find good paying jobs.
They want sensible trade policies that understand the absolutely critical role U.S. farm exports play in sustaining the rural economy.
They want Democrats to restore fiscal responsibility in Washington, to reassure working families the government won’t waste their money.
They don’t want to hear demands for ideological purity or the kinds of supposedly “bold” ideas borrowed from European social democracy so beloved by devotees of Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Democrats should devise quintessentially American solutions to American problems – solutions steeped in the optimistic and radically pragmatic spirit that has made our democracy so resilient, adaptive and successful. That’s how Democrats can start winning back middle America.
Will Marshall is president of the Progressive Policy Institute and a director of New Democracy.