Left-Wing Populism Can Win in Trump-Voting Areas, Too
Progressives write off Republican-leaning counties across America to their own detriment. With working-class candidates, populist messaging, and effective organization, we can make major inroads in “Trump country” that will pay dividends for years to come.
- Interview by
- Jared Abbott
Jonathan Smucker and Allison Troy are organizers who have been fighting to transform politics in Central Pennsylvania’s conservative Lancaster County for years. They have important lessons for socialists and progressives about why we need to reach “beyond the choir” of our core constituencies in urban and suburban areas to support organizing in small cities, towns, and rural areas. They also share key insights about how the Left can employ an inclusive populist message to win over independents and even some registered Republicans who many in the Democratic Party instinctively write off.
Smucker and Troy were active in the 2018 Congressional campaign of Jess King, who ran as a Democrat. King started her race in a district where Republicans typically enjoyed a six-point advantage over Democrats. Midway through the race, unexpected court-ordered redistricting left King with an R+14 district, making it practically impossible to win. While King didn’t prevail, her working-class political insurgency generated hundreds of new progressive activists, strengthened the new formidable political organization, Lancaster Stands Up, that had encouraged her to run, and pushed people like Allison from activist to candidate. In 2019, Allison ran and won a seat on the Board of Commissioners in heavily Republican Manheim Township, bringing in new voters while persuading many independents and Republicans to win more votes than any other candidate in the race.
I think there’s a lot of paralysis and confusion within the Democratic Party establishment right now. They see coming out too strong on supporting Amazon workers or on health care or naming Wall Street or specific corporations or billionaires as culprits all as “far left.” They see all these things through a narrative that’s been defined by the Right, on a Left-versus-Right axis. They’re equating everything together from Medicare for All to defund the police. They’re just putting it all in the same box.
And they’re like, “Oh, anything that’s bold and that’s assertive is going to lose us these imagined moderates,” which are more and more an imaginary constituency. There are actually fewer and fewer people who fit this box that they think a lot of people are in.
So there’s an imprecision of analysis where they’re seeing everything on this Left-versus-Right axis, and they imagine most people are in the middle, and they’re not understanding the bottom-versus-top axis that has become more and more salient over the past two decades, especially since the financial collapse in 2008 and onward.
Populism is partly a rhetorical structure that frames the many versus the few, the people versus the corrupt elites or the corrupt establishment. Now Donald Trump tapped into that by invoking popular resentment against the concentrated economic power at the top but then quickly obfuscating it. He invokes people’s fears and anxieties about their own economic prospects and precarity. But he doesn’t stay on it. Instead he just invokes people’s anti-elitist feelings and fears and anxieties and anger, and then he quickly channels that into anger at cultural elites.
His favorite targets are Hollywood, academia, media, and Democratic politicians. And so it looks like he’s punching up, but he’s not targeting the 1 percent or the 0.1 percent. He’s targeting the cultural elite in roughly the top 10 percent. And it works because when you’re in the bottom, say, 80 percent, that kind of looks like the top to you.
And then he also channels that anger at racialized scapegoats. Immigrants and Muslims have been his favorite targets. So that’s the kind of toxic cocktail of right-wing authoritarian populism: invoke anger at the very top, then focus on the cultural elite and the powerless scapegoats, the marginalized people; and invoke a solidarity that’s exclusionary — a “We the People” that is exclusionary — and Trump did that masterfully.
But there’s a lot of evidence that his articulation of populism is not as persuasive as the one we on the Left have available to us. The problem is that Trump is indeed naming culprits, while the Democratic Party has this recurring problem of hesitating to name culprits. So he’s filling a void that the Democratic Party is failing to fill. People are ready for culprits, so Trump gets traction.
Our version of populism actually names and stays focused on the economic culprits: the billionaires, Wall Street, and the big corporations that have rigged the political system, especially over the past forty years, that have continued to try to dismantle the gains of working people through the New Deal. We have to name those culprits.
Then we have to pick a fight with the Democratic politicians who have been doing the bidding of those economic culprits; who have helped pass trade deals like NAFTA and deregulation; who have gone along hook, line, and sinker with “tough on crime” legislation, the expansion of the criminal justice system, and the prison-industrial complex.
We have to go after these people on substantive issues. And then we have to articulate a “We the People” that’s inclusive of everyone. That’s our version of populism: the people versus the elites at the top.
You said that there’s a lot of evidence that our version of populism can win, but if we look at the most high-profile recent example of left-wing populism in the United States — the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders — I’m not so sure the evidence is there. Sanders had high expectations about the capacity for his campaign to reach disaffected and low-engagement voters, but he didn’t have much success. There were a couple of exceptions like Nevada, for instance. But in general, Sanders did not reach many new voters. Most people in his coalition, especially in 2020, were high-frequency voters on the left of the Democratic Party.
What makes you think that the brand of inclusive populism you champion can be more effective, given that we haven’t really seen a lot of evidence to that effect in the United States? Nor do we have a lot of great examples from other countries, where you’ve seen inspiring but only modestly successful left-wing insurgencies from Spain to the UK and elsewhere. We haven’t really seen this sort of rhetoric really take hold the way that right-wing populism has in a lot of places, unless you include, say, South America in the early 2000s.
I don’t think it’s as simple as populism wins or left populism beats right populism. I think you have to look at the historical reality. In the case of Sanders, for instance, I think some of it was very particular failures of his campaign.
Actually, I think Sanders’s 2016 campaign is evidence of what you’re saying. It was a done deal in the Democratic Party that Hillary Clinton would be the nominee, and then suddenly Sanders came within the range of possibility of winning the nomination. The vote share that he got in 2016 is incredible for how much of an insurgent candidate he was. He did incredibly well. Everybody wrote him off, and then look how well he did. Obviously, he didn’t win, but his run was impressive.
In 2020, I think the biggest thing, and I really haven’t seen much analysis on this, but it was clear to me that the biggest concern of Democratic primary voters, even including a lot of disaffected working-class Democratic primary voters, was defeating Donald Trump. And that is reasonable.
As a leftist, I shared that as my top priority for the 2020 election. However, my assumption with the 2020 election . . . or not assumption, but my theory is that Sanders was the best candidate to beat Trump, because of his ability to attract voters outside of the reliable Democratic voting base.
I don’t think the Sanders campaign successfully articulated that Bernie was the person best positioned to beat Trump. Yes, they said “Bernie beats Trump,” right? But a slogan isn’t enough to do that because that slogan just highlights how everyone had these doubts of “Can Bernie beat Trump?” Everyone has these frameworks of like,
Okay, Trump is so scary. This isn’t the cycle to go “further left.” I might want the Democratic Party to do better. They might suck, and I hate how they haven’t delivered for working people. And they passed NAFTA, and they haven’t been fighting for labor unions and this, that, and the other thing. But Trump is a real threat, and this isn’t the election cycle where we should go bold. We should just get rid of Trump.
To be fair, I think a lot of people in the campaign understood this, and they made efforts to change the narrative, including releasing polling that showed Bernie’s relative strength head-to-head against Trump. But given that nearly every pundit in America was saying on repeat that Bernie can’t win, I think a lot more was needed in terms of message focus and discipline. I think Bernie had to go for the jugular in a way that maybe he wasn’t willing to do. He had to say things like:
Look, according to the pundits, the “safe bet” in 2000 was Al Gore. The “safe bet” in 2004 was John Kerry. The safe bet” in 2016 was Hillary Clinton. The one exception to Democrats not losing in the past 20 years is Barack Obama, who was not the “safe bet.”
And highlight how the pundits have been wrong and wrong again about what it takes to win, and how Bernie was bringing in more disaffected voters than any of the other candidates. He had to go for that.
My experience knocking doors in Iowa, over and over again, especially with older voters, I think would be surprising to a lot of people. They were torn between two candidates. Those two candidates were not Biden and Amy Klobuchar, and they weren’t Bernie and Elizabeth Warren. The candidates were Bernie and Biden that they were torn between — a lot of folks I talked to.
They liked Bernie. They wanted to vote for him. They were afraid that he would be the weaker candidate against Trump. And when we said things at the door like “Actually, Bernie is bringing in the working-class base that the Democratic Party’s been bleeding out, because they haven’t been fighting for working people,” it convinced people.
But once South Carolina happened — and South Carolina, I think, is its own ball of wax that I don’t have enough information to be able to fully critique. . . . But once South Carolina happened and everybody got behind Biden, the base did too. And it makes sense because a lot of primary voters were eager to settle on a nominee and focus on beating Trump.
Let’s shift gears to talk about the work the two of you are doing to transform Central Pennsylvania politics. Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, is far from the profile of a typical progressive stronghold, with below-median household incomes and below-average educational attainment, and where only 32 percent of registered voters are affiliated with the Democratic Party. Places like Lancaster have often been overlooked by Democrats, but you’ve decided Lancaster — and places like it in Central Pennsylvania — is where you want to put all of your political energies.
So why is it that you think it’s so important to be doing the kind of work that you’re doing among the sorts of voters that you’re working to build relationships with and build coalitions with in Central Pennsylvania?
We talk about this a lot. I mean, one big idea here is that you can’t win in places that you don’t show up and try. And historically, or at least over the past fifty years, the Democratic Party has invested a lot of time and energy and money in cities and affluent suburbs, and then they win there. You win where you invest, and then you don’t win where you don’t.
So it’s just a reinforcing cycle where people point to communities like ours and say, “Well, we don’t win there. So we shouldn’t try.” And our response to that is, “Yeah. We’re not winning because we’re not trying.” So the big idea is to try as much as you can. And the more you try, the more you’ll win. And I think you can’t know what’s possible without trying.
So it was a really big deal to have a candidate like Jess King, a working-class insurgent populist candidate, who ran a big congressional campaign here in our congressional district. Very tough race, very tough district.
King ultimately lost, but this work is not just about winning in a single election cycle. Just having someone in a community like ours run a serious race . . . Jess’s race activated hundreds of volunteers, many of them new volunteers like me who had never been involved in anything like that before. Between the King campaign and Lancaster Stands Up, we knocked a quarter million doors — a huge voter outreach effort. And even though Jess didn’t win, there have been all kinds of downstream positive effects of her race that have outlived her campaign that are still going even years later.
So hundreds of new volunteers were activated, and many of those people, including myself, are still activated. They’ve just gone on to volunteer for other campaigns and organizations locally. People have gone on to run for office, including me, that wouldn’t have done that.
You’ve got all these people that live here now that know how to do that stuff, that know how to knock on a door and talk to a neighbor. It’s just part of their routine to make small contributions to campaigns at the local level. People didn’t do that before.
So there’s all kinds of really important lasting benefits that happen just when you have a good candidate like that show up in a community and run a really impressive race, even if they lose.
Of course you’re more likely to succeed in a +14-Republican area if you compete versus if you don’t, but why put in the effort at all if there are other places where it’s just +10, +5, or less? Can you elaborate more on the strategic value of doing the work you’re doing in such a conservative area?
We definitely don’t think we should blindly throw resources into serious contests of every which congressional district everywhere. It is important to be strategic here. But when we give up on winning or even trying in rural areas (or any R+ districts), we cede those places completely to the other side. Our vision here would be to have a “no place left behind” strategy — along the lines of Howard Dean’s fifty-state strategy — where the Democratic Party provides at least some low-level scaled support to organic leaders who live in these areas (who are starving for support) and then invests more heavily into flagship races that may be uphill but are winnable.
To be clear, we never intended to run a major congressional campaign in a R+14 district. When Jess King first started running, our district was R+6. It was clearly an uphill battle and not a sure bet, but with such a strong and inspiring candidate and a highly organized grassroots campaign, it seemed possible. In fact, if our district had stayed at R+6, it looks very likely that Jess King would have won — that’s what our numbers show. Jess King winning an R+6 district, running the kind of progressive populist campaign that she ran, would have been a huge game changer — not just for our community but nationally. It’s hard to overstate this. Every time we gain a new “Squad” member in Congress, establishment Dems and pundits say, “Sure, in Queens (or wherever), but that loses in the heartland.” We set out to create a proof-of-concept race by winning in an area where they thought we couldn’t. We still think that is a centrally important thing to do, as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, our congressional maps got redrawn in the middle of the campaign, and our district shifted from R+6 to R+14, which was, frankly, devastating. To be clear, the folks who encouraged Jess to run would have chosen other races to invest in had we started with a R+14 district. And Jess would have almost certainly not have decided to run. But after the maps changed, she made the hard decision to keep running anyway because there was so much grassroots momentum in the race.
So we have this really unique case here where we can see these unexpected and happy accidents that happen when you have a really strong progressive populist candidate at the top of the ticket, even in a tough district like ours. Jess lost her race at the level of the congressional district, but she did better in every single precinct than any Democratic candidate had ever done. And she won strong pockets of support, including crossover support from Republicans and independents in some surprising places that we might not have anticipated ahead of time, including the township where I live that had a two-to-one Republican registration advantage. We were able to have a much better idea of what was possible in different areas of our district, and this set the stage for folks like me to be able to run and win in down-ballot races in subsequent elections.
None of this would have happened if Jess hadn’t contested that congressional race in the first place. In retrospect, if we had aimed to build progressive organization and power in 2017 and 2018, this was clearly the most effective way of achieving that: running a congressional campaign, even though it lost.
I also want to speak to what happens in places like ours when there aren’t contested races, when no one steps up to run against the (often incumbent) Republican candidate. This is common in our area, especially in local races, and it is so demoralizing. To go into a polling place on election day and to just see line after line of uncontested Republican candidates with no alternative, it’s just a recipe for disaffection. When people don’t have a meaningful choice on Election Day, it’s really easy to feel like there’s no point in voting — what difference does your vote matter at that point? Disaffection, disinterest, and despair all seem like really rational responses to that kind of situation. In cases like this, people tune out, and they don’t show up to vote in local races, and then they get out of the habit of voting over time, because they don’t see the point. And over multiple election cycles, you’re now hemorrhaging voters who used to be there.
And that can have devastating consequences for statewide and national races where people have just decided to stay home. People often talk about coattail effects from the top of ticket in national elections, but there also seem to be really important examples of “reverse coattails,” where local races create enthusiasm that can then bolster support in higher-up races too. It is our assessment that the work of organizations like Lancaster Stands Up and Pennsylvania Stands Up in long-neglected areas like Lancaster County, Berks, Lehigh Valley, York, and so on were important for stopping, and even reversing, the bleed of disaffected voters in these areas, which was key to winning Pennsylvania in the 2020 presidential election. That’s also very likely to be important in the Pennsylvania governor and Senate races in 2022.
I know that a common frame is that it’s too costly to invest in heavily conservative areas that are a long shot to win, but in the long term, I think the more useful frame here is that it’s much more costly to completely abandon these areas altogether. You’ll lose voters who won’t come back, and this is happening as we speak. Especially in states like PA, we can still win important statewide and national races, but we can only do this by activating a broad coalition of voters outside of just the big cities and suburbs, and you don’t do that by completely ignoring people everywhere else.
Right. But if I were more of a social movement–oriented person and a skeptic of electoralism, I might ask you, “Well, couldn’t you have just focused your work all those years on some really important campaign issue in your community or in Pennsylvania — activated a lot of new folks like that to build community?“
Well, we did build an organizational apparatus that’s still here: Lancaster Stands Up and Pennsylvania Stands Up. But as someone who has spent my whole adult life up until the past six years organizing issue campaigns and outsider social movements, in all my years of organizing here, there was nothing like the Jess King campaign that allowed us to scale up our involvement of volunteers. We then moved that energy into organizations. So the issue versus electoral debate is a false dichotomy.
Yeah. You don’t have to choose. It’s both. And I think that’s actually something special that we have here in Lancaster. We’ve had some exciting electoral races that really activated people. It turned people out, it got people involved.
But then of course, campaigns are short-lived. They end, win or lose, and then in between, we have this base of issue-based work that continues like a bridge between elections. So they’re interconnected. They’re not separate. You don’t have to pick just one or the other.
The issue-based work like what Lancaster Stands Up is doing, for example, keeps people paying attention and keeps people involved in some way between election cycles, but it also can help reinforce things. So when there’s a good candidate, a progressive candidate, who comes along who is speaking to the issues that people have been talking about for years, that candidate is going to get much more support.
And I think there’s this scarcity mentality that people have on the Left where they’re like, “Well, we only have this little bit of energy. Why would we invest here? Why would we invest in elections? Or why would we invest in this rural area?”
The thing is tons of people live in these rural areas. There’s all this latent untapped energy that just has to be unleashed. And there are tons of people who will get involved in an electoral campaign that won’t get involved with an issue campaign. So we have to get into more of an abundance mindset of “We can unleash massive potential.”
One last thing to add to what Allison said: Jess King, a week after she lost, came to a mass meeting of five hundred people of Lancaster Stands Up and said, “Get involved with Lancaster Stands Up. This is the next step.”
Allison, let’s hear about your personal experience a bit more. You’ve done something that is quite uncommon, which is that you ran as a strong progressive for commissioner in the very Republican town of Manheim and won! To make this happen, you needed to bring in new voters and persuade voters — Republicans, independents — to come to your side.
How did this happen? How did you congeal some of the broader lessons that we’ve been talking about in terms of employing populist language, in terms of recognizing the issues that working folks really care about? How did you translate some of that into strategies for persuading independents and even Republicans and then bringing in new voters to join your coalition?
Well, part of it that I should say is that we had just learned a lot in 2018 that we used. . . . So Jess King lost at the level of our congressional district, but when we drilled into the numbers afterwards, there were pockets of places in the congressional district where she won and would not have been expected to win, and my township was one of them. Jess King won Manheim Township, even though there was this huge Republican registration advantage.
So there was this glaring signal to me there. . . . The way that Jess spoke and the issues that she spoke to clearly resonated in parts of our community. And I lived in one of those places, and there was this open seat. And so I basically took a lot of what I learned on her campaign about how to speak to working-class issues in ways that appealed to both parties and just applied it directly.
It applies differently at the local level. So it’s a township commissioner race. We’re not talking about national issues; Medicare for All is not on the table here. It’s much more localized, but there was a very obvious, for me, way to talk to people about what was going on, because people were really mad locally about what was going on.
I live in an area right outside the city that’s suburban technically, but it’s a new suburb. Just a few decades ago, it was primarily farmland. So it’s a pretty recently developed place, and that’s happened very quickly. And the people in the community perceive this development as very haphazard, pretty irresponsible, a lot of big-box stores and huge parking lots, but not really stuff that people want; new houses, but huge houses on huge lots that are hard to afford, not things that working people can actually afford to live in. So the cost of living is high and getting higher.
So people were really mad about this development and how it was going in our community. And so we used a lot of messaging around how development should serve the people. Development should make a community better, not worse.
There was also this existing perception in the community that the incumbent commissioners who were rerunning for their seats — they were Republicans — and the perception in the public was that they were corrupt, that they didn’t seem to pay close attention to development proposals; they seemed to be rubber-stamping things, that maybe something was going on.
And lo and behold, the press reported that they were taking campaign contributions from developers who had active proposals on their desks. And then they would approve those proposals. So, the definition of corruption . . . not illegal, but clearly unethical. There was clearly a conflict of interest.
So I just called it out explicitly, again and again. I named their names as sitting commissioners who were bought and paid for, that this was not the way that the process should go. We talked about how it was not fair to people, that we need to be able to trust our elected officials to fully vet development proposals; that we need to be able to trust our electeds. And I called out the fact that when you have officials taking campaign contributions from developers, the developers are calling the shots, basically. And that’s why things probably look so bad in our community, that we have this lack of leadership. Developers are simply doing what’s most profitable for them, and there’s no one standing up for the people in the community.
We knocked a ton of doors. We did a lot of messaging on social media and mailers. And this was basically the message. “People, not developers. We need elected officials who will stand up for the people.” And it resonated a lot with people in the community.
It surprised even me when we would go to the doors, how much people were fired up. People just didn’t like what was going on. And so for me to show up and say, “I’m running for office. I don’t like how things are going either. It could be a different way,” that really resonated with people. Because of the registration advantage, Republicans and independents outnumbered Democrats two to one. So we had to talk to a ton of Republicans at the door to try to peel away Republican votes.
We found that about a third of Republicans that we talked to would basically slam the door in our faces as soon as they learned I was a Democrat, just not interested.
But that left two-thirds of Republicans who answered their doors who were at least willing to talk to me and listen. And about a third would commit at the door and say things like, “Yeah. This shouldn’t be so corrupt like this.” A line we used a lot was, “We complain a lot about corruption in Washington and how politicians in Washington are corrupt, but that’s how it is here at home, too. And we deserve better.”
That really resonated with people. Corruption, or really anti-corruption, is not a partisan issue. And so it really resonated even with many Republicans at the door.
The most partisan dyed-in-the-wool Republicans, the first question they asked was, “Well, what party are you? What party are you?” And I knew that the conversation wasn’t going to go well from there.
But there were so many other people who I talked to where I didn’t lead with what my party was. We let the conversation go further, and I could convince them. And then eventually we got to the part that I was running as a Democrat.
But I think the other the thing is at the local level, these issues that we’re talking about haven’t been polarized in the same way, by party. Development is not owned by one party. Traffic was a huge issue that everybody loved to talk about because things have been developed so haphazardly here.
Everybody hates traffic, right? And no one party owns traffic. So I think, unlike at the national level where sometimes these issues have been claimed by one party or the other, and there’s no effort made to reclaim those by the other party. At the local level, there’s a lot more room to move around here, you know?
What were the key attacks you faced on the campaign trail, and how did you deal with them?
Most of the attacks against me were private and not public, and they all came from the Democrats. They made my life really hard actually. I wasn’t prepared for that at all ahead of time. I hadn’t been involved in party politics going in. I was not part of the party structure in my community, in part because I don’t like it.
So that might have been part of it; they didn’t see me as one of them. But they really criticized a lot about what I did. They did not like that I was explicitly naming culprits by name; that I was going after the incumbent politicians, that I was calling out the corruption explicitly. They were saying that it was really risky, that the Republicans were going to come back and attack me and make life miserable for me.
And my response to that was like, “Well, I’m running a race. I assumed that the Republicans were going to come after me. That’s how it works.”
And then funny enough, the Republicans didn’t think that I had a chance of winning. So they mostly ignored me and didn’t take me seriously, so it was a gift. But it was the Democrats who really piled onto me at times and were like, “You’re going to lose. You shouldn’t do what you’re doing.”
Their wisdom about how to do things and how they had done things in the past was to run very moderate, kind-of-quiet campaigns that didn’t gather a lot of attention.
And they lost a lot. So yeah, it was this strange thing where it was actually my own party that made it really, really difficult for me. And they did. They told me, repeatedly, things like, “You’re going to lose. You’re going to lose some of the base. They’re not going to like what you’re doing.” And then that’s not what happened at all.
She won by more votes than anybody has ever won the seat.
And mathematically, the only way that I could get to my win number was that I would’ve had essentially all of the Democratic voters that turned out. And then there also had to be hundreds of votes from independents and Republicans to get me to the win number that I got. So there was a lot of worrying about me turning off the base, and it just didn’t materialize that way.
An implicit assumption in what you’ve both been saying is that there’s not as much of a trade-off as you might expect between appealing to new voters and more conservative voters, on the one hand, and the Democratic base, on the other. And in other words, while it might be impossible to message both to the needs of ordinary working people and also to the needs of sort-of corporate elites, so to speak, it is not impossible to message simultaneously for independent, low-engagement voters as well as the most dyed-in-the-wool Democratic voters.
Is that a fair conclusion? And if so, would you just talk a little bit more about why you think that might be sort of a false dichotomy?
Great questions. I think what I learned from the Jess King campaign is that when you have a big campaign with a lot of volunteer capacity, you don’t have to make the choice between low-engagement and high-engagement voters. You get to talk to everybody.
And then I had a lot of capacity in my own campaign because a lot of volunteers from Jess King’s campaign then followed me to my local campaign. We could knock on a lot of doors. And this was another thing that I got criticized for by the party because their common wisdom was just to knock on high-engagement voter doors.
Their strategy was usually to target people who had voted in every election for the last eight cycles. And my response to that was, basically, I don’t really need to talk to them. They’ll just come and vote anyway.
Also, if you voted every election for the past seven or eight election cycles, you’re going to be older. You’re going to be someone who’s lived here longer. You’re just missing this huge cross section of voters. You’re in a lot of ways cutting out a lot of working-class voters and new voters.
So we targeted both. We talked to consistent Democratic voters, and then we talked to what we called two-by-four voters: people who had voted at least twice in the last four cycles, and this was usually people who voted in presidential races, and then either a primary or a midterm.
But there were many people who had literally never voted in a municipal race, ever. And so those conversations were just different at the door. They were completely different. I would knock on the door, and they would be happy to talk to me. But they had no idea what a commissioner was or even if there was a race that year.
And so I was able to respond and say things like, “I didn’t know what a commissioner was until last year either. You have really good questions.” And so it was much more about information sharing at the door.
They were often just really, really grateful and said things like, “Thank you so much. I’ve been seeing signs around about some election, but I didn’t even know what it was for or what these positions even do. This is great.”
I think that really did help to drive a turnout increase from 2017 to 2019. There were definitely other factors at play here too. I think anti-Trump sentiment was high at the time, which helped with down-ballot races like mine.
But yeah, I think it was really important that we talked to these lower-engagement voters, and in general, they were really happy to be talked to.
And one thing that’s incredible to me in all this is that the local Democratic Party is not learning a damn thing.
I know. Sadly.
Really the only way to do this is to actually just keep winning until they’re defeated. Because literally there are people saying now, like people in positions of power within the Democratic Party, who are saying Jess King lost because she knocked too many doors. It’s unbelievable.
It is true. People do say that. It’s crazy.
They don’t learn. They’re not learning the lessons. They still have this mentality of, at the local level, “Well, if we just say why we’re qualified and kind of bury our heads in the sand and try not to get too attacked by Republicans. . . .”
They also have this assumption that everything the Republicans say works. Like, you say a message, and they attack you. And it’s like, “Oh, they’re attacking us for this now.” And actually some attacks don’t work. But they just live in fear of being attacked.
I do think that in our community especially, Democrats who’ve been here for a long time are just coming from a place of scarcity and fear because that’s been their experience. But we’re really working hard to try to break through that mentality because that’s not what wins, I don’t think.
Let’s talk a bit more about the Democratic Party and progressives’ relationship to it. We found in our Center for Working-Class Politics study that distancing yourself from the Democratic Party doesn’t really do much to increase progressives’ appeal among many working-class voters. It didn’t have any effect whatsoever on the way that voters thought about progressive candidates or Democratic candidates.
And yet I get from reading your work and talking to you, it seems you feel that’s not really telling the whole story. Could you talk a little bit more about how you see the relationship between progressives and the Democratic Party rhetorically fitting into the strategic picture?
I think a lot of this is really coming directly from our personal lived experience here.
I mean, I’ve just found at the doors over and over again across races now, across years, that it goes a long way at the door, often with people in both parties. It’s not just a Republican thing or a Democratic thing that someone might be completely fed up with their party’s establishment. I actually just had a conversation like this. I was knocking on doors to support a Democrat running for state house. It’s a primary, and I’m knocking on Democrats’ doors.
This person at the door was like, “I don’t know. I’m just kind of done with this whole political thing. I don’t know. I’m a Democrat, but I’m just kind of fed up with everybody.” And my response to this was basically, “You and me both.”
I often lean into this, to criticize the political establishment. Yes, I’m a Democrat. Here I am, supporting a Democrat, but it’s not because I love the party or that my loyalty is to the party above all else.
And that keeps the door open and the conversation going. If someone shows disaffection or frustration with one party or both parties, I can be like, “Yeah. Me too.” And I mean that completely earnestly.
So I was just at the door recently and I said:
Yeah. I’m really fed up with a lot of the Democrats, too. This Democrat who’s running in this race is different. She’s a real one. She’s a working-class mom. She’s going to do these things that actually help working people here.
It seems that gives me a lot more credibility.
And that happens on the Republican side too, but it plays out differently. There are a lot of people who will open the doors and say, “I’m just so tired of the two-party system. It’s like picking between Coke and Pepsi. There’s so little difference between the parties.”
And to be able to lean into that and say, “I agree with you. I share that with you,” really opens the door to conversations. And I think it puts people in a place where they’re more open to being persuaded because you’re not explicitly defending this party machinery that they’re so annoyed by.
This approach gives you more of an opportunity to find values to connect with, to build coalitions around.
But you cannot do that if you lead with, “Hey, I’m a Democrat, and I’m supporting this Democrat.” Or like “blue wave” or things that are actually not tied to shared values, as soon as you use that kind of partisan stuff.
Again, even with people in your own party, it doesn’t always work. So I never lead with party stuff. And I don’t lead with an explicit critique, but when it comes up, a critique of either party, I lean into it and use that as a way to open and expand the conversation.
Over the past five years, the modal response at the door is some version of disgust and alienation from politics entirely. And in fact, you said they might lean conservative, but most of the voters that we target actually lean Democrat. But it’s both: they’ll hate the Republican Party, but they hate the Democratic Party almost as much and just feel like politics has left people like them behind.
My guess is that you’re not seeing a lot of mainstream Democratic outfits testing messaging about the degree to which candidates should shit on the Democratic Party in order to win votes for Democrats. Are they worried about losing core Democratic voters?
It’s nuanced. But if the basic question is: Are we losing Democrats by doing this? The answer is we’re not, because we’re not attacking Democratic voters.
We’re critiquing the clubhouse and the establishment leadership over specific policies. We might lose some Democratic-leaning voters in the very affluent suburbs, if we really go full-throated pro-labor et cetera. But we can make even bigger gains in winning back working-class voters. And very few Democratic voters today are going to cross over and vote Republican or stay home because a candidate is critiquing elements of the party.
So, no, we are not seeing a lot of mainstream Democratic outfits developing or testing messaging that explicitly challenges the old-guard leadership of the Democratic Party, its cozy relationship with large donors, and its failure to fight visibly and vocally for working-class people. We think that such messaging is desperately needed if we’re going to stop the bleed of working-class voters and win the majorities needed to actually govern, actually deliver meaningfully for working people, and also to defeat the threat of rising authoritarianism. That’s why Allison and I are starting a new research and communication strategy organization (Popular Comms) to do exactly that.
In a lot of your work, Jonathan, you talk about the importance of populist messaging for reaching disaffected working-class class voters. If I understand correctly, you see naming the enemy, naming the corporate class, naming the elites of different kinds in our political rhetoric as being central to a theory of progressive change. Could you talk a little bit more about what you mean by populism and how it fits into your broader approach to progressive politics?