Democrats have a classism problem

Democrats have a classism problem
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Democratic leaders have spent many dark, post-Trump nights trying to figure out where the party went wrong. We’ve called in well-credentialed experts to draft policy papers. We’ve consulted pollsters to re-slice the electorate. We’ve even read “Hillbilly Elegy.” But unfortunately, none of these efforts seems to be working.

Those in leadership claim they’re being proactive, but the “Better Deal” policy framework hasn’t made an impression on anyone outside the offices of the DNC. As a result, recent polls by Gallup and CBS show more people trust Republicans with the economy than Democrats, and that the economy is a rare bright spot for the president’s approval rating.

The problem is, Democrats have a giant blind spot that keeps us from seeing why we’re failing and why we have so little credibility with voters who should be part of our natural base: Democrats have a classism problem.

If someone assembled an all-male committee to make decisions on women’s health, Democrats would immediately howl that this was unacceptable. If anyone formed an all-white committee to make decisions on racial justice, the party would rightly scorn it. But somehow, it hasn’t occurred to Democrats that as we need ethnic and gender diversity, we need economic diversity as well. We should insist that workers be included in the discussion of policies affecting the multi-racial working class.

The party is certainly conscious of the electoral importance of working people. We use them as props in campaign ads and as human backdrops at rallies. We’ve used focus groups to conduct a sort of condescending anthropological research on our fellow citizens. We’ve done everything but elevate actual working-class citizens into Congress.

In rural America, from Youngstown, Ohio, to Huntington, W.Va., to Galesburg, Ill., we’ve seen shockingly fast and severe economic decline as the coal, steel and other industries that were once the backbones of these communities collapsed. No one feels the pain caused by this decline more than the broader, multi-racial working class.

American workers haven’t had a raise in 40 years. The three most common jobs in this nation today are cashier, retail sales clerk, and fast food worker. None provides the dignity of being able to support a family without assistance; all are threatened by automation. The official unemployment rate may be low, but the spike in suicides, liver disease, and drug addiction tells us all is not well. The American working class is literally dying.  

Our economy is divided between the servers and served. The central challenge of our time is restoring some balance to our modern, Gilded Age economy. The Democratic Party will only survive if a new paradigm, where lives of dignity are available for the many, not just the lucky few, is developed. The key to developing that paradigm is for us as a party and nation to stop merely talking about the working class, but to elect members of this demographic to Congress.

This idea will strike many in the elite class — and Democratic establishment — as radical. Undoubtedly there will be claims of class-warfare from many and shrugs from others.

But ask yourself: How can we call ourselves a truly representative American democracy without involving working class people in the decision-making process that is going to shape their own futures?

Politicians have, at best, only pretended to care about working people and, at worst, have screwed them over. From trickle-down economics to anti-worker trade deals to union busting to Wall Street bailouts, leaders from both parties have advanced policies that suck wealth out of rural America.

We shouldn’t be surprised. The two parties are led by remarkably similar groups of people. There are lawyers, of course. But out of 535 members, 273 are business execs and owners. Precisely zero come from the service sector jobs most commonly held by Americans. In Congress today, there are as many rodeo announcers as there are trade union members.

Here’s how the game works: Republicans use cultural and racial appeals to pander to the white working class. Those appeals drive working people-of-color to the Democratic Party, which pleads their case publicly while catering behind closed doors to the same wealthy donors as Republicans. This tidy dance has divided white and black workers who share economic interests.

It’s time for a new leadership paradigm that will bust the politics of tribalism. This new direction is never going to come from the current beneficiaries of the status quo. It’s not going to come from yet another Harvard-trained lawyer who gets their knowledge of the plight of regular folks from the New York Times. What we really need are some people with first-hand understanding of the world most Americans live in. We need people who get charged for the uniforms they’re required to wear to work, who check their balance before they pull out cash at an ATM and who know what it means to struggle to make ends meet.

There are candidates out there, working hard out of the media spotlight, without access to donors or support from the Democratic establishment. We need people like Mariah Phillips, a teacher and mother of five whose idea of “me time” is putting in extra hours as a Starbuck’s barista. Her decision to run to represent Tennessee’s 4th Congressional District was driven by her experience with restaurant staffs who had never had health insurance. She knows what it’s like, she says, “to wonder what bills you’re going to pay this month … how it hurts your pride.”

No white paper is going to be more convincing than having representatives with backgrounds similar to Mariah’s. Do you think when the lobbyists come calling she’ll be talked into selling out her family and friends for a campaign contribution? Do you think she’s going to divide workers by race in order to keep a grip on power?

If Democrats are going to reclaim the votes of the working people, they’re going to have to welcome those people into the halls of Congress. Only when workers have real power will Democrats have credibility with the multiracial American working class. Only when workers are treated as a group worthy of representation will we be able to reject the myth that white and black workers are adversaries. Only then, when Democrats become once again the party that respects, supports, and elevates working class people as leaders rather than props, will we be a party worthy of their votes.

Krystal Ball is the president of The People’s House Project. She formerly was a candidate for Congress in Virginia and a host on MSNBC’s “The Cycle.” Follow her on Twitter @krystalball.