The Populist Persuasion

Nearly four decades after it happened, the assassination of Robert Kennedy still presents us with the greatest might-have-been of the past half-century of American politics. In the months before his murder, campaigning across the country in 1968's tumultuous presidential primaries, Kennedy did something that no Democrat after him has been able to do: He won primary majorities among both African-Americans and working-class whites, even though the white backlash against black militants and against the urban riots of that time was reaching fever pitch. With Kennedy's murder, however, the prospects for a Democratic Party able to command the allegiance of both white and black working-class voters abruptly collapsed. A number of whites who had voted for Kennedy in the spring's primaries voted for George Wallace in the fall's general election, and for Richard Nixon four years later, and for Ronald Reagan after that. Bill Clinton was able to win back a share of those working-class whites, but they generally constitute the Democrats' greatest challenge in each election cycle.

I was reminded of those voters who'd moved from Kennedy to Wallace while speaking, a couple of days after the midterm election, with Sherrod Brown, the populist Democratic congressman who unseated Ohio Republican Senator Mike DeWine by a 56 percent to 44 percent margin. Brown was calling my attention to Butler County, a mix of affluent Cincinnati exurbanites and, farther out, working-class whites. John Kerry had gotten clobbered in Butler two years ago, winning just 34 percent of the vote. Brown lost it this year as well, but pulled down a more respectable 43 percent, running up his best totals in the district's nonaffluent precincts.

Then Brown added a little historic context. In 1968, he said, "Butler was the best county for George Wallace north of the Mason-Dixon line. There were a lot of Kentucky transplants then, and it's still got a very conservative working class."

Whatever else Brown may be, he's nobody's conservative. He opposed the Iraq War from the outset and voted against subsequent supplemental appropriation bills; he voted against the Patriot Act and a ban on late-term abortions; he was a strong supporter of gay rights.

He didn't run from these positions in November's election, but neither did he run on them -- except, of course, his opposition to the war. Chiefly, Brown ran as an economic populist. He campaigned for the state ballot measure raising the minimum wage, spoke up for changing federal labor law so workers could join unions without fear of being fired, and arranged bus trips to Canada for seniors to purchase more affordable drugs. He flayed DeWine and the Republicans for crafting Medicare's Part D to the benefit of drug companies, and the nation's energy policy to the benefit of oil companies. He argued for ambitious alternative energy programs, as a way both to arrest global warming and generate new jobs for Ohio's sagging economy. Above all, he ran as Congress' foremost critic of free trade, the Democrat who'd opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and led the fight against the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). His campaign aired at least seven ads on Ohio television that highlighted his opposition to the trade deals that DeWine had supported, against a visual backdrop of the shuttered factories that dot the Ohio landscape.

"We did, 'He stands on our side' kind of issues," Brown said. In this, he was more the rule than the exception among victorious Democratic House and Senate candidates this November. Much of the conventional wisdom about the Democratic Class of 2006 has insisted that the incoming Democrats represent a rightward shift for the Democrats -- a questionable assessment based solely on the new senators' positions on cultural issues. "The incoming class of senators," said one post-election Washington Post analysis, "includes two economic populists in … Brown and Bernard Sanders [Independent of Vermont], a classic centrist with a slender mandate in Claire McCaskill [Democrat of Missouri] and a cantankerous conservative in Jim Webb [Democrat of Virginia]."

The problem with this assessment is that McCaskill, and Webb even more, are economic populists, too, as are the vast majority of incoming Democrats. In his victory statement, Webb stressed the two issues he had hammered throughout his campaign: ending the war and restoring economic equity. "We are going to work very hard on issues of economic fairness in a country that has become too divided by class," Webb vowed. On his campaign Web site, contrasting his trade position with that of incumbent Republican and die-hard free-trader George Allen, he provided a scathing appraisal of the nation's policies toward globalization: "This country is splitting into three pieces," Webb wrote. "As a result of the internationalization of the economy, the people at the top have never had it so good. The middle class is continuing to get squeezed by stagnant wages and rising costs of living. And we are in danger of creating a permanent underclass. We must reexamine our tax and trade policies and reinstitute notions of fairness." Perhaps more unusual for a Southern Democrat, Webb also affirmed the need for unions. "Organized labor is very important," he said, "because everyone needs an agent." For her part, McCaskill backed the minimum wage hike that was on the ballot in her state and campaigned against free-trade laws that outsourced Missouri jobs -- a position that differed sharply with the free-trade policies of her opponent, incumbent Republican Jim Talent.

Indeed, every single newly elected Democratic senator is a critic of free-trade orthodoxy, and ran advocating policies that would reverse the nation's gallop toward plutocracy. Montana's Jon Tester may well be no fan of gun control, but he campaigned against insurance and drug companies and for more affordable health care, against the sale of public lands to private investors, and against the free-trade positions of incumbent Republican Conrad Burns. Tester's campaign ran ads denouncing free-trade agreements that "put our jobs and the viability of family farms and ranches across Montana in jeopardy, by handing off trade advantage to foreign interests."

Pennsylvania's new Democratic senator, Bob Casey, it's been widely noted, is a staunch anti-choice Catholic, a defender of gun owners' rights, and comfortable with some of the less civil libertarian provisions in the Patriot Act. But the thrust of his campaign was for old-style New Deal economics: ending tax cuts for the rich and creating them for the middle-class; expanding health coverage; creating a quasi-public works program in alternative energy and retrofitting projects; championing unions. Casey ran four separate TV ads that spotlighted both his own fair-trade stance and the free-trade position of his opponent, incumbent Rick Santorum. "I'll oppose any trade law that sends American jobs overseas," Casey promised in one of those ads.

Similarly, incoming Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse may have shared the opposition of his opponent, incumbent Republican Lincoln Chafee, to the Iraq War, but they were diametrically opposed on the trade issue. Chafee, like many moderate House Republicans who lost this November (including the most moderate, Iowa's Jim Leach), was a consistent supporter of free-trade agreements, while Whitehouse proclaimed on the campaign trail that "[i]t's time to reject trade deals like NAFTA and CAFTA that fail to protect American jobs." And even though the seat isn't listed as a Democratic pickup, the replacement of retiring Vermont Senator James Jeffords by democratic socialist Bernie Sanders marks yet one more shift from a free-trade incumbent to a fair-trade new arrival.

Indeed, this year's election was the greatest victory for fair-trade forces in many years. Citizens Trade Watch counts 27 of the 29 incoming House Democrats who picked up Republican seats as critics of free trade. The new House Democrat most frequently cited as the most conservative, North Carolina's Heath Shuler, ran ads against his Republican incumbent opponent for his failure to oppose CAFTA, and spoke repeatedly about the need to raise the minimum wage.

This summer, the president's fast-track authority to negotiate trade deals expires, and the elections doomed any effort to extend it. "Congress is done with ceding all trade authority to the president," Brown told me.

If fair trade was one theme echoed in the campaigns of virtually every victorious Democrat this year, another was greater public investment in alternative energy programs. For Democrats, the issue was a three-fer: It positioned them on the side of national security against the oil companies; it was an urgent response to global warming; and it was their only platform plank that called for creating skilled and well-paying jobs. Such a program has been advanced for the past few years by the labor-backed Apollo Alliance, which has called for programs that would create roughly 3 million new jobs, to be paid for chiefly by tax credits. Legislation creating this kind of program would win wide support in the new Democratic caucuses.

The new-model Democrats who emerged from the 2006 elections may differ on cultural questions, how to get out of Iraq, and hiking taxes on the rich. Some of their differences -- such as those over warrantless wiretapping -- may lead to real internal conflict. Most won't -- either because the differences aren't that great, or the issues are ones that the party leadership needn't bring to a vote. What unites the party is a populist perspective that follows as the night the day the current era of Republican-sponsored plutocracy.

Can the Democrats suppress their cultural differences and stress their economic commonalities, as they did in the days of their New Deal majorities? Can they win back the working-class whites who've been lost to them since the days of Robert Kennedy? Those are long-term challenges, but this year's elections certainly put the Democrats on that road.

Research assistance by Jim Cavan.

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