Thursday, December 09, 2004

Hooray for Class Warfare!

David Sirota has an important article in this month's American Prospect that highlights the many examples of Democrats succeeding in "red" regions of the country by emphasizing their populist, class-based appeal (link). These successes, some of the few bright spots for Democrats in 2004, were in direct conflict with the conventional wisdom that says that Democrats cannot succeed with these kind of appeals but must, instead, "swing towards the middle", be friendlier to corporate interests, hit "moral values" hot buttons and never NEVER engage in class warfare.

Yet how to explain the success of Bernie Saunders?

In Vermont, Representative Bernie Sanders, the House’s only independent and a self-described socialist, racks up big wins in the “Northeast Kingdom,” the rock-ribbed Republican region along the New Hampshire border. Far from the Birkenstock-wearing, liberal caricature of Vermont, the Kingdom is one of the most culturally conservative hotbeds in New England, the place that helped fuel the “Take Back Vermont” movement against gay civil unions.

Yet the pro-choice, pro–gay-rights Sanders’ economic stances help him bridge the cultural divide. In the 1990s, he was one of the most energetic opponents of the trade deals with China and Mexico that destroyed the local economy. In the Bush era, he highlighted the inequity of the White House's soak-the-rich tax-cut plan by proposing to instead provide $300 tax-rebate checks to every man, woman, and child regardless of income (a version of Sanders’ rebate eventually became law). For his efforts, Sanders has been rewarded in GOP strongholds like Newport Town. While voters there backed George W. Bush and Republican Governor Jim Douglas in 2004, they also gave Sanders 68 percent of the vote.

Sanders' strength among rural conservatives is not just a cult of personality; it is economic populism’s broader triumph over divisive social issues. In culturally conservative Derby, for instance, a first-time third-party candidate used a populist message to defeat a longtime Republican state representative who had become an icon of Vermont’s anti-gay movement.

In all the success stories Sirota details there is one common element: the successful Democratic candidates came from working class and/or rural backgrounds who spoke the language that was familiar to the people they wanted to represent. They succeeded primarily against opponents that represented corporate interests (many were former lobbyists). The message is that being a real "man of the people" is the #1 characteristic we should look for in potential candidates.

Yes, I know, Bush does not fit this model. He is not a real "man of the people". But Bush benefits from having a billion dollar media apparatus working day and night to create the illusion that he is "one of us". The problem for most politicians is that very few of them can afford that kind of apparatus. Fortunately, the sheer size of it demonstrates that it is not easy to pull off this kind of a con.

This is the second message: we shouldn't even try to pulling a similar con. We should, instead, find the real REAL "man of the people" candidates (both men and women) and send them out with a populist, class-based appeal. When you run that kind of candidate against lobbyist-turned-politicians, the populist candidate will win, regardless of what political party they belong to.


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