It happens sometimes- what you mean to say under the hot lights of a television studio and what comes out of your mouth do not entirely match the thought you had in your brain.
As a result, a very important point can get lost amidst the flaring of tempers and tantrums that are now the prevailing purpose of social media.
Television and film writer, Aaron Sorkin, experienced such a moment on Sunday while appearing on Fareed Zakaria’s “GPS” program on CNN.
If you can see your way clear to cutting Sorkin a break for foolishly suggesting that the freshman Members of Congress need to stop acting like “young people”, and if you can look beyond misinterpreting his comment about what bathroom people get to use, he had an important message that needs to be heard.
For at least a generation, Democrats have been laser focused on the injustices heaped by our society on people who fit the societal definition of “different”. Same sex couples right to marry…civil rights for people who identify as LGBTQ…equal rights for all Americans….all incredibly important and vital social fights that needed to be fought.
As a Democrat, I am proud that my party has been on what I consider to be the right side of these fights and I wouldn’t trade our participation-and ultimate success in many of these culture wars-for anything.
But it is time to acknowledge that these battles came at a price.
While Democrats were focused on stepping up to the plate on these huge social issues, they lost their connection with the very working class Americans that were previously the focus and purpose of the Democratic Party-a connection forged in concern for the economic security of the American working class. And when the Democrats did turn their focus to the economic problems our middle class was facing-such as the battle to get more Americans covered with badly needed health insurance- the PR battle was so badly mishandled as to create the impression that more damage was done than good.
The result was not just a Trump victory in 2016.
Prior to the 2016 presidential contest, Democrats had experienced years of hemorrhaging elective offices at virtually every level of government.
Taking just the period of time encompassing the two terms of President Barrack Obama, Democrats experienced a net loss of 1,042 elective offices on the state and federal level, including congressional and state legislative seats, governorships and, of course, in 2016, the presidency.
To drive the point home more fully, consider this from 538’s Nate Silver:
In his eight years in office, Obama oversaw the rapid erosion of the Democratic Party’s political power in state legislatures, congressional districts and governor’s mansions. At the beginning of Obama’s term, Democrats controlled 59 percent of state legislatures, while now they control only 31 percent, the lowest percentage for the party since the turn of the 20th century. They held 29 governor’s offices and now have only 16, the party’s lowest number since 1920.
Making this all the more confusing is the fact that, while Democratic representation in government was seriously receding, the move towards social progressivism and overall interest in the Democratic Party was showing real improvement. Again from Nate Silver:
At the beginning of Obama’s term, 44 percent of Americans thought marijuana should be legal; by the end of his time in office, 60 percent thought so. Support for same-sex marriage skyrocketed. In 2015, 45 percent of Americans said they leaned Democrat, compared to 42 percent who leaned Republican.
So, what’s going on here? Great numbers and reaction to a more progressive social agenda on the part of the Democrats as they sought to make a difference in pushing forward the rights and interests of some of the most poorly treated members of society while, at the very same time, a huge decrease in the number of Democrats who were, assumably, pursing this seemingly popular agenda being elected to governing offices.
The answer can be found in the very human reaction people have when actions, no matter how culturally positive they may be, do not directly center on or adequately address their personal experience.
While a Democrat in Wisconsin may appreciate and support the good work being done to bring about equality to all Americans, that appreciation can and will wane on election day if government policies are not putting food on their table and the party they support is not focusing on solving their particular and personal problems.
If there was one refrain we heard constantly from voters who had once voted for Barrack Obama but chose to cast their ballot in favor of Donald Trump in 2016, it was that the Democrats had not been looking out for their economic interest so why not try the other guy?
One can certainly argue that the Republicans had not done any better when it comes to the economic interests of the working man and woman in America. Indeed, I would suggest they’ve done far worse. But in Trump, hard working Americans saw someone claiming he could fix these problems and that they had little to lose by giving him a shot.
Ironically, in Aaron Sorkin’s film, “The American President”, Sorkin speaks directly to this reality when Presidential speech writer, Lewis Rothschild, angrily makes the point to President Andrew Shepherd-
“People want leadership, Mr. President. And in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.”
I find that speech to be one of the most profound and prophetic in a film that has quite a few quotable quotes. When people didn’t feel that the Democrats were providing the necessary leadership to help them with their problems, they crawled towards what they thought was water. When it wasn’t there, they drank the sand when casting their vote for the most ill prepared individual ever to seek the top leadership job in our nation’s history.
While Democrats should be proud of the gains made to bring rights to those who most needed the help, the simple reality is that the Democrats failed to walk and chew gum at the same time. That is to say, they could not manage to both take the lead in and succeed in the culture wars while staying vigilant when it came to the needs and problems of the American working people whose problems were economic and not necessarily cultural.
Where I think Aaron Sorkin lost the thread during his television appearance was in not understanding, or not properly stating his understanding, that one of the real advantages of the new, young class of Democratic Members of Congress is that they believe they can walk and chew gum at the same time. They are pushing both economic and social issues and intend to accomplish all of the above.
Good for them.
While I may not agree with all parts of the agenda these younger Members of Congress bring to bear, I have to admire their energy when it comes to wanting to do good as they see it.
But this is where we get to what I think Sorkin was trying to say.
The freshman Democrats may find that trying to pursue a progressive social and economic agenda in the face of established government that is rigged against them is awfully hard to do.
And that means priorities come into play.
For now, we need to prioritize the economic and other needs of the American working people who built and supported the Democratic Party and now feel abandoned by it.
No, I’m not suggesting that Democrats simply drop the important cultural fights that have occupied the focus of the party in recent history. What I’m suggesting is that those who have benefitted from this Democratic support recognize that the time has come to join with the Party to support people who have different issues facing them each day that may be different than your own, but as important to them as your issues are to you.
If the Democratic Party wants to take back the many elective offices throughout the nation that have been lost, it has to spend the time rebuilding the relationships with the average American that was lost during the time when the focus was on other, important issues. This must be the priority in the near term.
Otherwise, those people, once proud Democrats, will go looking for leadership elsewhere as they did in 2016. And when, as they crawl through the desert looking for that leadership and find that there is still nobody looking out for what ails them, they will, once again, drink the sand.
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