Democrats

Democrats' Revival Could Run Through Tammany Hall

The party needs to deliver more than white papers.

Back to basics.

Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The Democratic Party is disconnected from working-class voters. The Democratic Party is mired in identity politics. The Democratic Party has no economic agenda to appeal to Americans who've gotten the short end of globalization's supply-chain stick.

There are a lot of complaints these days from Democrats about Democrats. This is what happens after you expected to win the White House, secure a pivotal Supreme Court seat and maybe take the Senate, and instead you end up at a modern-day nadir, a minority party in the House, Senate, White House, Supreme Court and a majority of statehouses across the land.

If resentment is the lingua franca of Republicans, Democrats have yet to develop a language sufficiently compelling to compete for the votes of anxious middle- and working-class white voters and to spur more nonwhite voters to vote.

One measure of how badly the party has done was cited by Greg Sargent of the Washington Post in a report on voters who supported both Barack Obama and Donald Trump:

42 percent of Obama-Trump voters said congressional Democrats’ economic policies will favor the wealthy, vs. only 21 percent of them who said the same about Trump. (Forty percent say that about congressional Republicans.)

So the party that risked its majorities in Congress in 2009-2010 to deliver a stronger social safety net to working- and middle-class Americans, paid for by new taxes on the wealthy, is considered by these swing voters to be the ally of the wealthy. The billionaire who routinely stiffed small contractors and fleeced striving students, and who is currently trying to steer more money to the already rich, is the friend of the little guy.

Something has been lost in translation. 

One problem is that the Democratic Party has become a proxy for government itself at a time of low trust in institutions. Widespread alienation from liberal cultural values, along with a half-century campaign by conservatives to destroy not only the capacity of government but also its reputation, has left the party of government on the defensive. The entrenchment of the well-connected and well-to-do in American society has, paradoxically, aided the Republican critique, even as Republicans push policies to protect economic elites from the demands, and needs, of others.

Democrats keep promising to use government to help people. But many voters have soured on the whole notion. While Democrats contemplate that political pickle, perhaps it's time for the party to re-examine an antiquated and discredited idea. Maybe it's time for the party to use the party itself to help people.

I thought about this after watching Democratic donors pour tens of millions of dollars into a House special election in suburban Atlanta. After the first $10 million, the marginal utility of dollars in a House race is getting pretty slim. After the second $10 million, you've entered a land of massively diminishing returns. A Democrat might have prevailed in Georgia's 6th congressional district in a sneak attack. It was a lot harder to win a traditionally conservative district when the race, fueled by unprecedented spending, became the political event of the season.

What if some of those donors had been directed to another cause that might not win an election today, but might help build the capacity to win more elections, build connections to voters and advance pragmatic liberal policy in the future?

Tammany Hall was a New York political institution that endured for close to two centuries. It was famously corrupt, but it thrived in spite of its greasier machinations. Why? It delivered tangible services. Coal in winter. Ice in summer. A turkey for the holidays.

There is a lot of money in the Democratic Party, especially now that more affluent college-educated professionals increasingly perceive the GOP as a vehicle emitting noxious fumes. Hillary Clinton and allied super-PACs raised more than a billion dollars in 2016.

What if $10 million bound for Georgia had been diverted to a mobile health-care bus, headed by a doctor or nurse practitioner, that travels through struggling communities in a key state to provide health care, courtesy of the Democratic Party? When patients leave they could take a simple brochure explaining what's at stake in the health-care debate between the two parties.

Other demonstration projects might have similar appeal. Perhaps Democrats could provide free tax-preparation services in crucial regions, where people could receive a useful service while learning about policy options and impacts.

"We've got to find other ways of reaching voters and injecting information that's truthful," said former Missouri Democratic state chairman Roy Temple in a telephone interview. "In rural areas, they might show up to do a clean-up of a mile of river. Then you can educate them about that issue."

There are plenty of liberal donors who see their money flowing into television advertising, polling and other uses that, however necessary, leave them uninspired. Might they donate to a Democratic service fund that helps people, while potentially helping the party, too?

"Right now, a lot of these voters tend to see Democrats as an alien force," said Ruy Teixeira, co-author of "The Emerging Democratic Majority" and a fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress. "If Democrats started showing up in these communities and doing good things, that could de-alienize them. Democrats need concrete ways to connect to white working-class voters, and this could be quite useful."

Tammany's corrupt ways belong buried in the past. Its ability to deliver valued services, and votes, might deserve another look.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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