How progressives can win balancing jobs and civil rights

By Rekha Basu

Neera Tanden has a way with words. Take the positive spin she puts on the future during this glum time for progressives.

”Donald Trump has lowered the bar of people who think they can be president someday,” Tanden, who heads the Washington-based Center for American Progress, said Monday in Des Moines, Iowa. She was there to speak at Sunday’s Progress Iowa Corn Feed, where Democratic and independent candidates for governor and Congress introduced themselves to prospective voters. Though it conjures up images of slopping hogs rather than savoring the harvest, the Corn Feed might be a farm state’s vegan-friendly counterpart to the Democrats’ Steak Fry and the Republicans’ Hog Roast. The Sunday event was organized by a 5-year-old, 70,000-member statewide organization that advocates for economic opportunity, public education and equal justice.

And Tanden’s organization is billed as a nonpartisan policy institute dedicated to economic mobility, environmental stewardship and global peace. Chaired by Tom Daschle, the group’s officers include Madeleine Albright, Tom Steyer, John Podesta and Jose Villarreal.

Both organizations, like left-leaning candidates everywhere, are grappling with how to frame and win elections on a progressive agenda in an alt-right, fake-news era. And how to win back the blue-collar voters who defected to Trump while staying true to the diverse base that has fueled the Democratic Party.

Tanden calls it critical for progressives to offer a strong economic message. Noting that Trump won over many with promises of a 35 percent tariff on companies that outsource jobs and a trade war with China, she said the opposition must not only call him out on not delivering, but “propose substantial ideas on how to move incomes up in a time when you have globalization and automation.”

That’s a tall order.

As Tanden rightly observes, Trump successfully racialized politics by making white workers feel their economic losses are a result of minorities and immigrants stepping in their way. And voters are more susceptible to such messages when the economy isn’t going well for them. Polls showed voters who had supported Obama but moved to Trump were anxious about the nation’s increasing diversity.

At the same time, while keeping the focus on the economy, progressives must defend the civil rights of African-Americans, DACA recipients and Muslims, Tanden said. That requires, in her view, being “as mindful of what’s happening in Appalachia as Detroit. People are suffering in both places.” It requires, she says, building coalitions across racial lines with white non-college-educated voters who have seen their incomes decline.

But as the range of progressive priorities articulated Sunday by Iowa gubernatorial candidates showed, race and economy are far from the only issues to worry about. From gun control to reproductive choice to air and water pollution, communities are looking to Democrats to protect their safety, environment and privacy rights. The long list of organizations co-sponsoring the Corn Feed included the National Abortion Rights Action League, the Iowa Interfaith Alliance, Indivisible Iowa, One Iowa Action, Iowa Moms Demand Action, Planned Parenthood Voters of Iowa, National Alliance on Mental Illness Iowa and Citizens Climate Lobby.

The eight gubernatorial candidates who spoke touched on all those issues. There were calls for single-payer health care, better state-worker treatment, clean water, a higher minimum wage and school funding. There were criticisms of state tax benefits for out-of-state corporations and lax environmental enforcement against factory-farm pollution. There was talk about a criminal justice system skewed against African-Americans, and a state administration that reneged on its promises to increase earnings and add jobs.

But as state Sen. Nate Boulton, who is running for Iowa’s governor, observed, “We have to do more than talk about the things we are against.”

It feels as if the elections ahead should offer easy wins for national and state Democrats because Trump has alienated so many people and failed to deliver on so many promises. And Tanden says the 2020 governors’ races will be critical to the outcome of the presidential race. But this Republican president effectively stole some of the Democrats’ voter base by playing up baseless fears and stoking divisions. As Tanden puts it, “Part of the right-wing noise machine is really focused on telling groups of voters that ‘Democrats and liberal elites hate you.’”

Now Democrats are called upon to distill a message with a singular focus on jobs while staying true to diverse constituencies. Tanden’s recommendation is a massive infrastructure investment that will create jobs while improving public services. But that will require a majority of the public to agree on spending taxpayer dollars, not always the easiest sell to fiscal conservatives and libertarians.

Then again, Tanden says Trump may himself be aligned with Democrats by then. “In his first seven months, Trump welded himself to the GOP Congress to get things done,” she said. “In the last month, he’s distancing himself from the Republican Party. He seems to dislike Mitch McConnell more than Nancy Pelosi.”

“My theory,” she concluded, “is he wants to run against a Democratic Congress in 2018 — except they could impeach him.”

So then there’s that.

By Rekha Basu

Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at [email protected]

Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at [email protected]