It remains true, as we have asserted time and again using findings on our Populist Majority website, that the American majority is firmly populist and broadly progressive. But we have also seen time and again – most recently in this month’s elections – that people will vote based on their anxieties and fears in the absence of a more compelling message of hope and possibility.
The 2014 election results reveal a failure of Democrats to speak to the progressive populism latent in the American electorate. It is not simply, as some would have it, a failure of “messaging” – spiffier packaging of the products offered to voters. The product itself needs change: It must connect what voters see and understand about today’s America to the values of justice and equity they hold, and their aspirations for fairness and opportunity, so people have a transformative vision and a road map for transformation.
Pollster Celinda Lake this week released a slide presentation for the Campaign for America’s Future’s Wednesday Group of progressive activists that vividly laid out the consequences of Democrats running away from populist progressive themes. The core of the Democratic constituency – the “rising American electorate” of unmarried women, people of color and millennials – is still at the core, but was not motivated to come to the polls in the numbers needed to push Democrats over the top in close races.
Another key difference, Lake’s research shows, is how voters with a moderately dim view of the economy voted. In 2012 President Obama and Democrats were able to decisively win the votes of people who thought the economy was “not so good” and saw their own financial situation as “about the same” as it was four years earlier. In 2014 those voters leaned more heavily Republican. “Democrats failed to make as clear an economic distinction as they did in 2012, and Republicans made gains,” one of the slides points out.
Voters See A Broken System
Gallup released a poll this week that found that in the wake of the election, Democrats’ “favorability rating has never been lower.” But it adds, “On the other hand, the American public does not admire Republicans more, their numerous election victories notwithstanding.”
It is not hard to see why. “Voters believe the political system is broken, as their congresspersons listen to special interests and contributors rather than the views of their constituents,” says a poll released this week by Democracy Corps done for Every Voice, a campaign finance reform organization. Voters, the polling memo said, were “punishing the status quo in Washington for presiding over a government that they feel does not work for them.”
It is easy to get conflicting messages from voters in this election by reading the polling that has been done the past three months – and perhaps especially from the election results themselves, in which voters made decisions like voting for a minimum wage increase while voting for representatives in Congress who oppose minimum wage increases. But one thing is certain: Americans want a government that stands with them, not one that in the guise of being “out of the way” is actually tucked in the pockets of a powerful few.
Thus a Pew Research Center poll this week finds that a narrow majority (49 percent) of those polled believe “government should do more to solve problems” as opposed to leaving more of the burden on individuals and businesses. (The fact that the national election night exit polls came to a different conclusion is likely due to the fact that the Pew poll includes nonvoters, which multiple surveys suggest included a disproportionate share of Democratic base voters.)
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A September Gallup poll of more than 1,200 adults led to a list of 21 issues that respondents identified as priorities in the new Congress; the top issues included “create jobs,” “improve healthcare,” “improve education” and, above all, “listen to the people/represent the people.” This poll does not probe deeper into how they would like Congress to create jobs or improve education, but two typical Republican prescriptions, reducing the deficit and cutting taxes, got a middling rating on the list, and a third often-uttered Republican priority, reducing regulation, didn’t appear on the list at all.
In the Pew Poll, the same majority that support building the Keystone XL pipeline (59 percent) also opposes “increased use of fracking” (47 percent) and supports stricter limits on power plant emissions (64 percent). Additionally, the election night exit poll found 57 percent of voters considered global warming a “serious problem.” The Republican takeover of the Senate was certainly not an endorsement of soon-to-be-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s vow to “rein in” the Environmental Protection Agency and denounce President Obama’s agreement this week with China to reduce carbon emissions.
Another one of the Democracy Corps’ post-election memos concluded tat in this election, “The voters want to vote for change, and this poll shows that the Democrats and their supportive coalition would rally to a message that understands people are struggling with the new economy; but that was not President’s economic narrative for this election and it showed.”
It is clear that the electorate believes that Republican politicians are too beholden to the billionaire interests who bankroll their campaigns and are using their influence to rig the system so the economy works for them but not the middle class, the memo went on to say. “Unfortunately, very few of the campaigns made that the central argument.”
Turning to The Elizabeth Warren Message
But one sign that this mistake won’t be repeated in the next election cycle is the news that Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has been appointed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to be a “strategic policy adviser” for the party’s policy and communications committee, where one of her roles will be, in the words of a Reid spokesman, “shaping policy and messaging.”
Warren during the campaign offered a model for how to tap into the anxieties that people have about the economy and explain that their struggles are rooted in the rigging of our economy and our politics to benefit the wealthy few. It would go without saying that giving the political agents of the wealthy even more power only allows the rigging to accelerate – but only if those agents are exposed for who they are working for and what they are doing. Also, Warren’s leadership in the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency is an exemplary example of government making the playing field fair for consumers against the corporate behemoths – which is why Republicans are so anxious to kill or weaken it.
Of course there are a lot of people who lack faith that government can get things done, and mistrust that government can once again be a good steward of the dollars it deducts from increasingly stressed paychecks. That is where bold progressive populist leadership comes in, to unmask the special interests that capture agencies and politicians, to call out the obstructionists who stand in the way, to highlight the things that work in spite of it all – and to open the public’s eyes to ways we can build a nation of shared prosperity.
It should be clear by now that a cautiously calculated “centrism” with a progressive initiative or two attached will be rejected by disenchanted voters who want a radical change from an economy in which they see themselves doing poorly and they fear their children will do even worse. It’s time to put forward the leaders and policies that will awaken and energize America’s progressive majority.