Jamelle Bouie's contention that, in addition to racism, another factor alienating white working-class voters from the Democrats is their feeling that the party offers them little. Let's now consider another problematic phenomenon related to the Democrats that was evident during the midterms: voters who supported progressive ballot initiatives and referendums while electing Republicans who oppose them. In "Democrats: The Party of Pablum" (The Nation), John Nichols (left) asks, "How...can we explain voters who chose Mitch McConnell senators and Elizabeth Warren policies?" Nichols concludes that voters were excited by specific proposals, but found Democratic candidates overly cautious or incoherent:
While voter suppression and low turnout are huge concerns that must be addressed, voters who came to the polls on November 4 were sufficiently progressive and populist to support minimum-wage hikes, paid sick leave, crackdowns on corporate abuses of the environment, expansion of healthcare and radical reform of a money-drenched campaign-finance system. They just didn’t elect Democrats. Of course, personalities, dark-money interventions and plenty of other factors were at play. But the consistent pattern of progressive policy votes in combination with Republican wins provide the starkest evidence of the extent to which the Democratic Party was an incoherent force in 2014.
[Sen. Bernie] Sanders [I-VT] and members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus tried to get Democrats on message throughout the year. [Sen. Elizabeth] Warren [D-MA] wowed the crowd at Netroots Nation in July, where she outlined a platform centered on economic populism but also including progressive social, environmental and political reforms. But the memo never got to most candidates, consultants, party chairs and leaders. And the results were devastating—not just at the federal level but in the states, where Republicans grabbed governorships and eleven new legislative chambers. Midterms are usually rough for the party of the sitting president, but the 2014 defeats ran deeper, and in many cases will be harder to reverse.
At the root of the problem is a delinking of politics from policy. Increasingly, Democratic candidates in major contests run as “brands” carefully constrained to make a lowest-common-denominator appeal that is satisfying to campaign donors and insiders in Washington but that makes little sense to voters. While GOP candidates rage cynically against “elites” and “crony capitalism,” Democrats peddle pablum. As such, they don’t excite even their own base. What excited activists were those initiative and referendum campaigns; indeed, some of the biggest rallies I witnessed during the 2014 campaign were organized by backers of minimum-wage hikes and “Move to Amend” campaigners for an end to corporate influence on politics and policy. They were right to be excited: they were on their way to big and meaningful victories because they were fighting for big and meaningful—as well as popular—proposals. That’s a lesson Democrats should ponder, because as Stephanie Taylor of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee reminds us: “When elections are about nothing, Democrats lose.”