Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown may have removed himself from the list of Democratic contenders vying to challenge President Trump, but not before attempting to devise a labor-friendly populist message for his party to use with blue collar voters. Brown has been stringing together and testing a populist narrative since January, when he kicked off a tour of early primary states dubbed the “Dignity of Work Tour.” His message centers around conventional leftwing economic arguments, vilifying corporations and promising to redistribute wealth to workers through a federal minimum wage hike and a ‘corporate freeloader fee’. Let’s set aside the dubiousness of attempting to eliminate poverty by taxing companies who hire those most vulnerable to it, and recognize that the Democratic Party is scrambling to recoup blue collar voters.
Democrats have become increasingly inept at courting working-class and rural voters, in part because they thought they didn’t have to. President Trump’s sweeping success among working class Americans in states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ohio, were proof that years of economic neglect and increasing cultural differences eroded the loyalty blue collar voters once had for Democrats. The party hasn’t made much headway in recapturing that loyalty since the last Presidential Election either. As The New York Times pointed out, of the 41 congressional districts that Democrats turned from red to blue in 2018, 38 were suburban, leaving the majority of rural regions in Republican control. Democrats still have a blue collar problem, and they desperately need to win back portions of the Obama-Trump flippers who rejected Hillary Clinton in 2016 in favor of President Trump’s America First populism if they are going to have a future.
Brown’s message of the dignity of work is a nod to the working class, but how that message will play coming from 2020 frontrunners like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris is yet to be determined. Can these coastal elites succeed where Hillary Clinton failed, and dignify the concerns of blue collar voters? In one poll earlier this year when Brown was still a possible contender, a left-leaning research group found Brown beating President Trump in a head-to-head matchup in Ohio. The same poll however, found Trump held a 6-percentage point advantage over Warren. While the poll is far from predictive, it does illustrate the difficulty a Warren or Harris nominee will face with blue collar voters. The most natural fit to carry forward a populist labor-friendly message would be the socialist Bernie Sanders, but while he has undeniable grassroots enthusiasm, the party elite appears reluctant to nominate a white man who is eligible for Social Security. Former Vice President Joe Biden suffers the same optics issues as Bernie.
An important consideration when analyzing the Democratic Party’s interest in crafting a populist Blue-Collar friendly message, is just how transparent it is. Democrats witnessed President Trump’s success with blue collar voters by focusing on issues like the harm of globalization, trade deals that undermine American business, and burdensome taxes and regulations that make us less competitive. Now they are attempting to vilify job creators and raise taxes under the guise of economic justice, instead of admitting that Trump was right. That the interests of working class Americans have long been sacrificed in favor of free trade deals that favor the wealthy, and a tax and regulatory environment that undermines and penalizes American businesses. The majority of contenders vying to unseat President Trump and railing against corporations are bankrolled by corporate interests, and have been in DC for decades, making things worse. They are shamelessly attempting to co-opt a populist message and adopt it as their own, to direct attention away from their own failure to address the deep structural issues in U.S. trade and tax policy that have decimated entire sectors of the economy. Now, they’re offering nothing but worn-out corporate vilification and job-killing regulations and fees to solve the crisis that accelerated on their watch.
President Trump was largely elected because he promised to address the structural issues in our political system that have left blue collar workers behind, and to drain the proverbial swamp of the career politicians who were at the wheel as it happened. Now, he is going to face challenges from men and women who created the crisis in the first place. Democrats are gearing up to repackage populism as a vilification of business to distract from their own failure to put America first.