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How Democrats Can Win Back the Working Class

Activists hold signs during a rally "to fight back against the Republican war on the working class" last month on Capitol Hill. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Of all the promises Donald Trump made as a candidate, perhaps none was more important than his pledge to the working-class voters who flocked to his campaign. “Under a Trump presidency,” he said, “the American worker will finally have a president who will protect them and fight for them.”

But since his election, Trump has made a mockery of that promise. He put Goldman Sachs bankers in charge of the economy. He blocked a plan to reduce mortgage premiums for millions of families. He issued a budget blueprint that slashes funding for vital social programs. And he put his weight behind an Affordable Care Act “replacement” bill that guts health coverage for working people while providing tax cuts for the wealthy and health insurance executives.

"Rebuilding the party requires Democrats to speak boldly about what they are for and not just what they are against."

In response, Democrats, riding a wave of grass-roots energy fueling the progressive resistance to Trump nationwide, have adopted a strategy of fierce opposition to the president’s agenda. A tireless commitment to fighting Trump’s disastrous policies and support for the activists marching in the streets are important. But there is also a natural danger of falling into the default mode of opposing Trump, and merely defending existing policies, without offering the serious solutions that people so desperately need. Rebuilding the party requires Democrats to speak boldly about what they are for and not just what they are against. Otherwise, they risk replicating the failed campaign strategy of 2016, when the Clinton campaign hammered away at Trump without appealing to working Americans with a clear and bold alternative vision of its own.

To that end, it has been encouraging to see progressive leaders recently taking their message straight to working-class voters across the country, including in red and purple states where Trump maintains solid support.

This month, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) visited the small town of Canton, Miss., to attend the “March on Mississippi” in support of Nissan workers who are facing bitter opposition in their attempt to unionize. The march was supported by not just the United Auto Workers and other labor unions, but also the NAACP, Sierra Club, and an array of social justice and progressive groups. By embracing the link between civil rights and workers’ rights, the march was a perfect demonstration of the “fusion politics” that will help progressives build a sustainable coalition for the future.

Sanders — who has also recently visited in Kansas, Michigan and, just this past weekend, West Virginia — didn’t mince words about the failure of some progressive leaders to protect the interests of the working class. “Some of the poorest states in this country, where large numbers of people have no health insurance and have experienced stagnating wages, have not had the support from progressives that they need,” he declared. “It’s time we change that. It means standing up for working men and women.”

In that mission, Sanders has a strong ally in Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who just a day earlier was in Columbus unveiling a progressive populist economic blueprint that he’s been developing since late 2015. At the heart of Brown’s plan is the fundamental principle that “it’s not businesses who drive the economy — it’s workers.” He proposes a passel of bold measures designed to empower workers, from a $15 minimum wage and paid family and medical leave to protections against wage theft and expanded collective bargaining rights.

And like Sanders, Brown has also been honest about what his party is missing. “I think the Democrats need to speak more plainly about what we want to do for the middle class and for people who aspire for the middle class,” he said.

Meanwhile, progressives have been aggressively pushing a pro-worker agenda at the state level as well. State Innovation Exchange (SiX) Action, which advocates for progressive policies in state legislatures, responded to Trump’s congressional address by spearheading a “week of action” that brought together progressive lawmakers and grass-roots organizations in more than 30 states to advocate for some 130 pieces of pro-worker legislation. As part of the effort, state legislators introduced, advanced or highlighted paid sick leave in Michigan and Maryland, equal pay in Oklahoma and Colorado, and minimum wage hikes in New Mexico and North Carolina, among other bills.

Of course, progressives can and should continue calling attention to Trump’s broken promises and combatting his barbaric policies. But regaining the trust of working-class voters who supported Trump will take more than opposition. As Sanders recently argued, it will take a forward-looking message and a real commitment to addressing the challenges that working people face. “You cannot just be defensive,” Sanders said. “You need a proactive agenda that brings people together to fight for a new America.”

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel is an American editor and publisher. She is the editor, publisher, and part-owner of the magazine The Nation. She has been the magazine's editor since 1995.


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