Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Opinion: Democrats can't reap what they never try to sow

Last year, Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign and the various PACs that supported her spent well over $1 billion, much of it to buy a heavy barrage of TV ads in swing states at a point late in the campaign when many beleaguered voters had already tuned those ads out.

And as we all know, she lost. Democratic hopes to take control of the Senate were dashed as well, despite tens of millions of dollars raised and spent in that effort, and if you follow the news, you know the country is paying a heavy price for the Democrats' failure. So this week, some 400 members of the Democratic National Committee are coming to Atlanta to pick a new party chairman and to talk over what went wrong and how to fix it.

There's certainly no shortage of valid theories, ranging from a failure of grassroots organizing to a lack of enthusiasm among minority voters to the selection of a candidate who epitomized the Washington establishment in an election cycle when voter disgust with that establishment was palpable. All of that was true to at least some extent.

But let's talk a few minutes about one particular aspect of the 2016 campaign, the inability and even unwillingness of the Democratic Party to take its economic message to white, working-class Americans. In this election, Clinton lost white voters without a college degree by almost 40 points, which is 14 points worse than Barack Obama did with that group in 2012.

When you ask how the Democrats lost Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio, that's a big part of the explanation. And that failure is particularly egregious because the needs of that particular segment of the electorate match up so closely with what ought to have been Democratic policy and the Democratic message. Democrats may never win that particular voting group, but there is no reason to accept a loss on that kind of scale.

It set me to wondering how that particular problem might be addressed, and here's a few thoughts:

1.) If you wait until the campaign season to start outreach to these voters, forget it, because you've failed already. In the overheated, increasingly tribalistic atmosphere of an election, trying to change minds or alter loyalties is all but hopeless. So take some of the enormous resources expended in campaigns and invest them much earlier, as in right now, in a sustained, issue-driven outreach that speaks to real needs and real problems, and direct that outreach where you've been weakest, geographically and demographically.

Again, don't wait until the election. The election season is when you reap what you should have been sowing for years, and for the most part the Democrats have done no sowing in these particular fields for years and years.

2.) Take your message back from Donald Trump, who stole it from you. Then beat him about the head with it, figuratively speaking, because he more than deserves it.

Trump won the GOP nomination because he didn't shy from engaging in what Republicans in any other year would decry as class warfare. He raged against the elites, he promised to defend the little guy, the working person, against a system that is so rigged against them that they can't possibly win. He promised to defend social programs and take on Wall Street, and for a while there was even promising to raise taxes on the rich.

Once in office, he has done the exact opposite. The very Wall Street insiders whom he used to attack have now been handed control of the U.S. economy. The fat cats are getting fatter. Goldman Sachs stock is up $70 a share since Election Day because he is giving them all they could ever dream of getting, and institutions such as the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, put in place to protect the little guy from the predators who rig the system, are being gutted or dismantled.

So tell people that. Tell them now, while they can watch it taking place. Tell these voters that Trump and other Republicans are taking their health insurance away so they can finance tax cuts for the rich, because that's exactly what they're doing. Explain how the refusal of state leaders to expand Medicaid has put rural hospitals out of business and forced doctors to relocate to larger communities where they can actually get paid. Remind them of the meth and opiate epidemics ravaging their towns, and the fact that Medicaid could help pay for the drug treatment programs that might save their child's life.

Remind them as well that Medicaid pays the bill for two-thirds of the elderly in long-term care in Georgia. Ask them to imagine their lives if Medicare and Social Security are privatized. Some of the strongest support for public schools in this country comes from rural areas and small towns, where teachers are still respected community leaders, where the schools are valued employers and where education is understood as essential for those who want to better themselves. Then point out the well-organized, well-financed network that is attempting to undermine public education across the country.

Oh, and trade. Remind them that Mexico and China are two of our biggest export markets for agricultural products, and that a trade war will gut rural economies.

3.) These voters are not going to come to you looking for information, not in this divisive political climate. They're also not reachable through the traditional media. You have to go to them. If they've retreated into their own little information bubbles, follow them there. Reach out to them through their existing information-delivery systems. You can buy your way into their bubble, and you can do so pretty cheaply.

Buy ads on Rush Limbaugh's radio show and other talk-radio formats in rural and small-town markets;  buy time on Fox News in small cable systems. Advertise on county music stations and Christian stations, and if you do so, honor your audience. As the old saying goes, put the hay where the cows can reach it.

4.) Explain all this in plain, blunt, nonpartisan terms. No exaggeration, no condescension. Make no claim that cannot be fully substantiated, don't get personal and don't force people to retreat into tribal emotions. If possible, find spokespersons for your message who have credibility in the communities that you're attempting to reach. And remember that voters won't have faith in you if you don't have faith in them.

Put another way, appeal to voters' hope and to their better natures, not to fear and hate. Give them a fact-based, rational explanation for their problems that serves as an alternative to the subtle and increasingly not-so-subtle appeals to racism used by some on the right. On immigration, to cite another example, talk to people in small towns and rural communities about the Mexican immigrant families that have put down roots there, the people who have earned a respected place in that community through hard work and honesty but are now threatened with deportation.

Those connections are there; they run deeper and stronger in smaller communities than in cities and suburbs, where it is possible to withdraw into enclaves. And many people want to honor those connections.

Such an approach may not win a lot more congressional seats, at least not initially. Remember, that's not your goal. You're not trying to win a particular race, in a particular election cycle. You are planting little information seeds, seeds of doubt and curiosity. And by doing so, maybe you raise the political cost for a local congressman who is inclined to retreat into right-wing extremism; maybe you create room for that politician to moderate, to compromise, if that's her intention. Maybe you open ears and minds just a bit.

Again, this kind of outreach does not need to be expensive. Run some pilot projects. Pick a dozen red congressional districts around the country, try this low-key, sustained informational approach and see whether it moves the polling needle. Adjust as necessary.

I come from a white working class background. I've spent most of my professional life covering politics here in deep-red Georgia. And I get frustrated when I read or hear liberals complain that certain voters just don't recognize their own self interests, when in fact no real attempt has been made to expose that audience to your argument, in terms that hit home with them.



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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.