Defend democracy in the South.

Our friend, David Sirota, has put up a string of good posts about the core economic issues like trade that have been deeply affecting working class communities -- and on which the Democratic Party has often been on the wrong side:

For the last several years, Democrats' complicity with Republicans and Corporate America on the issue of "free trade" has severely weakened the party's ability to attract working class voters. That's why I have said Democrats must oppose Bush's new nominee for U.S. Trade Representative, Rob Portman -- it gives Democrats a platform to reform their support for free trade, and start once again speaking to the party's traditional blue collar base.

The Democratic Party -- and many left-leaning bloggers (who are largely pro-"free trade") -- often seem oblivious to the depths of the class divide, and how it's playing out in American politics. A few weeks back, Harold Meyerson had an excellent column in the Washington Post that tackled this problem head-on:

How do the Democrats win back the allegiance of the white working class? The problem may be deeper than even the most pessimistic Democrats fear it is ... It's not just that John Kerry got clobbered by working-class whites, whom he lost to George W. Bush by a hefty 23 points. It's not just that 66 percent of these voters trusted Bush to handle terrorism, compared with just 39 percent who trusted Kerry. It's that 55 percent of white working-class voters trusted Bush to handle the economy, while only 39 percent trusted Kerry.

Why did Democrats lose these white workers, including Southern workers?

The Democratic Leadership Council, Mudcat Saunders, and others say it's because they've gone too far to the left, especially on cultural issues. Some invoke the trifecta of "God, guns and gays" (an over-used and unhelpful formulation).

But a more convincing case can be made that it comes down to economics, as Meyerson notes:
Bill Clinton's repositioning of the party ... was supposed to have made it safe for working-class whites to vote Democratic again. Under Clinton, the Democrats became the party of fiscal responsibility. By ending welfare, Clinton sought to eradicate what many working-class whites saw, however incorrectly, as the Democrats' tilt towards blacks. No longer were the Democrats the party of racial preferences ... But if the Democrats are no longer quite the party of racial preferences, they are not quite the party of class preferences either.

To be sure, they oppose the privatization of Social Security and support the provision of universal health care, and every poll shows that the American people back their positions. But on a broad range of economic matters, Democrats have alarmingly little to say to working-class Americans.
As Sirota argues, the problem goes one step further: the Democrats are often seen as the party directly opposing the interests of working communities. For example, the Democrats ran ardent free-trader Erskine Bowles for U.S. Senate in North Carolina -- a state that has lost 163,000 manufacturing jobs since 2000 -- allowing the decidedly pro-corporate GOP candidate Richard Burr to position himself as the economic populist in the race, with predictable results.

This goes beyond "framing," "message" and the other techniques of persuasion being discussed in progressive circles -- this is about core values and core positions. It's also about more than a laundry-list of wonkish proposals, however important, for piecemeal reforms, like the watered-down prescription drug benefit that dozens of candidates rolled out last year. As Meyerson observers, it's about a fundamental re-alignment of progressive politics:
Democrats win when they deliver prosperity and security for working Americans, and in today's capitalism, those have become increasingly unattainable goals. Which is why, as they only now gear up their think tanks, Democrats need to promote alternatives to the kind of shareholder-driven capitalism into which our system has descended, to the detriment of millions of underpaid, insecure workers. They need to side with Main Street over Wall Street. Like the conservatives 40 years ago, the Democrats need to offend their own elites to build an America that reflects their best values, and in which working people can and do count on them for support.


Chris Kromm

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Chris Kromm is executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies and publisher of the Institute's online magazine, Facing South.

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