About 30 years ago, I had an internship with a think tank that focused on rural economic development. One project involved trying to get welders in the mountains of North Carolina to buy state-of-the-art welding equipment co-operatively and house it in a central location. They targeted welding companies in a fifty-mile radius of Waynesville and were having difficulty getting the support they needed from the communities.
As I sat in a meeting listening to the researchers discuss the struggling project, I couldn’t help but feel like they had no idea about the people or businesses they were trying to reach. I’m not sure what they thought a welding business looked like in western North Carolina, but I’m pretty sure most of those welders were fiercely independent mountain men with arc welders set up in shops behind their houses or just down the road. They were fixing broken logging and farm equipment and maybe making furniture or folk art to sell on the side. They weren’t likely to drive five miles, much less fifty, on curvy mountain roads to use any sort of shared new technology, no matter how much more efficient and effective it might be. That defeated the whole point of the lifestyle and businesses they had built.
I had similar feelings reading an article about a report released by the House Majority PAC, the super PAC aligned with the DCCC. They found that white working class voters still have a favorable view of Donald Trump and prefer Republicans to Democrats by ten points on the generic House ballot. Most troubling for Democrats, those voters give Republicans a 35-point edge on the question of which party will “improve the economy and create jobs.”
One Democratic strategist called the findings “sobering.” The report’s authors talked about finding the right messages to reach these voters with a focus on “jobs, jobs, jobs.” First, though, Democrats need to focus on trust, trust, trust, because that’s what they’ve lost with the white working-class, especially those who voted for Obama but switched to Trump.
Democrats certainly need to hear the message in the report but for those living in areas with heavy white working class communities, nothing in it is new or surprising. Democrats can’t message their way out of the predicament they’ve created. They need to find leaders who live in those communities and have a track record of service to make the case for better policies that will help families and offer hope for the future. With the right candidates, the right message will follow.
Nationally, Democrats need to find an economic message but not just for the white working class. They need an overarching message that appeals to a broad audience that includes African-Americans, Hispanics and young people of all shapes and colors. To too many Americans, Democrats have become a party of causes instead of people.
It’s true they need to offer solutions to the economic problems facing middle class families but they’re probably not going to come from Washington think tanks or super PACs. The answers will come from people who understand the culture and context in which these folks live. Otherwise, Democrats will be like those researchers I worked with 30 years ago who offered a bunch of mountain welders help they didn’t want or need.