Opinion

Opinion | Diane Hessan

A path forward for the Democrats: A New American Dream

Hillary Clinton speaks as Donald Trump looks on, at the second presidential debate, Oct. 9, 2016.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Hillary Clinton speaks as Donald Trump looks on, at the second presidential debate, Oct. 9, 2016.

It’s only September of 2017, and we have already heard rumblings about who will be running for president in 2020. Democrats, mobilized by their disdain for President Trump, are quietly raising funds and making plans for how they can recapture the imagination of the electorate. They are looking for new faces, new ideas, and a message that will inspire people.

What is the path forward for the Democrats? This is what I have been exploring with voters most recently, and the themes are similar both for Hillary Clinton voters and for those Trump voters who are disappointed with the president and thus open to other options.

As a start, I am struck by how citizens from both parties characterize the Democrats as a party of elites that increasingly serves a narrow segment of the population.

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Brad, 41, an office manager from Iowa, is among many voters who wonder where the Democratic Party is going. “My party no longer seems to represent real Americans,” said Brad. “I have always been a Democrat, but now, I often think of them all going to Davos with celebrities and wealthy people who don’t have my life.” Added Beth, a Trump voter from West Virginia, “To me, Democrats have become The Party of the Undeserving, the party that is focused on helping those people who want all the benefits and are not willing to work hard for them in return.”

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Once a party that advocated for the middle class, the Democrats are now seen as taking care of the extremes of the economic ladder: the rich and famous on one end, and the very poorest and neediest on the other. The dominant theme is that they cater to “lots of people but not to me.”

Resistance is not enough to inspire voters. My husband recently showed me a gift that he received in the mail from the Democratic National Committee, signed by its chair, Tom Perez: a sign that said “Stop Trump” in big letters. My research uncovered only a few voters who would proudly display this sign in their homes. Jill, a Democrat from New Mexico, said, “I wish my party would stand for something other than negativity and Trump-bashing.” Added Martin, a Republican from South Carolina, “Come on, Democrats! Get in the game, stop boycotting everything, stop the constant hate, and stop telling Trump supporters they are racists, bigots, and Nazi supporters. If you want me to consider your party, you need to stand for something more than ‘no.’ ”

Voters from both parties are also exasperated with the paralysis in Washington, wishing that Democrats and moderate Republicans could get something done together — something more substantive than raising the debt ceiling for 90 days.

Certainly, some Democrats are perplexed by complaints that their party doesn’t represent anything positive. They list the policies that Democrats support, such as improvements in health care and educational access, environmental protection, infrastructure, gun control, and civil rights. However, most voters think that this is a checklist approach, and it is part of the problem. “I don’t respond to a 52-item list of everything that Democrats support. Although I appreciate the diligence, and believe in many of those policies, it is no better than a company with a good itemized plan for the year but no real mission or vision,” said Will from North Dakota.

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Many of these voters see the Democrats’ primary goal as helping only the neediest in our society — whether they appreciate it or not and whether they are willing to work hard or not. The unintended message is that the rest need to fend for themselves.

For example, Betty, a middle-aged Trump voter with three kids from New Jersey, reluctantly applied for welfare when her husband was out of work. “Then I found out we did not qualify,” she said. “So in the end I charged everything, ending up with tens of thousands of dollars in credit card bills. Ten years later, I am just finishing paying these off.” Betty added, “I don’t wish ill on anyone, but I paid $9,000 in taxes this year, and I resent that a chunk of it probably went to someone who didn’t feel as responsible as I did, and who was not willing to make sacrifices.”

Betty is not only representative of Trump voters, but of many Americans. According to Career Builder, 78 percent of American full-time workers say they live paycheck to paycheck, 71 percent are in debt — and over half of those in debt say they are in over their heads, saving less than $100 each month. These citizens want a better deal, and view special programs that benefit “special Americans” as unfair. This notion of personal accountability especially resonates with voters, whether it is paying bills and following the rules, or whether it is insisting that Clinton express more accountability for her election loss.

Most voters also say they like the notion of a leader who will listen to and empathize with regular people, rather than someone who seems to look down on them. Take David, a 32-year-old evangelical Wisconsin conservative, who couldn’t bring himself to vote for Trump. “I hated Trump’s arrogance. He seemed to tap into people’s fears and to generally bring out the worst in people,” he said. But David didn’t trust Clinton, either. “For me, Democrats have this unspoken sense of smugness, that they are more educated and think more clearly about the issues. Maybe they don’t think of themselves as better than Republicans, but that is what comes across, and it is a huge turnoff.” In the end, David rejected both major-party candidates and voted for Independent Evan McMullin.

In 2004, The Club for Growth fed into this narrative by airing an attack ad against Howard Dean, calling him a “tax-hiking, government-spending, latte-drinking,
sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show.” Thirteen years later, voters are still rejecting any signs of elitism in their candidates.

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Most of all, what voters want is nothing short of a new American Dream, a promise once again that if you live in the United States, the sky’s the limit, that upward mobility is wired into the way things work. This dream embraces powerful, time-honored American values: In exchange for the benefits of living in an extraordinary country, its citizens will work hard, participate in their communities, respect and honor diverse opinions, and not expect to be taken care of unconditionally. They talk about wanting their pride back — that the prospect of unemployment is less about losing a job and more about losing their dignity.

They want a government that gives them a voice, and one that makes heroes out of the people who give more than they take: veterans, first responders, or our best teachers. They want leaders who will embrace innovation, who have ideas that truly help people whose skills are lagging, or who are dealing with the horrors of opioid addiction. “We have 50 states and so we have 50 ways to experiment,” said Rachel, 27, from upstate New York. “Why not have a big national contest to get the very best programs from our states and fund them to work throughout the country? I don’t know if that’s a good idea, but my friends and I are desperate for someone to think creatively and think big about solving problems.”

Few voters suggested that government give them more benefits for free. Free college might be tough for the government to fund, but a national service program for young people as the basis for a free education or apprenticeships at scale is attractive. Rather than tax cuts for all businesses, voters would support tax breaks to companies that help solve our most pressing problems: those who build in the United States and especially the Rust Belt and Coal Belt, who invest in job retraining for their workers, who pay more than the minimum wage, or who give easy access to good health care.

The same would hold for our government: Congress would have term limits and the same health benefits as “Joe America.” With this new American Dream, the Democratic Party would also have to make room for those who may lean more conservative morally or fiscally, but who support its core values about racial/gender equality, dealing with climate change, or a providing a path to citizenship for immigrants.

Although Americans vary in their support for specific policies, they want a sense of possibility. They want to dream again. They want to push forward into the future, while returning to the days when they believed that their children would have a better life than they do. And they are willing to support candidates who are committed to making that happen.

Diane Hessan is an entrepreneur, author, and Chair of C Space. She has been in conversation with 200 Clinton voters and 200 Trump voters weekly since last December.