It’s hard not to feel good about last Tuesday’s election results. Winning beats losing. Trying to tout losing by special congressional elections by ever-narrower margins doesn’t cut it. Never mind that Virginia trends blue anyway and voted Democratic the last three Presidential elections and four of the last five gubernatorial races. Tuesday’s special election victory for governor saw Democrat Ralph Northam win by the largest margin since 1985 and beat Hillary support among women in 2016. The Dems picked up 15 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates and, depending on recounts, could actually take control. As expected, they also did well in New Jersey, helped by antipathy toward outgoing GOP Governor Chris Christie.
There were bright spots across the country, from Maine to Washington State, demonstrating unusually strong grassroots engagement and support for candidates of diversity. Exit polls showed the most important issue for Virginia voters was concern about health care. In Maine, voters approved a referendum to expand Medicaid. Some well regarded pundits claim a mid-term wave is forming. But it’s too soon for anti-Trumpers to pop any champagne corks. Even with Republican House retirements, redistricting realities are a major hurdle. The party is now Trump’s GOP, and he still commands its overwhelming support.
At a New England Council breakfast on Monday, 4th district Congressman Joe Kennedy reflected on the enduring conditions that led to Trump’s 2016 success. The President got elected by responding to the emotional needs of people who feel passed over, he said, warning that they can’t be ignored. Structural flaws in the labor market, unaddressed for years, breed deep frustration among those left behind in an economy of great disparities.
“There are more CEO’s in Massachusetts than there are plumbers,” Kennedy said, adding that anyone who has tried to get a plumber recently can appreciate this. Fall River’s voc ed program can educate and train future plumbers, enabling them to earn twice ($75,000) the area’s median household income ($34,000). But there are hundreds on the waiting list because government isn’t willing to invest in the program’s expansion. This is also true with infrastructure rebuilding, which creates good jobs doing desperately needed work, and which could be funded if the Republicans weren’t so intent on passing an unwise tax “reform” law to give lavish tax cuts to their ultra-rich donors and the President.
It is no surprise that, after years of waiting in vain for improved conditions, many people are angry at the system that has failed them, their families and their futures. Some were eager to support the devil they didn’t know, if only to shake things up. More than 60 million bought Donald Trump’s “authenticity.” Even here in blue, relatively economically successful, Massachusetts, one million people voted for him last November. Trump, Kennedy said, “showed up, spoke to people, didn’t speak down to them.”
Kennedy’s analysis went deeper. Other candidates talked about the economy. Hillary, Jeb and Marco all had detailed policy papers, but policy papers didn’t cut it. Trump connected with them at an emotional level (never mind that he played to the basest of emotions and roiling people’s insecurities.) He did it, and he “stood up and said ‘my hands are bigger than yours, and he won.’”
By turning the definition of American life into a “zero-sum game,” it was easy for Trump to feed the hatred of “others.” During the campaign, he implied he understood their pain. Ever since, he has done nothing to help them, and, in fact, his proposals work against their short and long-term economic interests.
Which brings us back to Tuesday’s results. There are signs that the Democrats could take back the House in 2018. The party is divided between the Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren left wing and more centrist (establishment) types. Whichever side prevails internally, it won’t be enough if the party fails to address the conditions that led to Donald Trump in the first place.
Last week’s victories are satisfying, but, to really gain traction, Democrats need a 50 state strategy to speak to all sectors of the nation, not just slice and dice the electorate and figure out what combination of identity politics appeals will get them to 50 percent plus one. Going forward, Democrats obviously need to hold their base and energize young voters, but they ignore the economic interests of the disaffected, especially the white working class. at their own peril. Feel good about last Tuesday, by all means. But to paraphrase Winston Churchill, this is not the end, nor even the beginning of the end. Perhaps it is the end of the beginning.