Jim Kessler and Jon Cowan are, respectively, senior vice president for policy and president of Third Way.
Let’s dispel the notion that if Democrats only had a different nominee the world would be set right on its axis. No matter what kind of Democrat you were, it was a bad night on Tuesday. Populists Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Zephyr Teachout (the Bernie Sanders of New York) lost winnable races. Standard-issue progressive Katie McGinty fell in Pennsylvania, as did moderate Patrick Murphy in Florida. Outsider Jason Kander succumbed in Missouri, and so did insider Evan Bayh in Indiana.
If you share an affinity with any of these brands of Democrat and believe you don’t need to reassess — wake up! Democrats are in their worst shape in terms of officeholders at the state and federal level since Reconstruction. Something has to change if we are to be competitive in elections.
On the economy, we have to get our math right. The income disparity in the United States isn’t about the 1 percent versus the other 99. This thinking has led Democrats astray. The truth is that one-third of adults are economically secure and getting wealthier year by year. This is the upper-middle class that economist Stephen Rose found doubled in size and share of national wealth since 1979. The other two-thirds, however, are scared to death.
The basic bargain of doing your part, doing your best and living a life of dignity and comfort has been shattered for these people. They don’t want handouts. They want work that provides a living, a career path and a sense of purpose — this is the glue that holds our democracy in place.
So while they wouldn’t mind the workplace being more fair (as Democrats mostly propose), what they really want is for good jobs to be more plentiful. And that entails solving the most difficult domestic-policy issue of our era: making the forces of globalization and technology work for everyday people, and not against them.
To be clear, the populists in the party have a point that there are elements of the economy that are rigged against the working stiff. Don’t stop fighting that. But once upon a time, 145,000 folks worked at Kodak. They lost their jobs not because of a stacked deck but because you take pictures on your phone now. In just 10 years, 465,000 fewer people work in paper, publishing and printing because you’re probably reading this column online. And 365,000 people lost jobs in department, clothing and electronics stores because you shop from your home. This is the root of economic angst in the United States, and simple solutions won’t solve it.
On social policy, Democrats have to practice what we preach: tolerance. Social policy, thankfully, is the place where all facets of the party are in harmony. The fight Democrats have led to fully include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and immigrants in our society, to protect a woman’s right to choose, and to stand for sane gun laws and holistic policing and criminal justice has been a unifying force for Democrats, not a source of division as it was in the 1990s.
But we need to try to find a path to progress on these vital social issues that deploys less scorn upon those who do not see things completely our way. Sure, there is a fringe element larger than any of us would like who deserve our disapprobation. But there are far more who are just hesitant, weighing the matter, wondering if we’re moving too fast. A little empathy may help. That would make a stronger case, and embody the values we want from others. It only takes being called a racist, homophobe or misogynist once to permanently end a conversation with a potentially reasonable but reluctant voter.
After an electoral debacle such as this, each wing of the party argues that if only Democrats had followed their approach the outcome would have been different. That just ain’t so — the defeat was too sweeping. We all need to make some changes. To start with, emphasize more jobs, not just fairer jobs; and achieve social progress with less social shaming. This would not betray the values of any Democrat in any corner of the party. It would appeal to the white working-class voters who once formed the core of the party and keep our promise to the growing minorities in the country who deserve full inclusion in America.