How Can Democrats Persuade Voters They’re Not a Party of Rich Elites?

Today, at an unassuming event space in Washington overlooking the Capitol, a coterie of progressive thinkers and doers gathered for an intimate conference that could not have been more different from the boisterous gathering hosted just down the road by the conservative America First Policy Institute.

The purpose of Tuesday’s liberal gathering was to discuss ways to counter a narrative that appears to be gaining traction with voters: that Democrats are now the party of economic elites, while Republicans represent working-class Americans.

The G.O.P., of course, has been trying to pull off exactly this feat for decades — with mixed success.

Richard Nixon spoke of a “silent majority” of Americans who were turned off by what they saw as the cultural excess of the 1960s. One famous attack line from Nixon’s re-election campaign painted George McGovern, the Democratic nominee in 1972, as the candidate of “acid, amnesty and abortion.”

Ronald Reagan, a sunnier type, appealed to the patriotism and conservative social values of blue-collar workers in places like Ohio’s Mahoning Valley by aggressively confronting the Soviet Union abroad and speaking openly about his Christian faith.

But it was Donald Trump, a billionaire real estate baron from Manhattan, who arguably pulled off the major realignment of the two parties along educational and class lines. Now, Republican politicians boast that theirs is the party of working people. They speak much less often, in public at least, about “tort reform,” “double taxation” and other phrases that the business community once regularly injected into the political conversation.

This shift has alarmed many Democratic Party strategists. Americans without a college degree still represent the majority of voters, fueling critiques like Ruy Teixeira’s jeremiad against what he characterizes as overly educated cultural snobs who, in his view, are leading Democrats to ruin.

Many of those critiques urge Democrats to alter their cultural message to reach voters who might not share their views on, say, structural racism or immigration.

But the wonks and operatives huddling at Tuesday’s series of panels and hallway discussions would argue that party leaders are failing on two more fundamental levels: They don’t fight hard enough for working-class people, and they aren’t tough enough on big, greedy corporations.

Leah Hunt-Hendrix, an oil heiress turned liberal activist, organized the event with Adam Jentleson, a former top aide to Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader and senator from Nevada who died last year.

Jentleson, who now runs a progressive communications strategy firm called Battle Born Collective along with Rebecca Katz, said in an interview, “Democrats must find a more effective way to meet working-class voters where they are, and channel their very real anger — or else Republicans will.”

Jentleson championed an economic philosophy called “inclusive populism” — essentially, left-leaning economics without the nastiness of past populist movements, which have often channeled working-class voters’ resentment toward immigrants or racial minorities.

Not everyone could agree on what to call their nascent movement, with one attendee noting that the term “populist” comes freighted with historical baggage.

Brandishing a fresh survey commissioned by the progressive group Fight Corporate Monopolies and conducted by GBAO, a Democratic polling firm led by Margie Omero, Jentleson argued that “a populist economic message is highly effective, and it’s crazy that Dems aren’t already moving in this direction as fast as possible.”

Omero, who presented her findings at the conference, said that while Democrats’ problems with white working-class voters might be the most acute, workers without college degrees of all backgrounds are drawn to the general tenets of “inclusive populism” — whatever one calls it — and are highly receptive to messages that blame, say, oil companies for the high price of gasoline.

Among the other speakers at Tuesday’s gathering — which was called Sound Check — were Representative Jamaal Bowman, a Democrat from New York’s Westchester County; Heather McGhee, the board chairwoman of Color of Change, a civil rights group; and Zachary Carter, a journalist and the author of a biography of John Maynard Keynes.

In his talk, Carter bashed unnamed economists of the “old guard” of the Democratic Party, who he said were misdiagnosing the causes of inflation and prescribing, essentially, higher unemployment and lower wages as the answer.

“The story we are hearing from the old guard is not fundamentally compelling in a democracy,” Carter said. “Their critique is premised on the idea that most working people actually have it too good, and attempts to improve their well-being can only make things worse.”

An informal coalition of progressive groups helped put on the event: Way to Win, a donor community led by Ms. Hunt-Hendrix; Fight Corporate Monopolies, a relatively new advocacy group led by Sarah Miller, founder of the American Economic Liberties Project; the Economic Security Project, led by Taylor Jo Isenberg; and Popular Comms, a progressive strategy group co-founded by Jonathan Smucker.

Smucker, whose background is in political organizing in eastern and central Pennsylvania, gave a presentation on lessons learned from the 2018 campaign for Congress of Jess King, who ran as an inclusive populist in Lancaster, Pa.

King, who styled herself a working mom who refused to take “corporate” donations, wound up losing her race after a court decision left the district solidly Republican.

She would have been able to overcome the district’s original lean of six percentage points toward the G.O.P., though not the 14-point structural advantage she ultimately faced in the general election, Smucker said.

What helped open the door with working-class voters in that district, Smucker said, was an aggressive door-knocking campaign that began with a conversation about “special interests,” Trump’s tax cuts for the wealthy and the eventual need for a universal health care system — and included large doses of criticism of the leaders of the Democratic Party as disappointing and out of touch.

The unmistakable tone of the event was a rebuke of the Democrats who have failed to squeeze more progressive policy wins out of their congressional majority over the last 18 months — and essentially, in the left’s telling, let their most conservative member, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, dictate the terms of their governing agenda.

Hunt-Hendrix said she found the conference “fortifying” at a time when many on the left are discouraged by how the midterm elections are shaping up.

Jentleson emphasized that Tuesday’s confab was “a conversation about the future of the party, not a prescription for 2022.”

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  • Several disabled voters are suing Wisconsin’s Elections Commission in federal court, seeking to restore a decades-old precedent that allowed people with disabilities to receive assistance with the return of absentee ballots.

— Blake

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