My previous column had something to say about the need to translate lofty policy proposals into pothole language. The millions who were once dependable Democratic voters turned away in part because lofty proposals, not brought back down to earth, were enormous disincentives to voters who revel in reverse snobbery, to protect themselves from even snobbier elites, real or imagined.
Trump, who cares not one whit for the average Jane and Joe, understood it well as he flimflammed them with his second rate steaks, fake university, and tawdry casinos. He may have failed at each, but they taught him how to woo disaffected voters by picking at their wounds while promising healing salve at no cost to them. That he had no salve, and no intention of getting any, was irrelevant. What he learned from steaks, fake schools and casinos was how to talk about hopes and dreams in the language of fixing everyday problems.
He learned how to talk convincingly about big national problems as if they were neighborhood potholes that he alone could fix. Of course he was manipulating the system the whole time to make money for himself. It’s what he does. If a pothole or two got fixed along the way, so much the better.
I was reflecting on that while on hold calling a local business. Their hold music was Sammy Johns’ 1981 song “Common Man.” It goes like this:
I’m just a common man, drive a common van
My dog ain’t got a pedigree
If I have my say, it gonna stay that way
‘Cause high-browed people lose their sanity
And a common man is what I’ll be
It’s a thirty-eight year old lyric written in the first year of Reagan’s presidency, reflecting the theme Reagan ran on: Democrats were out of touch with the common man, and Western common man Reagan would be their new voice in Washington. As it turned out, Reaganomics set in motion structural changes that began the erosion of the American Dream, the downward slope of middle class income, and the climb toward greater extremes of wealth inequality. But Reagan was sold as one with the common man, and they loved him for it. I think even he believed it. It didn’t flip a switch. Reliable Democratic voters didn’t turn over night. It was a slow process that gained acceleration with the election of an intellectually articulate, professorial black president whose presence on the national stage triggered long suppressed racial prejudices. And Trump knew how to make the most of it.
Mr. Johns’ song remains popular today for a reason. It’s an anthem of reverse snobbery declaring that high-browed elites (intellectual, liberal, sophisticated, well read, articulate) not only look down with contempt on common people, they’re shallow and corrupt to boot. Strip away their veneer, and there’s nothing there. It’s emotional and political self defense for (mostly white) self identifying common men and women. They clutch it close to the breast.
Roosevelt, Truman, Johnson, and even Bill Clinton, understood the dynamic well. They knew how to present the most important issues facing the nation in pothole language, and it wasn’t flimflam. They intended to do real work for real people to make their lives better. Not all their ideas were good, not all worked, but there was genuine intention to do well for ordinary people. To be sure, the legacy of systemic racism corrupted good intentions, but that’s a subject for another time.
Today’s subject is the need for today’s Democratic candidates to use pothole language to talk with, not at, ordinary people about the major issues facing the nation, and their plans for dealing with them. It has to be authentic because the trumpian GOP has done a superb job of painting Democrats as coastal elites who care nothing for common people. Even worse, they’re liberal big government socialists who will take away your freedom.
Bernie’s ranting and raving may raise cheers in some quarters, but he never explains how he’ll fix the potholes. Warren’s academic erudition nails the issues to perfection, but never explains how the potholes will get fixed. Beto dances on table tops, which is entertaining but avoids potholes. Harris is still in prosecutor mode, responding to questions as if cross examining hostile witnesses. The one who comes closest to getting it right is the young mayor of South Bend with the funny last name. Mayor Pete takes on national and international issues, speaks about them as if they were South Bend potholes, and makes it clear that he knows how to fix them – and not all by himself. He speaks respectfully but knowledgeably, without condescension, to the concerns of ordinary people.
Stacey Abrams can do the same. Combine a Georgia legislative leader with a romance novelist, and you’ve got someone who knows how to connect with the common person’s deepest desires. She’s not running, so learn from her. Be like Stacey. Be like Pete.
Pay attention people. If a dishonest grifter like Trump can fool enough people, and he knows how to do it, he can win again. Honest opposition can do better by authentically, honestly speaking with quiet confidence in pothole language. And remember, all modern soap boxes have very good audio systems. No need to screech and yell.