One year removed from having Trump elected against 3-1 odds per FiveThirtyEight (man, 2016 was really good year for underdogs down 3-1, just ask the Cavaliers), the US held another election. Not for president (sadly), but an off-year election for some governors, some state reps, some aldermen, and so on, because federalism is really confusing when it comes to keeping up with your local and national elections.
If there was a theme to the 2016 populism it was, “Anyone who will change this!” The theme – so it appears – for 2017 is, “Well, yeah, we want change, but we really gotta’ add some qualifiers here.” Populism didn’t go away for these elections, if anything it entrenched itself. Of last night’s elections, 7 or 8 of the victors nationally were avowed Democratic Socialists or Socialists (who ran as Democrats or Independents). The victory with the loudest bang would be Lee Carter ousting the established Republican House Majority Whip…and he did it by 9 points and with very little help from the Democratic Party.
So why did Democratic Socialists do so well? More importantly, what should the DNC do with this information (other than offhandedly dismiss one as “that red-headed Marine guy” like Perez chose to do). It shows that, at least at the local level, people are still very concerned about the issue closest to their hearts; their wallet. The majority will tend to vote with where they feel or believe their economic interests are. Once they feel a certain way about an economic plan, they’ll often times shape their other beliefs to fit with the economic one, or “hold their nose and vote.” It’s very rare for someone to embrace pure ideology (insert Zizek reference here) and say, “While this is in my best economic interest, I simply cannot vote for it because I really hate The Gays™ and The Blacks™.” What they might say is, “He’s going to bring us jobs!” Don’t believe me?
Think about the Civil Rights Act, passed during a time when the majority (white people) didn’t care all too much for changing the system. Now it passed during a booming economic time for the white population, where jobs were easy to come by, pay was good, and Americans – for a brief period – enjoyed the highest standard of living in the world. So along comes Goldwater with his far-right economics and also saying he wanted to eradicate the Civil Rights Act. In 1963, a year before the Civil Rights Act was passed, 60% of Americans were against the March on Washington. 74% thought mass demonstrations would hurt the African American cause for freedom. So here’s Goldwater saying, “We can go back to what you all want” and they didn’t. Why? Because as much as white America hated the Civil Rights movement, they feared Goldwater’s economic policies more, so they overwhelmingly voted for LBJ despite his passage of the CRA.
There are numerous other examples. The point being, people vote where they believe their economic interests are. That means that messaging by the political party also matters. See, for whatever reason, the GOP has been really good at branding and advertising that tax cuts for the wealthy is actually good for the poor. Now, if we took this claim and put it on a Maury lie detector test, he’d give us the gleeful disappointed look he’s so good at and tell us the test determined the claim was a lie. Yet people eat it up because no one can brand like the GOP can brand. The Democrats, however, are the nerdy kids who might have some good ideas, but have no idea how to explain it to people without boring them or sounding condescending. And the fact is, most Democrats now aren’t really economic populists, fighting so hard for (and losing) corporate donations. Those of us on the more progressive side of things are often labeled “radical” by other Democrats.
But suppressing their worker roots is what has the Democrats in the position they’ve been in for 20 years (losing local and national elections). The Democratic Socialists, or “Social Democrats” if it makes you feel better, have tapped into a populist trend that will bear fruit if the Democrats let it. People want to know there are solutions out there for their problems. While they want overnight solutions, if branded correctly, one can show how we can have universal healthcare, free college education, college debt forgiveness, and other progressive economic talking points over time. We can transition to them and honestly, we don’t have much of a choice. The ease with which people took to Bernie Sanders in 2015 and 2016 and the minor, yet significant, gains Democratic Socialists (all of whom were supported by young people, young people who got out and voted in an off-year election) made on Tuesday should be a wakeup call to Democrats that their economic outlook no longer matches the majority of young people (and I’m being liberal with that term: I mean people 40 or younger).
Populism is in vogue and the 2017 election shows it just as much as 2016 did. Now, we can try to ignore that populism and downplay it as mere peasantry, supporting neoliberal policies that only aid the rich in getting richer, and allowing the populism to grow and quickly turn into tribalism and nationalism. Or, we can use that populism and begin to construct a “more perfect union,” a nation that works for everyone, a populism with a pragmatic structure to make sure it works and improves our nation. If the Democrats are smart, they’ll go with the second option. I won’t hold my breath.