The New Democratic Populism
In some ways Ohio's a special case, having been particularly hard hit by globalization and with 83 percent of voters saying the economy was extremely or very important. The race came down to the have-nots outnumbering the haves: 37 percent of voters rated the economy excellent or good, and DeWine won their vote by forty-four points. But 62 percent rated the economy not good or poor, and Brown won those voters by almost fifty points.
I asked Ryan if, given Ohio's particularities, he thought Brown's message would be applicable in other parts of the country. "Take Columbus," Ryan said. "Columbus is so much like the rest of the country, demographically, that companies from all over the country conduct focus groups there. There's not a lot of factories, and it might be the one part of the state that might have gained some jobs with NAFTA. We went down to Columbus and we tested [Brown's trade message] to see if it would work. The difference was that in Dayton people would say, I lost two jobs because of NAFTA, and in Columbus people said, I know someone who lost a job. It was one half-step away, but people got it--people understood that the government was not on our side." In addition, Ryan pointed to Brown's success in southern Ohio, which is by far the most conservative part of the state. In three southern counties, Brown's support exceeded the number of registered Democrats by at least 20,000 votes.
Brown's successful populism and that of other Democrats hasn't gone unnoticed. Commentators have raised the specter of the rise of a "Lou Dobbs"-like wing of the party whose economic arguments are inextricably linked to a racialized nationalism, the kind of populism that's equally comfortable bashing corporations that outsource jobs and "illegal aliens" who take away Americans' jobs here at home, and whose opposition to the Iraq War, like Pat Buchanan's, is rooted in an America-first isolationism. To be sure, economic populism has a dark side. It's a fine line between railing against corporate-written trade deals because they hurt workers the world over, and scapegoating the brown-skinned Other who is stealing our jobs. Democrats haven't always walked this line carefully: There was more than a whiff of demagoguery in John Kerry's nomination acceptance speech about "closing firehouses in America" while opening them in Baghdad (why shouldn't Iraqis have firehouses?). That subtext ran through many Democrats' ads in this past cycle, as they rushed to declare their opposition to "amnesty," a word as racially loaded today as "quotas" was in the 1980s. Heath Shuler's ads attacking his opponent for "selling out our families" also ridiculed him for voting to set up a scholarship for Russian students (the horror!), while pledging that he would "put American families first." Even Sherrod Brown talked in television ads about the need for "tighter borders."
It's the left's perennial dilemma: Populism is a fundamentally majoritarian mode of politics--the have-nots versus the haves, the many versus the few--but a central part of the left's most noble tradition is protecting the rights and interests of minorities. Yet if there's going to be a center-left majority in this country, its electoral strength is going to rest on a coalition bound by a shared interest in economic justice. The Democrats face several obstacles to making that coalition stick. First, the infusion of corporate cash that's about to flow into the now-majority party will provide a disincentive to go after corporate power in ways that voters clearly want. In the past, when caught between the interests of their donors and of their constituents, too often Democrats have advocated for the former: Just look at the vote on the bankruptcy bill. Second, the Democrats' continued growth rests on a burgeoning Latino population, as well as on young people, who are more socially liberal than the population at large. So whose interests are going to get top priority?
Though difficult, it's not an impossible situation to navigate. With the power to control the agenda, Democrats can leverage the electoral strength of economic populism to protect minority interests by making sure that socially conservative members never get the chance to cast a vote in support of things like a marriage amendment or a "partial birth" abortion ban. But that strategy will work only if the Democrats can enforce real party discipline and prevent socially conservative Dems from defecting on key issues like stem-cell funding, choice, abstinence education and immigration.
In the short term, Nancy Pelosi's strategy seems to focus on the economic issues with the broadest range of support. Her agenda for the first 100 hours of her term as Speaker of the House is a package of mainstream, popular, progressive bills that would benefit a variety of the Democrats' constituencies: a raise in the minimum wage, which would greatly benefit blacks, Latinos and single women; a cut in interest rates for student loans, which would benefit young voters; and bulk negotiation of Medicare prescription drugs, which would benefit the elderly. "The Republicans are here to concentrate the wealth of our country in the top 1 percent, and all the power that comes with that is at the expense of the middle class and those striving to be in the middle class--and that's just plain wrong," Pelosi said in a conference call the day after the election. "That's why we need to get a progressive economic agenda out there. As long as I get my caucus organized around that, that's more important to me than having a checklist."