A few weeks ago, Howard Dean wrote my girlfriend a letter. In a weird way, the letter made me jealous. Why didn't he write me a letter? After all, I've been a loyal Democratic voter since 1992.
For me, voting Democratic has always been a no-brainer. I grew up in a decidedly working-class family; my father drove an 18-wheeler for Wegmans -- a New York state grocery chain that has recently expanded into Northern Virginia -- and my mother was (and still is) a janitor at my former high school outside of Rochester, N.Y. My older brothers are both union members. I spent more than 10 years doing jobs that, based on pay alone, fall within the range of the working class -- personal care assistant, sandblaster, security guard, bookseller and adjunct professor, among others -- before landing my current position at a District nonprofit. I still identify strongly with organizations dedicated to improving the lot of my family's socioeconomic stratum.
In my view, at least, that's always meant voting for the Democratic Party. It is, after all, the party responsible for one of the nation's greatest populist triumphs: Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. Its legacy remains with us today, in the form of welfare and Social Security, two programs that have effectively reduced the burden of the downtrodden in times of need. To my mind, if we needed any proof of the necessity of these types of government safety nets, the images and stories coming out of the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina have provided a devastating reminder. Once upon a time, in a land that doesn't really resemble the one we live in today, the working class that now finds itself in danger of slipping into a deeper, almost hopeless poverty in places like New Orleans was considered the Democratic Party's base. But the game has changed considerably since Roosevelt's election in 1932.
Take this letter, for instance. I'm looking at it now. On the envelope, in bold blue script, is written: "Your party. Your country. Take them back!" Which is terribly funny. You see, my girlfriend, the person to whom this letter is addressed, is not a registered Democrat. In fact, she's not even American; she's European.
How is it that someone who isn't even eligible to vote in this country receives a letter from the chairman of the Democratic Party -- yet my mailbox and those of Democratic friends, including some of whom gave money to the party during the last election, remain unvisited? The answer, I believe, is simple: My girlfriend subscribes to two liberal magazines, Mother Jones and the Nation. I'm guessing that as a bona fide liberal she represents the party's new target demographic. The working class has become passe. Clearly, now especially, this has to change.
With the Republicans controlling both houses of Congress and the White House, the Democratic Party, as we all know, has been mired in a deep and pathetic funk, with no visible end in sight. Even an August Washington Post-ABC News poll that placed President Bush's job approval numbers at their lowest ever didn't augur well for the opposition party: Going into midterm elections next year, more than half of those surveyed felt congressional Democrats also had let them down by not challenging Bush aggressively enough. Meanwhile, the working masses weren't doing so hot themselves. According to the most recent Census Bureau statistics, 37 million Americans now live below the poverty line -- a figure that includes 12.9 million children (who have clearly been left behind). Almost 46 million Americans (or about 16 percent) are forced to go without health insurance. The federal minimum wage rests, as it has for eight years, at $5.15 per hour. And, as the Census reported, the median pay of full-time workers actually fell last year -- helping make this the first time on record that household incomes have failed to rise for five years straight. That's a lot of people for a developed nation to leave struggling from day to day -- and the rising gasoline prices post-Katrina aren't going to make it any easier.
So, as a working stiff, let me be so bold as to give advice to the Democratic Party: Get back to your roots. The administration's slow response in bringing aid to residents of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is emblematic of its failure to address the concerns of the nation's working poor. So step in, and distinguish yourself from policies that clearly do little to help those in need. Find and court true working-class Americans, and explain to them in plain terms that you are willing to focus on and change the current sad economic facts -- something the Republican Party has consistently failed to do.
It's very easy for politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, to choose to ignore the working poor when these politicos have never known (or have forgotten) what it's like to sometimes need a hand. The trick, for the Democrats, is to think ahead: make this a political issue, bring this group of Americans and their votes back to the party; plan for the future by actively promoting a domestic agenda that includes job security, good wages, health care and a reasonable assurance that Social Security will not get axed -- issues that working people like my family care about. Go out directly to the people and talk with them, not at them: If you want to build a grass-roots movement, you need to sow the seeds where the people are, not fling your hopes where you think they might be. In due time, working people will start to wonder where their jobs and their money are really going.
If the Democrats can score points with the group of Americans who stand to gain the least from our current administration's policies, and make them fully aware that they stand to gain the least, they could reestablish a base and bring real assistance to a regrettably large swath of Americans.
Readers of the Nation and Mother Jones are not, as we all know very well, Mr. and Mrs. Minimum-Wage, or Ms. Two-Jobs-Just-to-Make-Ends-Meet. Subscribers to these magazines represent a tiny segment of the population -- the Nation, the larger of the two, has a circulation of about 180,000. To me, it seems as though they'd make for a very narrow and wobbly base on which to build your political future -- especially since it's possible the party could never be liberal enough for them.
With all due respect, Chairman Dean, with the kind of selective recruitment strategy I think I'm seeing here, the Democratic Party straddles a dangerous line. It can neither fully satisfy left-leaning Americans nor please those to whom the party should owe its allegiance right now, those who live one job loss, one tragedy away from poverty. If this is the recruitment strategy the Democrats are taking into the 21st century, I see no reason to believe that the party will be getting out of its funk any time soon.
Author's e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
K.E. Semmel is a Virginia writer currently at work on a novel involving the 1934 St. Louis Cardinals and the Great Depression.