Progressive politicians and liberal interest groups have a blind spot that costs them votes and elections. They’re enthusiastic about warning of the danger right wing candidates pose to democracy, and they’re right about that. They’re enthusiastic about rebuilding conditions needed for local and national success, and they’re right about that too. But progressive leaders don’t listen well between the lines to working people who are tired, frustrated, and worried that the little they’ve worked so hard to build up is in jeopardy. They express it in ways that can sound reactionary and ill informed, but listening between the lines reveals deep wants and anxieties that need to be addressed because they’re also the people whose votes progressives need to win elections.
As an anecdotal case study, consider a long time acquaintance, a young family man who had been successful win the building trades. From framing to finishing there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do well. It’s an unpredictable way to make a living, so about fifteen years ago he went to work in an old fashioned, blue collar, unionized job. He’s the kind who gets his hands dirty working on things that merge strength and skill with high technology. There aren’t many jobs like that these days and he’s glad to have one.
He’s an intelligent guy with world views well formed by a lifetime of exposure to the virtue of individualism, the value of small government, the unfair burden of taxes, and the laziness of those on welfare. He takes the benefits of post war liberalism for granted. His entire life has been submerged in Reagan era propaganda that for him set the standards for the way things should be.
He’s worked hard to care for his family and has little respect for those who don’t. He believes government handouts are mostly a waste of his taxes, and is largely unaware of government programs that help underwrite his employer and others in the region. He’s been told often enough, and so believes, that the government doesn’t care about blue collar workers. Likewise, he’s been convinced government is loaded with untrustworthy, self dealing politicians who favor the rich and elite. He believes people in the upper classes, intellectuals, and elites in general have disdain for folks like him who work with their hands. Why does he believe it? The media have said so for his entire life.
His experience and everything he’s heard add up to a conviction that if one doesn’t stand up for one’s rights and freedoms, they’ll be taken away. The thing is, he’s no MAGA hat wearing Trumper. He’s not into conspiracies. He’s not easily persuaded by right wing news sources, but he watches Fox and listens to talk radio. Whatever being woke is, it’s unlikely he will ever be woke. He doesn’t think or care much about race or racism. He does think and care about street crime and violence.
He’s one anecdotal case study, but my guess is that he’s legion, and can’t be easily pigeonholed into blue or red boxes. He’s certainly not a right winger. On close examination his legion is maybe center right, if there is such a thing.
When he makes his political voice heard, liberals argue with him about how misinformed and prejudices he is. They talk in generalities about what’s just and good for the country, but not about how that can be just and good for him. And therein lies the problem: what does he think would be good and just for him? Why not ask him?
He wants to do the right thing, but doesn’t want to be coerced into doing it. People like him were the backbone of the Democratic Party only a few decades ago. Open the door, give him good reason to enter, invite him in, but don’t shove him through it.
What might progressive thought leaders do to improve their chances of gaining votes from people like him?
The vaccine issue is illustrative. When government engages in anything that directly affects one’s person, it has invaded personal space at the most intimate level. However good the policy, it must tread a careful balance between force that limits freedom and invitation that nourishes it. Folks who believe they’ve been disregarded or disempowered by government office holders abusing their powers don’t like to be bullied. Liberals have been long aware of that regarding the non white population, but the same dynamic is at play among many who identify with the working class. The difference between acceptance and rejection is in the words used and the actions that give the words credibility.
If there is one thing my anecdotal case study holds dear, it is the Constitution, and his understanding that he has a constitutional right not to be told what’s best for him and his family. Of course that’s not what the Constitution is about, but that’s not the point. The point is that one’s desire to do what’s best for one’s family is a deeply held value, a worthy value. Policy proposals need to be presented as means to improve the ability to do what’s best for one’s family.
It’s all reasonable and obvious, but recent campaigns seem blind to it. Liberals promote grand schemes and big policy initiatives, each of which may be vitally important to the future of the nation. But they avoid explaining in concrete, tangible ways how their plans will benefit real lives. Perhaps most important, unless the liberal agenda can be presented as preserving and protecting individual rights and freedoms, the wary will consider them suspect.