As the Democratic Party goes through its quadrennial self-flagellation process, the same tired old consultants and insiders are once again complaining that Democratic elected officials have no national agenda and no message.
Yet encrypted within the 2004 election map is a clear national economic platform to build a lasting majority. You don’t need Fibonacci’s sequence, a decoder ring, or 3-D glasses to see it. You just need to start asking the right questions.
Where, for instance, does a Democrat get off using a progressive message to become governor of Montana? How does an economic populist Democrat keep winning a congressional seat in what is arguably America’s most Republican district? Why do culturally conservative rural Wisconsin voters keep sending a Vietnam-era anti-war Democrat back to Congress? What does a self-described socialist do to win support from conservative working-class voters in northern New England?
The answers to these and other questions are the Democrats' very own Da Vinci Code—a road map to political divinity. It is the path Karl Rove fears. He knows his GOP is vulnerable to Democrats who finally follow leaders who have translated a populist economic agenda into powerful cultural and values messages. It also threatens groups like the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which has pushed the Democratic Party to give up on its working-class roots and embrace big business' agenda. These New Democrats, backed by huge corporate contributions, say that the party must reduce corporate regulation and embrace a free-trade policy that is wiping out local economies throughout the heartland. They have the nerve to call this agenda “centrist” even though poll after poll shows it is far out of the mainstream. Yet these centrists get slaughtered at the ballot box, and their counterparts—the progressive economic populists—are racking up wins and relegating the DLC argument to the scrap heap.
The code’s seven lessons are clear, and have been for some time. The question is, will party insiders see the obvious and finally follow their real leaders? Or will they continue mimicking Republican corporatism, thereby hastening their own demise?
Fight the Class War
If patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, crying “class warfare” is the last refuge of wealthy elitists. Yet, inexplicably, this red herring emasculates Democrats in Washington. Every time pro–middle-class legislation is offered, Republicans berate it as class warfare. Worse, they get help from corporate factions within the Democratic Party itself.
But as countless examples show, progressives are making inroads into culturally conservative areas by talking about economic class. This is not the traditional (and often condescending) Democratic pandering about the need for a nanny government to provide for the masses. It is us-versus-them red meat, straight talk about how the system is working against ordinary Americans.
In Vermont, Representative Bernie Sanders, the House’s only independent and a self-described socialist, racks up big wins in the “Northeast Kingdom,” the rock-ribbed Republican region along the New Hampshire border. Far from the Birkenstock-wearing, liberal caricature of Vermont, the Kingdom is one of the most culturally conservative hotbeds in New England, the place that helped fuel the “Take Back Vermont” movement against gay civil unions.
Yet the pro-choice, pro–gay-rights Sanders’ economic stances help him bridge the cultural divide. In the 1990s, he was one of the most energetic opponents of the trade deals with China and Mexico that destroyed the local economy. In the Bush era, he highlighted the inequity of the White House's soak-the-rich tax-cut plan by proposing to instead provide $300 tax-rebate checks to every man, woman, and child regardless of income (a version of Sanders’ rebate eventually became law). For his efforts, Sanders has been rewarded in GOP strongholds like Newport Town. While voters there backed George W. Bush and Republican Governor Jim Douglas in 2004, they also gave Sanders 68 percent of the vote.
Sanders' strength among rural conservatives is not just a cult of personality; it is economic populism’s broader triumph over divisive social issues. In culturally conservative Derby, for instance, a first-time third-party candidate used a populist message to defeat a longtime Republican state representative who had become an icon of Vermont’s anti-gay movement.
The same message is working in conservative swaths of Oregon, where Democratic Representative Peter DeFazio keeps getting re-elected in a Bush district. For DeFazio, the focus is unfair trade deals and taxpayer giveaways to the wealthy. When Republicans promote plans to “save” Social Security, DeFazio counters not by agreeing with privatization but with his plan to force the wealthy to start paying more into the system.
The message is also used by Mississippi Congressman Gene Taylor, who represents a district that gave 65 percent of its vote to Bush in 2000 and was previously represented in the House by Trent Lott. Taylor bucks his district’s GOP tilt by mixing opposition to free trade with what the Almanac of American Politics calls “peppery populism” and a demeanor that is “feisty to the point of being belligerent.” "Unlike the policy hawks who never leave Washington … I know the owners of factories, the foreman, and the workers, and they'll all tell you it's because of NAFTA that their factories closed,” Taylor told newspapers in late 2003, criticizing the trade deal signed by President Bill Clinton.
This message contrasts with that of the DLC centrists, who promote, for instance, Indiana Senator Evan Bayh's free-trade, Republican-lite positions as a model for winning in red states. What they don’t say is that Bayh comes from one of Indiana’s most beloved political families and wins largely by virtue of his last name, not his ideology. Where a corporate message like Bayh’s has been put to a real challenge, it has been a disaster. In Louisiana, for instance, the state’s tradition of electing Democratic populists like Huey and Russell Long gave way to centrist politicians like Senator John Breaux, a man best known in Washington for throwing Mardi Gras parties with business lobbyists. When a Breaux clone ran to replace the retiring senator, he was crushed by a moral crusading Republican.
In North Carolina, instead of following John Edwards' class-based formula, Democrats anointed investment banker Erskine Bowles as the nominee to replace Edwards in 2004. At the time, party insiders brushed off concerns that, as a Clinton White House chief of staff, Bowles was an architect of the free-trade policy that helped eliminate North Carolina’s manufacturing jobs. But Bowles’ opponent, Representative Richard Burr, made the Democrat pay for his free-trade sellout. “You negotiated the China trade agreement for President Clinton, which is the largest exporter of jobs not just in North Carolina but in this country,” Burr said at one debate, robbing Bowles of an economic issue that might have offset North Carolinians’ inherent cultural suspicions of a Democrat. On election night, Bowles went down in flames.
Champion Small Business Over Big Business
The small-business lobby in Washington is a de facto wing of the Republican Party. But Democrats are finding that, at the grass-roots level, small-business people are far less uniformly conservative, especially as the GOP increasingly helps huge corporations eat up local economies. While entrepreneurs don't like high taxes and regulations, they also don’t like government encouraging multinationals to monopolize the market and destroy Main Street.
As a small-business man himself, Montana’s 2004 Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Brian Schweitzer, figured out how to use these frustrations in one of America’s reddest states. He lamented how out-of-state corporations were using loopholes to avoid paying taxes, thus driving up the tax burden on small in-state companies. He discussed taxing big-box companies like Wal-Mart that have undercut local business. In the process, he became the state’s first Democratic governor in 16 years.
In the Midwest and New England, progressives are focused on small manufacturers. These traditional GOP constituencies, which sell components to large multinationals, have been decimated by a trade policy that encourages their customers to head overseas in search of repressive, anti-union regimes that drive down labor costs. "When the economy turned soft [in 2001], we anticipated the business would come back," one owner of a factory-machine business told BusinessWeek. "But it didn't. We saw our customer base either close, or migrate to China."
Free-trade critics like Democratic Representatives Mike Michaud, Ted Strickland, and Tim Holden, who perpetually win Republican-leaning districts, are rewarded for their stands with support from these kinds of businesspeople, who had previously been part of the GOP’s base. The U.S. Business and Industry Council, which represents America’s domestic family-owned manufacturers, now lists these and other progressives at the top of its congressional scorecard.
Unfortunately, these kinds of trailblazers are not yet being rewarded by their own party in Washington. According to reports, the House Democratic leadership is considering promoting some of the most ardent free traders to the Ways and Means Committee, the panel that oversees trade policy. Apparently Democrats have not yet lost enough seats in the heartland to honestly address their Achilles heels.
Protect Tom Joad
Northern Wisconsin and the plains of North Dakota are not naturally friendly territories for progressives. Both areas are culturally conservative, yet their voters keep sending progressive Democrats like Representative David Obey and Senator Byron Dorgan, respectively, back to Congress.
No issue is closer to these two leaders’ hearts—or more important to their electoral prospects—than the family farm. In Wisconsin, corporate dairy processors have tried to depress prices for farmers’ dairy products. In North Dakota, agribusiness has squeezed the average farmer with lower prices for commodities. But unlike other lawmakers who simply pocket agribusiness cash and look the other way, Obey and Dorgan have been voices of dissent. They have pushed legislation to freeze agribusiness mergers, a proposal originally developed by populist Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. As Dorgan once wrote, “When Cargill, the nation’s number one grain exporter, can buy the grain operations of Continental, which is number two, the cops aren’t exactly walking tall on the antitrust beat.”
Dorgan and Obey also opposed the Republican-backed “Freedom to Farm Act,” which President Clinton signed into law. Instead of pretending the subsidies in the bill were good for the little guy, Obey told the truth and called it the "freedom-to-lose-your-shirt" bill. He noted that the new subsidies would primarily go to large corporations, encourage overproduction that depresses prices, and reward big farms over small ones.
Other Democrats are catching on. In South Dakota, Representative Stephanie Herseth used her family-farm roots to woo Republican voters. As most of Herseth's House Democratic colleagues buckled to corporate pressure and helped pass a free-trade deal with Australia in 2004, the first-term congresswoman attacked her GOP opponent for supporting the pact, arguing that its provisions would undercut American ranchers. She won re-election in the same state where Republicans defeated Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle.
Similarly, in conservative western Colorado, John Salazar won a House seat by touting his agricultural background. His campaign slogan was “Send a Farmer to Congress,” and voters obliged.
And the opportunities for progressives are growing. Instead of neutralizing Democrats' advances on agricultural issues, the GOP is digging in, already planning to repeal country-of-origin labeling laws that help small farms differentiate their products from larger corporate producers. House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, who has pocketed more than $360,000 from agribusiness, wants to kill the measure, claiming, “I can’t find any real opposition to doing exactly what we want to do here.” Clearly the GOP hasn’t talked to any family farmers lately.
Turn the Hunters and the Exurbs Green
For years, conventional wisdom has said that culturally conservative hunters and exurbanites will always vote Republican. But the GOP’s willingness to side with private landowners and developers is now putting the party at odds with these constituencies. And that could create a whole new class of Democratic-voting conservationists.
In Montana, Schweitzer criticized his opponents for trying to restrict the state’s Stream Access Law, which protects anglers’ rights to fish waterways that cross through private land. He also promised to prevent the state from selling off public land. It was one of the ways he outperformed previous Democrats in rural areas and won his race.
In Colorado, when the Bush administration tried to allow development in wildlife areas, John Salazar pounced. He noted that many of the Bush administration's plans went “against what nearly every local elected official on both sides of the aisle has asked for.” Salazar's opponent, who was a former lobbyist and industry-friendly state environmental official, was unable to effectively respond.
Meanwhile, successful Colorado Senate candidate Ken Salazar trumpeted his record of creating land-conservation programs, and his surrogates communicated that message to the state's culturally conservative hunters. "Ken's background in resolving water, access and big game habitat, and natural resources issues best qualifies him to be Colorado’s next Senator," wrote the group Sportsmen for Salazar in an open letter to outdoorsmen. The Democrat had transformed his environmental advocacy from a potential “liberal” albatross into an asset in conservative areas.
Become a Teddy Roosevelt Clone
“Tough on crime” has always been a reliable Republican mantra. Now, though, progressives are claiming that law-and-order mantle for themselves. Led by state attorneys general, Democrats are realizing the political benefits of fighting white-collar crime, big-business rip-offs, and corporate misbehavior.
In Republican Arizona, former Attorney General Janet Napolitano became known as a tough prosecutor of corporate crime. She charged Qwest with fraud and negotiated a $217 million settlement with scandal-plagued accounting firm Arthur Andersen on behalf of investors. The record helped her become the state’s first Democratic governor in more than a decade.
In New York, Democrat Eliot Spitzer, who had never held elective office, eked out a victory against a Republican incumbent in 1998 to become the state's Attorney General. He then did something that seemed like political suicide: He took on Wall Street. Specifically, Spitzer used state law to charge investment firms with bilking stockholders. Though opponents labeled him anti-business, he countered that he was pro-business because he was protecting the integrity of the market. Four years later, he won re-election in a landslide, improving his performance in many parts of the conservative upstate.
On Capitol Hill, some senior Democrats have been slower to take up this fight. For instance, as chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee in 2002, centrist leader Joe Lieberman refused to seriously investigate the Enron and Arthur Andersen scandals. Not surprisingly, both companies had been bathing Lieberman and his New Democrats in cash for years. The Connecticut senator’s refusal to aggressively investigate the matter became an embarrassing public admission that he and his kind had been castrated by their corporate financiers. So rank-and-file lawmakers are filling the void. North Dakota’s Dorgan, for instance, brushed past Lieberman by leading high-profile hearings on Enron’s misbehavior. As TV cameras rolled, Dorgan dressed down executives who had deceived shareholders.
Sanders, meanwhile, won the hearts of Vermont’s Republican-leaning IBM employees by fighting to prevent the company from illegally reducing their pensions. And Mississippi’s Taylor continues stumping about corporate traitors. He pushed legislation to prevent taxpayer subsidies from going to companies that ship jobs overseas.
This Teddy Roosevelt–inspired posture is potent for two reasons. First, the GOP’s reliance on corporate money means it cannot muddle the issues by pretending to meet progressives halfway. Second, the GOP is increasingly using corporate lobbyists and executives as its candidates for public office. Last year alone, Republicans ran corporate lobbyists and executives for top offices in Indiana, South Dakota, Colorado, Montana, and Florida. These kinds of candidates will never be able to fight off progressive opponents who make corporate crime and excess a major campaign issue.
Clean Up Government
In the early 1990s, Newt Gingrich attacked Democrats as corrupt, wasteful, and incompetent, eventually leading the Republicans to reclaim Congress. Now, though, progressives are using the tactic for themselves.
In Montana, voters grew tired of state policy being manipulated by corporate lobbyists while the economy was sputtering. In Gingrichian fashion, Schweitzer criticized his GOP opponent for becoming a corporate lobbyist after a stint in the Legislature. He also asked why his opponent had spent $40,000 of taxpayer money to redecorate the secretary of state's office during a state budget crisis.
Schweitzer was following Arizona’s Napolitano, who was making headlines by cutting out almost $1 billion of government waste at a time the state budget was in the red. Her crusade was reminiscent of how deficits have been used by South Carolina Representative John Spratt to symbolize government mismanagement and win his Republican-leaning district. It also echoed Colorado Democrats, who used deficits to win the state Legislature for the first time in 40 years. "The Republicans' obsession with narrow cultural issues while the state's looming fiscal crisis was ignored drove a deep wedge between fiscally conservative live-and-let-live Republicans and the neo-conservative extremists with an agenda," wrote one Denver Post columnist.
In the conservative suburbs of Chicago, Gingrich’s corruption theme arose as Republican Representative Phil Crane took fire for accepting junkets from companies that do business with Congress. Democrat Melissa Bean, a first-time candidate, used the issue to defeat him.
The same thing happened in conservative New Hampshire, where Democratic businessman John Lynch hammered Republican Governor Craig Benson over cronyism allegations. Lynch painted Benson as “a governor with ethical problems overseeing an administration wrought with scandal,” according to The (Manchester) Union Leader. Lynch won the race, making Benson the first New Hampshire governor in almost eight decades to be kicked out of office after just two years.
Use the Values Prism
In 2004, pundits seem to agree that the national election was decided by “moral values." And though many believe the term is a euphemism for religious, anti-abortion, and anti-gay sentiments, it is likely a more general phrase describing whether a candidate is perceived to be “one of us.”
It is this sense of cultural solidarity that often trumps other issues. For example, many battleground-state voters may have agreed with John Kerry’s economic policies. But the caricature of Kerry as a multimillionaire playboy windsurfing on Nantucket Sound was a more visceral image of elitism. By contrast, successful red-region progressives are using economic populism to define their cultural solidarity with voters. True, many of these Democrats are pro-gun, and some are anti-abortion. But to credit their success exclusively to social conservatism is to ignore how populism culturally connects these leaders to their constituents.
In Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, Sanders' free-trade criticism not only speaks to conservatives’ pocketbook concerns but also to a deeper admiration of a congressman willing to take stands corporate politicians refuse to take.
In Montana, Schweitzer’s plans to protect hunting access not only attract votes from outdoorsmen but also project a broader willingness to fight for Joe Six-Pack and the state’s way of life. As focus groups showed, this stance garnered strong support from Montana's women, who saw it as a values issue.
Wisconsin's Obey may be a high-ranking national Democrat, but he keeps winning his GOP–leaning district by translating legislative fights into values language at home. Debates over Title I funding, for instance, become a venue for Obey to question whether America should provide huge tax cuts to the wealthy while its schools decay. Battles about whether to change antitrust rules become an Obey rant about out-of-state media conglomerates pumping obscene radio shows into his culturally conservative market.
In North Dakota, Enron may have had almost no direct effect on locals. But Dorgan made the company's antics a values commentary on the problem of unethical corporations. “This is disgusting to me," he said to the cameras during an Enron hearing. "[This is] corporate behavior without a moral base.”
Mississippi's Taylor flamboyantly challenges free-trade supporters to visit his district to see the effects of their positions. "Some of [those who voted for free trade] knew better, and those are the ones I'm really mad at,” he said. “[They] looked out for the big multinational corporations at the expense of average Mississippians and average citizens, even from their own states."
In these seven ways, successful red-region Democrats have tacked back to a class-based populism that puts them firmly on the side of the little guy. And because voters implicitly know that big guys with lots of cash dominate the political system, that populism projects a deeper sense of values and a McCain-like authenticity.
In the aftermath of the recent election, the stale cadre of campaign consultants who helped run the party into the ground now say the solution is for Democrats to simply invoke God more often and radically change their positions on social issues. But the point is not to impulsively lunge rightward in some cheap, unprincipled gesture to red America that would reek of political strategizing.
The point is to follow red-region Democrats who have diminished the electoral impact of traditional social issues by redefining the values debate on economic and class terms. Granted, the progressive populists profiled above do not uniformly hew to the standard liberal line on social issues: some are pro-life, some pro-choice; some pro–gun ownership, some pro–gun control; some pro–gay marriage, some anti–gay marriage; some vociferous about religion, some subdued. But they have shown that there is another path that moves past wedge issues if the party is willing to fundamentally challenge the excesses of corporate America and big money.
Critics may say populism will not appeal to middle-class voters because that portion of the electorate is economically comfortable. But polls show that outsourcing, skyrocketing health costs, and other alarming indicators mean that even those who are getting by do not feel financially stable or secure.
Historical revisionists will claim that the centrist Clinton’s ascension in the 1990s directly refutes the electoral potency of class-based populism. But Clinton’s 1992 campaign was not the free-trade, Republican-lite corporate shilling that many propose as a Democratic panacea. It was, by contrast, populist on all fronts. “I expect the jetsetters and featherbedders of corporate America to know that if you sell your companies and your workers and your country down the river, you’ll be called on the carpet,” candidate Clinton promised in 1991. On trade, it was the same. “I wouldn't have done what [George Bush Senior] did and give all those trade preferences to China … ,” he said. “I’d be for [NAFTA] but only—only—if [Mexico] lifted their wage rates and their labor standards and they cleaned up their environment so we could both go up together instead of being dragged down.”
Clinton, of course, proceeded to break these pledges, reducing corporate regulation, coddling big business, and leading the fight for NAFTA and free trade with China. Worse, well after these policies were wreaking havoc on working-class America, high-profile Democrats kept pretending nothing was wrong. "[Congress'] NAFTA vote had about a two-week half-life," said Clinton's chief trade negotiator, Mickey Kantor, years after NAFTA was sucking U.S. jobs south of the border. "Even today trade has very little political impact in the country."
Populist red-region Democrats might beg to differ with Kantor, who is now a high-priced corporate lawyer. They know firsthand that the embrace of a big-business agenda arguably did as much long-term damage to the Democratic Party’s moral platform as any of Clinton’s sex scandals or the battles over social issues. Because, really, how moral is the “party of the working class” when the president it still worships led the fight for trade agreements that hurt that same working class? Where are the principles of a party that has high-profile leaders so tied to big business that they are unwilling to seriously investigate white-collar criminals? And what are the core values of a party that keeps venerating its corporate apologists while marginalizing its voices of reform?
This is why populism is ultimately the way back for Democrats. Because, as red-region progressives show, having the guts to stand up for middle America—even when it draws the ire of corporate America—is as powerful a statement about morality and authenticity as any of the GOP’s demagoguery on "guns, God, and gays."
All the Democratic Party has to do is look at the election map: The proof is right there in red and blue.
David Sirota is a fellow at the American Progress Action Fund, a progressive advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.