(Note: I was asked to speak to a Democratic group in Washington’s 5th District. This article is a revision of that talk, and repeats themes from previous Country Parson columns.)
For Democrats to win in the fabled heartland, including our own Fifth District, we need to learn how to speak with voters suspicious of anything they think might be from the left. I don’t mean hard right wingers, tea partiers, and others whose beliefs cannot be challenged. I mean voters who think of themselves as conservative because they’ve always been conservative, Republican because they’ve always been Republican, and have bought into the small government - low taxes theme without giving it much thought. I mean non-voters who would turn out if there was a good reason. I mean Trump voters who are sick of Trumpism, but wary of crossing the border for someone who might be worse, perhaps even a dreaded socialist.
The people with whom we need to speak believe in Truth, Justice, and the American Way, and they want to hear from candidates who speak their language of Truth, Justice, and the American Way. We need to talk with them about progressive ideas in the conservative vocabulary of earthy concerns about everyday life. It’s a vocabulary surprisingly progressive on social matters, unsurprisingly conservative on fiscal matters, and always colored by the experiences, prejudices and limitations that formed their world view. I call it pothole language.
Show me you know how to fix the potholes in the street that is my life, and the life of my community, and I’ll listen to you. The problem with too many Democrats is they don’t know how to speak in pothole language. The more rabidly liberal they are, the less able they are to express progressive ideas in the vocabulary of potholes.
We need to translate lofty policy proposals, using conservative vocabulary, into pothole language.
Millions, who were once dependable Democratic voters, turned away in part because lofty proposals, not expressed in pothole language, were enormous disincentives. For the most part, they are ordinary people who feel forgotten. Quick to take umbrage when they feel put down, they enthusiastically engage in reverse snobbery to protect themselves from even snobbier liberal elites, real or imagined.
Trump, who cares not one whit for the average Jane and Joe, understood the importance of using the right vocabulary 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 their hopes and dreams in the language of fixing everyday problems, the potholes in their lives.
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 this phenomena 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 common man Western Cowboy Reagan would be their own true voice in Washington.
As it turned out, Reagan and 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, they still do. And I think he believed it too.
It didn’t flip a switch. Reliable Democratic voters didn’t flip 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 party to use the conservative vocabulary of pothole language to talk with, not at, ordinary people about the major issues facing the nation, and our 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 rights and guns.
My own take is that 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 she never explains how the potholes will get fixed. Beto dances on table tops, which is entertaining but avoids potholes (Note: his recent forceful stance on border and gun issues marks a change, but probably too late). 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. It seem unlikely he’ll be the nominee, but he knows how to present progressive ideas with the conservative vocabulary of pot holes.
It’s Truth, Justice, and the American Way as ordinary people want to hear it.
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.
So, what exactly is the vocabulary of pot holes?
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.
If we want to reach across the divide between progressives and the dominant conservative ethos of this region, it will pay to have fluency in the their language. Liberals, including me, have exhausted themselves with fact checking and rebuttal arguments to no avail, and must change their tactics. They need to adapt mainline conservative vocabulary to illustrate how progressive agendas will preserve and enhance cherished American values.
The most important vocabulary words honor American individualism, personal freedoms, and economic security. Democrats don’t believe government is the enemy, but a valued agent helping make good things happen - not perfect. We can can present progressive policies as enhancing freedom, making life more secure, and opening ways toward a more rewarding life. To do that, progressive agendas need to be expressed by answering three questions: why do we need it; how will it work; how will we pay for it?
Focus on national pride. Celebrate patriotism that believes in the fundamental value of American democratic ideals. Boldly celebrate how progressive programs will enhance all that has made America a great nation. Americans who twice voted for Obama, then switched to Trump, want their sense of patriotism to be honored.
Emphasize a tough stance on international trade. Proclaim intention to reenter multilateral agreements with higher standards for worker rights, environmental protection, intellectual property, and commercial code transparency.
Celebrate the economy. It’s progressive policies that have enabled our decade long period of economic growth. Claim it. But claim it with recognition that Trump has run it out onto thin ice through ill advised tax cuts, surging deficits, and failed tariff wars.
Admit we have an immigration problem, and poor control of our borders. Voters want simple solutions, so keep it simple. Streamline asylum and refugee admissions that keep families intact. Help Central Americans understand that the U.S. may not offer the land of hope they’ve been led to believe it will. Create a form of immigration admissions similar to the Ellis Island system.
Conservatives favor a strong military well poised to fight the previous big war. Progressives can use the vocabulary of national defense to promote preparation for emerging threats, while illuminating the systematic erosion of current readiness through fund transfers to Trump’s latest whims.
Promote revitalized public education for all. Make rural areas and inner cities the priority. Emphasize state-federal partnerships.
Commit to infrastructure with a real plan that begins with bridges, highways, water & sewer, and other utilities. They are the things of every day use. Then go on to broadband, air traffic, mass transit, etc. Never promise shovel ready projects. There aren’t any.
Affordable housing is an issue in every city and town. Talk about practical ways to make progress that a person making less than $100k can easily understand will benefit her or him.
Face the obvious. The federal bureaucracy gets a bad rap because they’re lousy at customer service. There is a huge difference between enforcing regulations and customer service that facilitates user adaptation to them.
Health care. Don’t over promise. Keep it simple. Nothing is free. How will it be paid for?
It’s a simple vocabulary of ordinary life that expresses the value of freedom, economic opportunity, pride in nation, and governmental restraint.
Not the End