Published: mic (September 30, 2013)
While it’s easy enough to talk about politics in terms of any given immediate cycle, Democrats should always try to keep the big picture in mind by asking themselves the most important question: How can we win the next election, the election after that, and other elections into the future?
The answer, I believe, can be found in the Lehigh Valley. In my 16 years as a Lehigh Valley resident, I have heard time and again the term “key swing district” used in reference to my little corner of Pennsylvania. Generally defined as the region in eastern Pennsylvania comprising Northampton and Lehigh counties, the Lehigh Valley has long been thought of as a bellwether for the rest of the state in presidential elections, with Northampton County supporting the commonwealth’s choice since 1952 and Lehigh County doing likewise since 1980. Similarly, it remains one of the target regions in Pennsylvania gubernatorial and Senate elections, with its penchant for ticket-splitting frequently giving its voters’ preferences decisive weight in a state once described by James Carville as “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in the east and west, and Alabama in the middle.”
Even its congressional representation reflects the extent to which it epitomizes the partisan split in the rest of the commonwealth, with the last 20 years seeing part or all of the area being represented at various times by a staunch liberal (Democrat Matthew Cartwright, 2013-Present), a staunch conservative (Republican Pat Toomey, 1999-2005), and moderates from both parties (Democrat Paul McHale from 1993-1999 and Republican Charlie Dent from 2005-present).
There are a number of possible reasons why the Lehigh Valley has maintained its “swing” status, from its pluralistic (and arguably microcosmic) regional demographics to its history as a former steel belt mainstay that has maintained its economic competitiveness due to its proximity to major markets, diverse array of employment sectors, and comparatively lower production and labor costs. Ultimately, though, the best way to figure out what Democrats can learn from the Lehigh Valley is to identify the lessons picked up by politicians and local leaders who have been successful in this region. To that end, I sent a list of questions to a wide range of area Democrats, including a state legislator (Representative Robert L. Freeman), the local AFL-CIO President (Gregg Potter), a local party strategist (Easton Area Democratic Committee Chairman Matthew Munsey), and a Northampton County council candidate with a long history of bipartisan support (Tom O’Donnell). Of the many observations these yielded, here are the titular top three:
1. Offer concrete suggestions that will resonate with the middle class and low-income Americans.
Ever since Franklin Roosevelt cobbled together the New Deal coalition in the years following his first election in 1932, Democrats have been most successful when they appeal to the meat-and-potatoes economic issues that are capable of uniting all sectors of the working class. “Middle class Americans have lost a lot of economic ground since Ronald Reagan,” Freeman explained, “and that has created a tremendous amount of economic insecurity. They are looking for a party to champion their needs in order to establish an environment where opportunity is there for all who work hard, get a good education, and apply themselves.” O’Donnell reiterated these thoughts in his own answer, noting that these issues “resonate not only with Democrats but also with people who are capable of thinking for themselves, whether they are independents or independent-minded Republicans.” In addition, they want the opportunity to fight for their economic rights, with Potter noting that “we are seeing low wage workers stand up for their rights in an unprecedented fashion.” From “workers [who] would join a union if given the opportunity” but face employer retaliation to immigrants who “suffer under the constant fear of deportation yet are members of our community,” it is important to focus on policies like raising the minimum wage, strengthening labor protections, and reforming our immigration laws.
2. Use facts to counter the distortions of Republicans, Tea Partyers, and other conservatives who attempt to spin class issues and employ political “divide and conquer” tactics to their benefit.
At a time when purist conservative and libertarian anti-statist dogma has reached a frenzied peak, it behooves Democrats to expose what Freeman described as “the anti-government rhetoric in populist tones,” or the tendency to use government activism in the economic sector as “an easy to blame scapegoat,” for what it truly is — an “’emperor’ [who] has no clothes.” There are many ways of going about this: One could observe how the decline of labor union power in post-Reagan America has resulted in a fall in the average working class standard of living (as blogger Kevin Drum and economist Robert Reich have both written), or point out that the income of the bottom 90% has increased a mere 1% since Ronald Reagan took office even as that that of the top 1% more than doubled and that of the top 0.1% more than quadrupled (with economists Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Stefanie Stantcheva demonstrating how this was caused by top margin tax rates and economists John Kenneth Galbraith and Marriner Eccles explaining, through their diagnoses of the Great Depression, how income inequality breeds economic instability). In the end, as Munsey wrote to me, “the best way to combat this [conservative political tactics] is demonstrating that we don’t have a zero-sum economy and that ultimately these policies and programs benefit all of us (when operated in an effective, efficient, and fiscally responsible manner, as we [Democrats] do when in power). The reason is that assistance at the smallest scale to individual families and small businesses contributes to improving and expanding the economy, which is necessary for all of us to do well.”
3. Remain connected with the people you serve on a grassroots level.
As Munsey explained at one point, genuine “purple districts” (i.e., areas that could realistically swing in either direction during a given election) are becoming increasingly rare, thanks in large part to partisan redistricting. While this makes it notoriously difficult to unseat incumbents (save those who have been taken down by scandal or an extremist in their own primary), it can still be done by challengers who are “really strong and aggressive,” especially if the incumbent doesn’t take them seriously, as well as candidates who work hard to build popularity “in a very common-sense way that isn’t perceived as partisan.” Articulating a different take on the same thought, Potter observed the value of being able to “see, hear and meet the people who are feeling the pain the most. Show the paystub of a minimum wage worker and have them show you what it is like to create a budget to live on. Have an undocumented worker tell you how employers have stiffed them because they know that there is no legal recourse forcing them to pay them. Real stories work!” In short, as O’Donnell succinctly summed it up, you should never underestimate the importance of “talking one-on-one with voters and listening to what they are saying.” Even though this can be difficult thanks to campaign finance laws (which, O’Donnell mused, “elected officials talk about [changing] but really don’t want changed because it favors them”), a resourceful candidate can still pull an upset by pressing the flesh, going door-to-door, and appearing at major events.
When the historian Henry Adams wrote that “had New England, New York, and Virginia been swept out of existence in 1800, democracy could have better spared them all than have lost Pennsylvania,” he didn’t have the Democratic Party in mind… but he might as well have.
While this overview is by no means comprehensive or complete, it does offer a look at the nuts-and-bolts of how Democrats can revive their party brand. By focusing on the economic issues that matter to average voters and have worked for us in the past, aggressively countering conservative arguments, and remembering the importance of door-to-door grassroots politicking, we can recapture the heart of American political debate.