What the Democrats lost in the election of 2016 was the ability to talk about economic issues in a meaningful and convincing manner. What the Democrats lost was the ability to talk to (and not down to) working class Americans. As a result they lost the election.
If you look at the post-election map of both the United States and Kentucky, it’s clear that the election was about economic insecurity and anxiety. For the first time in nearly 30 years, Republicans won the industrial states of the Midwest, turning the map red from Pennsylvania to Minnesota. In Kentucky, the Republicans swept many long-serving Democrats from Eastern Kentucky out of office.
The working class was angry and frustrated. A woman at a Tea Party rally a few years ago said about the economy, “I just want to know what went wrong, and who to blame.”
Donald Trump spent a good deal of time talking about the loss of factory jobs. His analysis of the causes, and his proposed solutions, may be totally wrong, but there’s no doubt that he addressed the issue. All Democrats seemed to talk about was Trump’s personal defects. It didn’t matter that Trump didn’t have a detailed plan. Plans can come later, but plans won’t come to politicians that don’t even recognize the problem.
Democrats had no answer to what went wrong. They had a thousand little plans, but no real explanation that could satisfy a broad swath of the American people, particularly the working class which has borne the brunt of the economic changes over the last few decades.
Republicans have an answer: liberal policies. They say that liberal social programs have stripped people of their initiative, made them dependent upon government and weakened the workforce. They say that programs like environmental regulations, workplace-safety rules and banking restrictions have hamstrung business and weakened the economy.
Now Republicans are in charge at both the state and national levels, and they promise to enact the “pro-business” policies they’ve long called for. While President-elect Trump has yet to flesh out his policies, other Republicans hope to roll back environmental regulations, eliminate banking regulations and gut welfare programs.
In Kentucky, Gov. Matt Bevin has set out a laundry list of proposals (many in a column recently published in the Herald-Leader) that includes enacting “right to work” legislation, passing tort-reform and allowing charter schools.
We’ll see if these policies work. I’m skeptical because this is what conservatives have been doing, without success, in Kansas for the last six years. But perhaps it will work in Kentucky and on the national level. I hope for the sake of my fellow citizens that it does.
But if these policies fail, where will millions of frustrated voters turn? Democrats might think they’ll once again vote blue, but I think these people will only vote that way if Democrats offer a rational argument about what has happened to the American economy over the last two or three decades, and provide a rational set of policies to revive the economy in the industrial heartland.
Democrats have to be more than “Not Republican” or “Not Trump.”
If that’s all that Democrats can do, they will continue to lose, and rightfully so. If all they can offer is a laundry list of small-bore programs, like raising the minimum wage or making child care and college affordable, then Democrats will remain in the wilderness for years to come.
Democrats won’t win in Kentucky, and may continue to struggle nationwide, until they can explain a coherent economic vision for America. Until they do, the Republican narrative of the American economy will dominate the political debate and control public policy.
Michael Coblenz is a Lexington attorney who once ran for office as a Democrat.