So, What Do We Do?

By Mike Koetting      May 17, 2017

This is the last of three posts that were in specific reaction to the movie Hell and High Water.  This one, written after the election, suggests some directions for turning these reactions into strategy. 

By the way, a reader of the last post observed that the movie had no partisan connection.  I absolutely agree.  I would doubt concepts like “Democrat” or “Republican” would ever appear in the minds of any of the movie’s characters.  I use these concepts because (a) they are useful labels for collections of ideas and values that differentiate, even if somewhat messily; and (b) while both parties are in profound disarray, I think it more likely rearrangement will happen within the construct of these parties—rather than the emergence of a new party, as just happened in France.

Anyway, on with the show.

*****

This post is not about the last election.  (Among other things, that’s over.)  The fact that Hilary lost is a very bad thing.  But even if she had won, she’d have faced a hostile Congress and would been limited in what she could accomplish.  Most likely it would be a series of partial accomplishments—like Obama—but not enough to significantly change the pre-existing order.  Four years from now a lot of people would be blaming her for what she didn’t get accomplished.  What is necessary is something to decisively break the current deadlock.  Intermediate victories should be taken wherever possible, but we must not lose sight of the goal.

The road to a gridlock-breaking majority, something more than 55% of the electorate, runs through the White Working Class—WWC, white people without a college education–who voted for Trump.  There simply is no other large enough pool of voters.  Besides, they have been getting a raw deal and deserve a real champion.  A great many of these folks are stuck on issues—abortion, race, gay rights, guns—that immunize them to anything Democrats have to say.  But, we can break 55% if we can peel off 10 to 15% of the WWC who voted for Trump.  This is possible, albeit not easy.  It’s not like Trump/Republicans are going to improve the lives of the WWC and the Dems are committed to ideas that could improve their lives.  The issue is how we include the WWC without losing our current voters or our values.  Current Democratic voters aren’t going to become Republicans, at least as currently constructed, but they can go to 3rd party candidates or simply stay home.

I think the road to recruiting a share of WWC votes requires at least three critical steps.

  1. We have to show some respect. I’m not talking about condescending or about throwing the existing base under the bus.  But we need to pay attention.  For openers, we need to be a lot more careful about how programs for the poor create inequities for the working class.  For instance, I was surprised when I realized how dramatic is the economic difference between being on Medicaid and buying insurance in the ACA Marketplace.  While it is true you can still get insurance and it is true that in some sense it is affordable, the comparison to what Medicaid clients pay is stark.  In some cases the ACA will take a bigger bit out of someone’s income than the amount by which they exceeded Medicaid limits.  I can see why this would make someone grumpy.  There are plenty of other examples.  So we need to look carefully and fine tune policies.  It is also necessary is to have authentic voices that consistently speak to these concerns.  Moreover, we need to be more careful about how we express support for minority and culturally diverse issues.  Not walk away from them.  There’s no point in wasting time on this exercise if we’re going to do that.  But we do need to think carefully about how to express that support in ways that soften identity politics and show how all parts of the coalition are part of the broader good.  (I thought the Democratic Convention was great.  Until it occurred to me if I were one of the characters in Hell and High Water, or a struggling laid off factory worker in Michigan, it might as well have been conducted in Urdu.)

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  1. We need to be authentic in our concern. Lots of bad things happened to Hilary—Comey, Russians, email, and others.  But with all due respect, she was in deep trouble with the WWC before she got the nomination.  No matter what she said at the time, you couldn’t pass her off as someone who opposed free trade.  Her role in NAFTA (which I think is mostly a good thing) and the TPP (which I thought was mostly a bad thing) made it absurdly impossible.  And the more she seemed to change her position, the more she seemed to be pandering.  Same on banks.  No matter how much she said she would regulate banks, there is no way you can make people believe this after she has been taking $500K a pop for talking to banks.  Remember, $500K is ten years of medium family income!  Moreover, at that income, you’re unlikely eligible for Medicaid or many other programs that help the very low income.  If Democrats don’t have anyone on the bench who can speak to WWC with consistency and a coherent history…well, we do have a problem.
  2. We need to be intensely focused on economic concerns of the entire population, not just the poor. I’m not saying the Democrats haven’t cared about the working class.  But when the political sledding with the WWC got tough (following Nixon), Democrats focused more on a coalition of minorities and the college educated.  That has sometimes worked and always kept them competitive.  But it wasn’t/isn’t enough to deliver for the WWC.  That wasn’t necessarily the Democrats fault, but when combined with the other things that made us a hard sell to the WWC, we lost too many of them.  We are still not going to be able to deliver for them immediately; moneyed interests have bought too much of the power structure. And we do need to continue to advocate for the even poorer and the minorities.  But we can and must articulate an economic plan that makes it explicit how we will help the middle and working class, advocate like crazy for it, and make it crystal clear who is standing in the way.  And, this includes being very specific how we intend to protect the WWC from paying to uplift the poor.  (Hilary understood this, but simply didn’t have the standing to deliver the message effectively.)  This will not turn the WWC Democratic.  Most of them will continue to march to a different drummer.  But I think it can win enough votes that Democrats could actually pass some significant legislation.

These are tall orders.  Truly steering between hell and high water.  But they aren’t impossible and they include a lot of what Democrats have traditionally stood for.  We just need to polish them up and reintegrate them in our thought.  This is more than adjusting “messaging”.  We need to be explicit that we recognize the issues and take steps to address them—but authentically and consistently.  We also need to go all out to attack gerrymandering.  If the Republicans are able to gerrymander after the 2020 census like they did last time, it will be many years before we can get out of the mess.

We have to stay focused and we have to remember we need 55% of the vote at every level.  Every level.  Marching will not be enough.  Change needs canvassing.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

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