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Could “Inclusive Populism” Solve the Democrats’ Working Class Voter Problem?
It Seems Doubtful
There is a new entrant in the Democratic messaging sweepstakes: “inclusive populism”. The idea here is that Democrats may indeed be bleeding working class voters—points for at least recognizing the problem!—but the solution does not lie in any way with moving to the center on culturally-inflected issues like crime, immigration, race, gender and schooling. That would apparently not be “inclusive”.
Instead, as recounted in Blake Hounshell’s Times article on their initial gathering, the inclusive populists argue for turning it up to 11 on economic populism since “[Democrats] don’t fight hard enough for working-class people, and…aren’t tough enough on big, greedy corporations.” As Hounshell notes:
The unmistakable tone of the event was a rebuke of the Democrats who have failed to squeeze more progressive policy wins out of their congressional majority over the last 18 months — and essentially, in the left’s telling, let their most conservative member, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, dictate the terms of their governing agenda.
There are two big problems with this approach.
1. You Can’t Ignore Culture. The idea that Democrats can just turn up the volume on raw economic populism and ignore sociocultural issues where they are viewed as out of the mainstream is absurd. Culture matters and the issues to which they are connected matter. They are a hugely important part of how voters assess who is on their side and who is not; whose philosophy they can identify with and whose they can’t.
Thus, to even get in the door for working class voters to seriously consider their economic pitch, Democrats need to convince these voters that they are not looked down on, their concerns are taken seriously and their views on culturally-freighted issues will not be summarily dismissed as unenlightened. With today’s Democratic party, unfortunately, that is difficult. Resistance is stiff to any compromise that might involve moving to the center on such issues, a problem that inclusive populism simply ignores.
Perhaps this is because the very forces pushing inclusive populism are part of that problem. As political scientist Herbert Kitschelt, a specialist in the evolution of party coalitions, has observed (quoted in a recent Tom Edsall article), moderate mainstream Democrats are:
far removed from the more radical, progressive wing and its agenda on identity, diversity, equity, and social transformation. The real driving force of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party are occupational strata that are characterized by low- to middle-incomes and high education. These progressive voters primarily work in social and cultural services, in large urban areas…
By embracing the agenda of “defund the police” and cultural transformation of the schools, this progressive constituency puts itself at odds with many lower- and middle-income families across all ethnic groups… [African American and Hispanic families] are highly concerned about improving the police, not dismantling the police… [and] the quality of basic school instruction.
Similarly, pollster Stan Greenberg summarizes some of his recent polling data:
Crime hangs over this election. For Blacks, concern with it is at parity with the cost of living. Crime is in the top tier of of two issues with Hispanics, Asian Americans (AAPI), Gen Z, and millennials. We lose Asian Americans by 9 points on who is better on crime. And the biggest worry if Democrats were to win control of the Congress would be a surge of crime and homelessness and attacks on police. A major part of our diverse base accepts Trump’s dire warning that America has never been more at risk from crime, open borders, disrespect for police, and a lack of pride in America.
These concerns are unlikely to be magicked away by attacks on greedy corporations or promises to fight harder for working people and enact better programs, even if many working class voters are, in the abstract, sympathetic to such appeals.
2. Populism Is Inadequate as an Economic Approach. Overwhelmingly, the economy and inflation are the top issues on voters’ minds, especially working class voters’. Inflation has been severely crimping working class family budgets and leading to falling working class wages in real terms, despite the tight labor market. Consumer confidence is currently as low as it was during the 2008-09 Great Recession. The energy situation continues to be highly uncertain—and scarily so--despite some recent abatement in gas prices.
Not surprisingly, Democratic stewardship of the economy is rated very poorly, economic pessimism is rampant and Republicans are strongly preferred on economic management. A recent AARP poll of the 56 most competitive Congressional districts found Republicans preferred by 22 points of inflation, 21 points on gas and energy costs and 20 points on the economy in general.
It defies common sense to think Democrats can win over working class voters who are suffering through this situation simply by pointing to greedy oil companies and promising to fight harder for the working class. Voters are not overly fond of oil companies but they are smart enough to see that these companies are only one part of a big problem that Democrats—and other factors like disrupted supply chains--have had some hand in creating. Thus, they are unlikely to find a corporate greed explanation for rising prices credible on its own. It is neither good economics nor good politics.
It is also entirely unclear that working class voters are thirsting for all the great programs that Democrats were unable to pass due to Republican opposition (and, of course, progressives’ bête noire, Joe Manchin). Sure, most of those programs were individually popular, but as a group, rolled into the omnibus Build Back Better bill, they became lost in the arcane intra-Democratic party debate on which programs to include and in which form, and how many gazillions of dollars would be spent—all while inflation was spiking and the country seemed to be spinning out of control. It was a terrible look and working class voters can be forgiven for not finding Democrats’ promises to fight for them, at this point, very convincing.
Though inclusive populists would hate to hear it, it may be that their nemesis, Joe Manchin actually has a better idea for appealing to working class voters. Manchin has proposed and said he would vote for “The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022”. According to Manchin,
Rather than risking more inflation with trillions in new spending, this bill will cut the inflation taxes Americans are paying, lower the cost of health insurance and prescription drugs, and ensure our country invests in the energy security and climate change solutions we need to remain a global superpower through innovation rather than elimination….
Tax fairness is vital to our nation’s economic future…It is wrong that some of America’s largest companies pay nothing in taxes while freely enjoying the benefits of our nation’s military security, infrastructure and rule of law. It is commonsense that a domestic corporate minimum tax of 15 percent be applied only to billion-dollar companies or larger ensuring that America’s largest businesses are no longer able to operate for free in our economy….
[The bill invests] in the technologies needed for all fuel types — from hydrogen, nuclear, renewables, fossil fuels and energy storage — to be produced and used in the cleanest way possible…“It is truly all of the above, which means this bill does not arbitrarily shut off our abundant fossil fuel…It invests heavily in technologies to help us reduce our domestic methane and carbon emissions and also helps decarbonize around the world as we displace dirtier products. Our persistent and increasing dependence on foreign energy and supply chains from countries who hate America represents a clear and present danger and it must end.
My read on this is that, aside from being good policy that may be feasible in the current moment, it would strike many working class voters as a step in the right direction. And right now, that’s what Democrats should be looking for, rather than a messaging silver bullet.