I go to the polls, but I do not begrudge otherwise well-meaning folk who do not. I may still go to the church, but I, like many of you, have lost the religion.
Nonetheless, there is something instructive about the drubbing the Republicans handed the Democrats in Tuesday's mid-term elections. It is instructive for what it can tell the little blue island of Nashville, which is afloat in an even more deeply red state: progressives have got to curb their triangulation with the right and start taking bold stands on economic issues that affect people's everyday lives.
Prominent Nashville Democrats clearly set themselves apart on social progressive issues like immigration, reproductive rights and gay/lesbian equality. But on the economic questions that hit blue-collar working people the hardest in an environment where the wealthy are the only segment to have bounced back from the recession nicely, these Democrats either are no where to be found or have consistently acted to undercut economic equity.
And Tuesday was a cautionary tale. Democrats with few exceptions were soundly defeated by the GOP. Why? Because running primarily on social progressive issues like reproductive rights may not get them all the way to the finish line with voters, and there are indications that support Democrats have enjoyed among women in the past eroded in this election cycle.
When Democrats dealt with economic questions they did not connect with voter concerns:
At the root of these concerns...are stagnating wages and the failure of the recovery’s gains to achieve wider, more equitable distribution. Democrats campaigned on a range of economic issues — the minimum wage, pay equity, student loan affordability, expanded pre-kindergarten education — but these didn’t cut through people’s economic anxieties, because they didn’t believe government can successfully address them.
“People are deeply suspicious that government can deliver on these problems,” Mellman says, in a reference to the voter groups that continue to elude Democrats. “And they are not wrong. We’ve been promising that government can be a tool to improve people’s economic situation for decades, and by and large, it hasn’t happened.”
Some Democrats may talk the talk of fair economic distribution, but many walk away from reforming power structures that make it impossible. Talking up what government can do and then walking away when the time is ripe makes disbelievers out of all of us. I frankly wonder whether Democrats collectively care about the cynicism they engender.
Furthermore, incremental campaigning proved to be a loser altogether on Tuesday. Democrats fall back on incrementally progressive initiatives like the minimum wage (which is not a livable wage) hikes; then guess what? The Republicans tactically soften on the issue and peel off votes the Democrats must have to win.
So, beating the Republicans and energizing voters requires boldness both on the campaign trail and in the halls of government.
Last year I pointed out that mayoral candidate Megan Barry (who has curiously been branded by some in the news media a "super progressive") has not done herself any favors with Nashville's king-maker class by being an incremental progressive on social issues while consistently voting in council to support business special interests while placing greater burdens on working men and women in Davidson County.
CM Barry's split-minded progressivism is emblematic of what is wrong with the Democrats. They are so busy triangulating to shore up their social progressive wing (against the Tea Party) while pandering to the pro-growth, pro-business lobby that they leave themselves open to Republicans. Even if Ms. Barry becomes mayor, she will govern much like Karl Dean has, and Mayor Dean has governed like a Log Cabin Republican. Ms. Barry will be forced to compromise with state Republicans who will be in no mood to broker deals for a blue atoll dwarfed by red-state upwellings.
Neither of those prospects are good for Nashville progressives as much as we may feel lucky to cling desperately to whatever is cast off from the wreckage. We should settle for nothing short of boldness.