The Democratic Party Should Adopt These 4 Priorities to Win Back Blue-Collar Voters
Recent coverage of Ohio’s leading Democrats, Sherrod Brown and Richard Cordray, has shown a pattern of Democrats trying to return to their blue-collar roots and talking about bread-and-butter economics—issues like retirement security—as a way to gain traction in the run-up to the 2018 elections. By juxtaposing truly populist ideas against a number of the economic policies that the Trump administration is advancing, these and other Democrats hope to gain ground with white working-class voters, among others.
In discussion groups I have led across the country, I got to know firsthand the blue-collar voters these populist Democrats are targeting. These voters certainly see retirement security as a major issue. And, they describe how it gets harder and harder for them to make ends meet. Over the years, they have seen their pensions eroded, attacked and in some cases eliminated. Given all this, candidates waging a defense of those pensions and calling out giveaways to the top 1 percent certainly find a receptive audience in these voters.
But while this approach—which seeks to double down on “bread-and-butter issues” like retirement security, jobs and the economy, while skirting the divisive “social issues” that some fear have driven working-class whites toward the GOP—may be a good first step, it does not go far enough.
First, this approach fundamentally misunderstands how social issues and economic issues intertwine in the hearts and minds of conservative and right-leaning independent voters. And, second, this approach relies on relatively safe, anodyne policy prescriptions—take retirement security, for example—when what is needed to break down the party differences that keep us so divided are much bolder, economically populist ideas that have the potential to excite progressive, conservative and independent voters across the board.
If we fail to get these two things right, then Democrats risk peeling off relatively few pocketbook voters while missing a far larger opportunity to fundamentally reorient the party in a way that redefines it as a home for working people everywhere. Democrats can commit to doing so while still holding on to their current base voters—the highly educated and diverse voters clustered primarily in major metropolitan areas and the coasts—but it will mean overhauling our views on economic populism, rather than just tinkering with messaging around the margins. Here’s how.
Bread-and-Butter Issues and Morality: Better Together
Most of the time, progressive candidates shy away from theology and bring a secular frame to their politics. The popular wisdom has been that you appeal to more conservative working-class voters by staying away from moral or social issues and sticking to bread-and-butter issues instead. But there is a glaring flaw in this argument: for voters who subscribe to a socially conservative moral framework and seek to understand the world through it, theological arguments inform and are inextricably linked to the so-called pocketbook issues. For these voters, there aren’t social issues versus economic issues; they are one and the same. When Democrats try to separate bread-and-butter issues from those issues more commonly understood as social issues, we inadvertently degrade one side of that equation. These voters reason that progressive morality is optional, as it doesn’t link their economic policies and moral compass or those economic issues must not be so important if they stand outside the fundamental moral frame. Either way, the traditional Democratic message doesn’t resonate.
For example, to some conservatives, the scientific consensus on global climate change is perceived through their value system and religious worldview as a hostile attack, even though its isn’t intended that way. Given this, when talking about climate science and the need to take serious action to respond to it, Democrats must make a case that is much more broadly compelling to wider swaths of traditionally conservative voters by simultaneously acknowledging the science of climate change while honoring the validity of voters’ sincerely held religious perspectives.
Rather than aim to defeat religious devotion, which is unlikely to ever work, we can, and must, authentically integrate theology and science into the argument. Expressing a faithful commitment to “stewarding God’s creation” makes more room for folks who fear that pro-science means anti-faith. To hear that candidates honestly aim to reconcile both religious and secular perspectives and don’t think of faith and theology as things of the past helps cultivate a politics that is grounded in science, honors religious traditions and takes a strong moral stance on one of today’s most pressing and intractable issues.
From this grounding, there is a need for much more bold populist ideas that speak to a wider range of working-class voters, including white working-class voters.
Give Employees a Voice
Today, American workers from all backgrounds and industries face tremendous challenges in their daily efforts to provide for their families. They feel overlooked, overworked and underappreciated. Today’s blue-collar workers often don’t see themselves or their ideas represented in, or listened to by, their company’s leadership, and, with record low union membership rates across industries, their ability to bargain with employers is weaker than ever. In response to this, Democrats need to call for representation of frontline workers on corporate boards, whether it’s car manufacturing, retail or any other industry.
This would allow all Americans to benefit from the input of those with the most hands-on experience in any field, and simultaneously invest those everyday experts in the strategic decisions made within their companies and industries. By bringing these voices to the decision-making process, we’ll confront the notion of a “forgotten American” head-on, and create the kind of inclusion, dignity in work and respect for Americans’ labor that’s necessary to opening new paths of economic progress and political problem-solving. Democrats should pilot a program that requires companies to include frontline employee voices on their boards if the company seeks to do business with the government or benefits from public subsidies.
In several industries, we have come to know that input from frontline workers with knowledge of how production really works is key for companies to innovate and compete. Yet we have continued to have a significant blind spot when it comes to including workers’ voices at the tables where corporate and business strategy decisions are made.
Beginning with city- and state-level pilots, we should create mandates requiring companies doing business with the state or local government, or benefiting from subsidies or beneficial tax consideration to have worker representation on their boards.
Despite the rhetoric that separates “knowledge work” from manual labor, we know that often it is through the “doing” that new strategy and innovation is developed. Many of the most accomplished business leaders learned by doing, and made their way up the corporate ladder by investing time and effort in the often thankless work that makes even the largest corporations’ success possible. Knowing this, Democrats must invest in the knowledge, experience and point of view of frontline workers if they are to compete moving forward.
This is an approach that is good for business, shows respect for hard-working Americans who often feel overlooked and has immense appeal beyond traditional voting blocs, as likely to appeal to traditionally conservative working people as pro-labor progressives.
Go for a Manufacturing Moonshot
America’s industrial manufacturing base has stalled as factory jobs have moved overseas and plants have shuttered across the country. To help grow small- and medium-sized companies, Democrats must commit to a two-part approach: 1) securing the domestic supply chain for all our defense and adjacent industry needs; and, 2) investing in our small and mid-sized manufacturers’ capacity to compete overseas.
As we have all heard, over the past two decades, the manufacturing sector as a whole has experienced erosion across many industries. While firms with more than $1 billion in assets have achieved significantly higher revenue growth and returns on invested capital, it is small- and mid-sized firms all across the country that have experienced negative growth.
The good news is there is an opportunity right before our eyes to remedy this by transforming how the Department of Defense and our military conducts procurement negotiations and contract pricing. Currently, our nation’s small- and mid-sized firms are left to fend for themselves in a system where the largest players are favored, leading to a lack of competitiveness, innovation, growth and productivity across the defense sector. We can reimagine the spend and procurement of the U.S. military to ensure the long-term security of our domestic supply chain and help our small- and mid-sized firms become increasingly innovative, competitive and growth-oriented.
We can further re-invigorate our manufacturing sector by helping to open foreign markets for goods we are once again able to produce, giving us the ability to compete on the global stage. This will require a significant influx of public and private funds that will seek respectable returns over the long term while generating quality jobs that provide at or above median income for hundreds of thousands of Americans. The federal government will need to make this market possible and support it through the creation of a manufacturing investment bank with an implied federal guarantee and a tax benefit for long-term private investors.
For this strategy to work, in addition to stimulating long-term investment, we also need to create a nationally coordinated plan for worker training and readiness. The nature of work changes at the speed of innovation today, and only by investing significant resources in procuring the latest technologies and training workers on how to use them can we remain competitive in the global marketplace.
Americans could set themselves on a path to reach 2 million new quality jobs in manufacturing by 2025 if we pursue these two approaches to a manufacturing moonshot. Keeping America safe at home—that will get you dinged. It’s a winning message and policy platform, and it’s the Democrats’ for the taking.
Build a Caring Economy
There is an important opportunity to make the connection between those who need care and the caregivers who care for them. With an aging population of baby boomers, we need skilled, compassionate caregivers in cities and towns big and small across the country. Ensuring that there are people in place to do this work will only become more important over time.
Across the country, the health and elder care economies arguably include the fastest-growing job categories today. With a population of residents 65 and older that is expected to more than double (from 3.3 million to 10 million) by 2030, we know the growing population of older adults means a growing demand for caregivers. So, when we think about job creation policies, we shouldn’t just be thinking about factory workers and plant operators; we should also be thinking seriously about how to ensure that we are providing quality care jobs that deliver quality care.
This work has traditionally fallen to women and people of color and has been undervalued and has too often remained invisible. Democrats need to make the case that care work (health workers, nannies, home health aides, etc.) is the work that makes all other work possible. It needs to be recognized, valued, invested in and cultivated as part of an overall strategy to meet the huge demands that our aging population will place on society.
With the most at stake in America’s health care system, seniors are often health care voters. By tying together those in need of care and those who provide the care, there is a strong opportunity to mobilize base voters while also expanding to a broader potential voter base around this core issue. In today’s politics, there is a deafening silence on the issue of care work, giving Democrats the opportunity to take the initiative to harness this enormous economic engine.
Beyond these three issues, there are other under-explored issues that can provide a springboard for a common good populist policy agenda. They include: capping CEO pay; increased corporate accountability with regard to government subsidies; and the use of the federal government’s buying power in drug price negotiations.
All of this is to say that Democrats should dig deep into the blue-collar tradition, the one that held the party together before the Clinton years, and actually go bolder than progressives ever have before. By reclaiming faith and morality and tying them to a bold economic populism, there is tremendous potential for growth with voting demographics that left the tent long ago.
Each of these issues speaks not only to Americans’ need for dignified work, but also to our shared desire to see the fruits of our labor respected and honored, our nation secured and an investment made in our children.
By reconciling the science of climate change with the faith traditions that a majority of Americans still hold, they can unite a new coalition around the central task of solving the climate crisis. By giving workers a voice in the companies where they work, remaking a fairer and stronger defense sector, and taking advantage of the enormous potential offered by care work in the immediate future, Democrats can reclaim the economic argument that for so long has favored the other side.
In short, by standing for bold populist policies, Democrats can remake the party into a political home for all Americans, not just the predictable voting blocs that they’ve always relied on.