The 2020 Primaries and a Destructive False Choice.
Why Democrats don’t have to choose between appealing to the rust belt or their base.
Perhaps one of the most telling aspects of everything leading up to the 2020 election was the clear emergence of a generational and ideological divide within the Democratic Party. Naturally, this has led to deep-seeded difference in how we must deal with the notion of “electability”, especially in the context of certain regions across the country. After 2016, the rust belt region — Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Pennsylvania in particular — has been the subject of this conversation. There seems to be an idea that democrats need to choose between appealing to the leftist, grass roots arms in their base, and the rust belt. That is simply not the case at all.
The root of this perceived false choice comes down to the idea — among more centrist democrats — that Democrats have clearly moved too far to the left, and that’s why the rust belt may be moving away from the party. In reality, the loss of the rust belt may not have anything to do with right or left, but instead is more rooted in populism.
As disturbing as his rise might have been, there is a lot to be learned about how Trump was able to propel himself to power.
So how was he able to convince two time Obama voters to vote for him? How was he able to get lifelong democrats to abandon their party?
While of course racism and bigotry played a role, we cannot ignore the fact that the American people clearly feel left behind and ignored. They picked a man who in their misguided view seemed to understand their pain as well as the economic problems facing their region in particular. Trump swooped in with an undeniably populist message, and was able to resonate to such an extent that he was able to defeat one of the most powerful politicians in modern American history. He came to a region that the Clinton team didn’t bother to campaign in, railed against trade deals she voted for that devastated their communities, and promised them jobs. He promised he would not cut Medicare and Social Security, and vowed to fix the Washington corruption that disgusts nearly every American regardless of political party. We all know what happened next.
It’s fascinating to consider how when it comes down to these sorts of issues, it can unite a significant number of voters on the right and the left, hence the term: populism. Galvanizing a base, generating excitement, and coming with a message that sets you apart from a standard politician is an undeniably successful strategy. I would also argue that it’s sort of ironic that the region where democrats claim we should fear the populist strategy is where it’s been most effective.
We don’t even have to look at Donald Trump to see how this has proven true. Let’s not forget that Bernie Sanders’ 2016 rise was historic, and singlehandedly sparked a political revolution that’s shaping almost all the discussion in this round of democratic primary campaigns and debates. For the life of me I will never understand how Hillary Clinton and her strategists didn’t look at his win in Michigan as a learning tool for what could be coming in a general election.
But putting all that aside, I think we could argue that there is no need to make a false choice between appealing to the rust belt or the base, and to suggest so might be a detrimental error on a campaign’s political calculations. Populism is the unifying factor between these two sects, and to succeed in both areas naturally suggests the best potential strategy would be to counter Trump’s faux populism and unfulfilled promises with real populist ideas, and a legacy of grass roots efforts to enact them.
As uncomfortable and inconvenient as it may be for those in Washington, the days of the standard politician are over. Winning an election requires a message that generates excitement, and gives people a reason to come out and vote for you. This isn’t about trying to get hardline conservatives to switch to your side. This is about energizing the people who want a candidate that gives them a reason to actually come out and vote. In an era where 40 percent of Americans cant afford a 400 dollar emergency, we don’t want a return to the normal that got us here. In an era where 1 in 4 Americans don’t plan on being able to retire, we don’t want politicians responding to our pains and frustrations with fake platitudes that offer no solutions.
The rust belt is probably the most clear example that the country’s attitude towards traditional politics is changing, and all the energy in the grass roots base suggests the same. Instead of choosing between these groups, unite them, and I think that a candidate who is able to do that will be pleased with the results.