Some have argued Democrats need to repeat the Clinton formula of proposing more “moderate” policies, running to the “center,” and downplaying and toning down the appeal to the Rising American Electorate and the new majority of blacks, Hispanics and new immigrants, millennials, unmarried women, and seculars. They also mean toning down the progressive agenda those voters are demanding.
Those who advocate such “centrism” could not be more wrong. The key to both winning today’s white working-class voters and building overwhelming majorities with the Rising American Electorate is a robust agenda of progressive reform and government activism.
The old formula, to be honest, has been made irrelevant by the seismic economic and cultural shifts that are transforming American politics. On the one hand, Republicans have successfully nationalized every presidential and off-year election because they are waging an ever-more-intense and polarized counter-revolution against the country’s national trends. On the other, Democrats are the beneficiaries of these inexorable trends, but Democrats have not addressed the profound wage stagnation and the special-interest corruption of government that leave the middle class out in the cold. That leaves Democrats’ potential majority without a reason to stay consistently engaged—and leaves Democrats short on white working-class votes as well. The key for the Democrats now is a bold reform agenda relevant for these new times.
The more Republican strategies succeed in animating and motivating their voters to win off-year elections, the more they alienate their party from America’s burgeoning new electorate. Democrats enter 2016 as the favorites to win the popular vote and perhaps an Electoral College landslide.
However, Republicans can also slow the progressive project nationally, with the full electoral advantages that come from having a rural base and a constitutional system that favors ruralism over urban density, as well as a conservative Supreme Court that blunts both popular liberal initiatives and the expanding new electorate. The GOP holds on by fighting ferociously to block government spending for the poor, to stop uncontrolled immigration, to prohibit abortion, and to defend traditional marriage.
The success of these tactics has serious consequences for Democrats and a progressive agenda. It enables the Republicans to pursue a full-throated conservative agenda in the 20 states of the “conservative heartland” and to block major portions of any Democratic president’s agenda in Congress. But those successes come with a huge price tag. They raise the odds that Democrats will win the presidency, executive branch, and eventually even the judiciary.
A large majority of the country embraces a bold reform narrative that demands leaders confront the special interests’ hold on government and puts the problems of the middle class center-stage. People get excited by leaders who understand their lives. The new American majority is hungry for leaders who know how hard it is for people to piece together multiple jobs to make ends meet—and so is calling for drastic improvements in wages and employment rights. Voters want leaders who appreciate the horrific cost of college and will make college more affordable, and they want leaders who understand how bewildering and difficult it is to balance work and have a family and will therefore offer adequate social supports.
They are ready to see deep investments to rebuild American infrastructure and modernize the country—if it is serious in scale, long-term, and independent of a Congress dominated by special interests and self-seeking politicians. And they understand that this is one way that government can produce good-paying jobs.
And the American people are ready to tax the richest and disrupt that group’s special deal with government. They bring to this period a special disdain for overpaid CEOs and the crony capitalism that makes government work for big business and special interests. The rich paying their fair share is nearly a first principle in economic reform and getting to a good society.
They are ready for government to help—if the stables can be cleaned. The government today is bought and sold to the biggest donors, and it wastes hundreds of billions of dollars at the behest of special-interest lobbyists. They are excited when leaders begin with reforms that restore democracy and get government to work for the middle class again.