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“Houston, we have a problem”

Just like the Apollo 13 mission, where Jim Lovell famously said “Houston, we have a problem,” the Democratic Party has finally realized they need to fix their standing with the working and middle classes.

5 min read

Just like the Apollo 13 mission, where Jim Lovell famously said “Houston, we have a problem,” the Democratic Party has finally realized they need to fix their standing with the working and middle classes.

Former Democratic Montana Gov. Steve Bullock has described the image of the Democratic party as “coastal, overly educated, elitist, judgmental, socialist — a bundle of identity groups and interests lacking any shared principles. The problem isn’t the candidates we nominate. It’s the perception of the party they belong to.”

So why are Democrats losing the working class? Why do citizens like Dem policies, but vote for the party that comforts the rich? What’s wrong with Dems’ messaging? What’s wrong with the Democratic candidates?

There is a way to reclaim the values of the working and middle classes. And a new Democratic star is born who just maybe will show the way.

Dems – Talk like this

Michigan State Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak) decried the political attack by Sen. Lana Theis, a Republican who made the accusation of “grooming” directed at McMorrow in a recent campaign fundraising email. (A “groomer” is someone who establishes a connection with a child to ultimately exploit or physically abuse that child.)

Reacting quickly on the floor of the Michigan State House, McMorrow said to Theis “I am the biggest threat to your hollow, hateful scheme. Because you can’t claim that you are targeting marginalized kids in the name of ‘parental rights’ if another parent is standing up to say no.”

McMorrow continued, “You say, ‘She’s a groomer. She supports pedophilia. She wants children to believe that they were responsible for slavery and to feel bad about themselves because they’re white.

“I am a straight, white, Christian, married, suburban mom who knows that the very notion that learning about slavery or redlining or systemic racism somehow means that children are being taught to feel bad or hate themselves because they are white is absolute nonsense.

“No child alive today is responsible for slavery. No one in this room is responsible for slavery. But each single one of us bears responsibility for writing the next chapter of history ... we are not responsible for the past. We also cannot change the past. We can’t pretend that it didn’t happen or deny people their very right to exist.”

It’s time to push back – strongly

Perhaps finally, Democrats have a template to use to fight the lies, misinformation, and ridiculous culture war buzzwords spewed by Republicans.

It is painfully obvious that in turning to Donald Trump’s party and his Republican acolytes, voters are rewarding a party full of hypocrisy that barely disguises its own elite roots and its own coddling of the rich.

Ironically, the Democrats’ failure to address this hypocrisy with force and repetition has pushed ordinary Americans to follow figure whose father illicitly supplied the money that enabled his rise, who repeatedly imported undocumented immigrants to work on his properties, who stiffed those who worked for him, whose father’s doctor helped him evade the draft, and whose tax cuts flatly violated his campaign pledge to make the rich pay more.

Democrats need McMorrow, a “straight shooter” who is as American as baseball and apple pie.

It should be obvious that the policies of the Republican Party present a great opportunity for Democrats to argue on the friendliest of political grounds that have broad public support – a higher minimum wage, lower prescription drug costs, a better chance for college education, with programs paid for by higher taxes on the affluent and mega-rich.

But for decades, Democrats have seen these advantages on policy disappear when “cultural issues” creep into the conversation. Racial animus began to turn Southern states Republican in the 1960s, and, along with a backlash to urban and campus disorder, pulled white working-class voters rightward.

Some are predicting that the wave of draconian anti-abortion laws in state after state, potentially sanctioned by this Supreme Court overturning of Roe v. Wade, may put Republicans on the cultural defensive.

A word about a word: “socialism”

Today one of the accusations that Republicans use as a fall back is to repeatedly accuse Democrats of being socialist.

In his book, “The Road to Wigan Pier,” written in 1937, George Orwell deals with a broader question: If socialism is the way toward providing a fairer, more decent life for those with the least, why has it not succeeded politically? His answer was that there was a cultural gap between a socialist and those who they were seeking to persuade.

“Question a person of this type and you will often get the semi-frivolous answer: ‘I don’t object to Socialism, but I do object to Socialists.’ Logically it is a poor argument, but it carries weight with many people.”

Orwell, himself a socialist, argued first that “Socialism in its developed form is a theory confined entirely to the [relatively well-off] middle class.” It is distant from the language of ordinary citizens, spoken by people who are more educated than their audience – in other words, “preachy.”

Orwell also cites “prevalence of cranks wherever Socialists are gathered – draw every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.”

WE need to talk about values

Why is this account relevant to the Democratic Party’s condition today?

Because ultimately, too many otherwise persuadable voters have become convinced that Democrats neither understand nor reflect their values.

Democrats have not found a way to draw clear, convincing lines separating the most militant voices in the party from the beliefs of a large majority of their base. Consider Orwell’s argument that the language of the ‘left’ is “wholly distant from the language of ordinary citizens.” For example:

  • Most Democrats do NOT support “defunding the police.” But a failure to make that argument repeatedly, in the bluntest of terms, permitted that slogan to take root in voter’s minds.
  • Most Democrats are NOT proponents of teaching critical race theory in public schools.
  • Most Democrats have failed to push back hard enough on the proposition that the United States is fundamentally a nation conceived in white supremacy, where skin color is the essential aspect of a citizen’s life.

And what about labor?

In another time, organized labor — which represented a third of all workers in 1960 — was a visible, potent part of the Democratic Party. Those who worked with their hands, who worked in mines, mills, and factories, also provided the foot soldiers and the funds to keep Democrats competitive.

Today, organized labor represents less than 10 percent of private workers; it’s the public services — schools, government offices — that now provide the bulk of organized labor. Indeed, the tension between public sector workers who are paid with tax money and private sector workers who provide that tax money is one of the significant unspoken conflicts within the Democratic Party.

Again, the Republicans have played that card brilliantly, as private sector and public sector workers have been pitted against one another and workers have been voting against their own economic interests.

Let’s get the message right

Democrats have another problem that George Orwell might have recognized; “messaging” is increasingly crafted by people who are born and raised in the big city, product of an elite law school, a working life whose tools are words, ideas — not hammers and nails.

But the danger to the left that Orwell described remains “alarmingly potent.” An electorate where many find the party “preachy” and “judgmental” will falter on this side of the Atlantic now, just as it did decades ago in George Orwell’s England.

When Mission Control realized Apollo 13 was in trouble, Flight Director Gene Kranz gave this mobilizing speech to his team in Houston: “I have never lost an American in space, sure as hell aren’t going to lose one now. This crew is coming home. You got to believe it. Your team must believe it. And we must make it happen.”

Democrats must “make it happen” and not let Republicans win on lies and fake culture claims. They have to believe, and say out loud, what Sen. McMorrow said on the Floor of the Michigan State House,

“We will not let hate win.”


Written by John James Alexander, a long-time Kentucky educator.

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