A man wearing a canvas shirt tucked into blue jeans walks through the tall grass, clicks a break-action shotgun, and fires a round. “I approve this message,” he says. The camera zooms in on the target as it explodes in the distance.
It is not a TV ad for a Republican, though a similar shotgun did appear in a controversial ad run last fall by Georgia’s recently inaugurated Republican governor Brian Kemp. The scene comes, instead, from a spot for the senior Democratic senator from West Virginia, Joe Manchin, who was reelected in November. The target he shoots displays a sign saying “lawsuit on coverage of pre-existing conditions,” referring to a 2018 case brought against the Affordable Care Act (ACA) by two governors and eighteen state attorneys general, among them Manchin’s Republican opponent, Patrick Morrisey. Before Manchin fires the round, he calls Morrisey “dead wrong.” In this genius—and electorally effective—feat of political messaging, Manchin packages a liberal policy idea in a conservative cultural form.
The lesson is an urgent one. Elizabeth Catte suggests that the left can do better in Appalachia by appealing directly to class interests, rather than simply trying to be “moderate.” I don’t doubt this is true, as it is in many parts of the United States today. The question is how to sell this message in specific political and cultural contexts, including those in Appalachia.
The answer is perhaps not as simple as Catte makes it out to be. She takes issue with the suspicion of Nancy Pelosi and Steve Israel that “the emerging left platform . . . might perform well in urban centers but not so much elsewhere.” But Pelosi and Israel make a fair point—backed up by voting and public opinion data—about political messaging. The first rule of marketing is that you play to your audience.
Take “Abolish ICE,” for example. It is difficult to see how such a demand, supported by only about a quarter of the U.S. population, could possibly gain traction in a relatively conservative—and not particularly immigrant-friendly—part of the country.
Other parts of the platform Catte discusses are probably more viable in these areas. Medicare for All, for instance—whether it is called that or something else—would likely have more purchase. There is clearly an appetite across the country for substantially expanding the ACA, not getting rid of it. There is good reason to believe that this appetite extends even to conservative, economically hard-pressed regions such as Appalachia. The same could be said about robust jobs programs and free or greatly enhanced access to some colleges, proposals that should probably be tied to others—local infrastructure, community services—and promoted as a large-scale development program for areas left behind by economic growth. More generally, Democrats should seek to advance a strong economic populist program in an area such as Appalachia.
But Democrats do need to be careful about which programs are advanced and how they are packaged. Republican tax-and-spend attacks still have considerable force, and it will not be easy to overcome them. Importing the left’s maximum program into these areas is likely doomed to failure; one must pick and choose one’s battles. The left just cannot afford to ignore strong conservatism on social issues, frequently twinned as it is with suspicion of immigrants and nonwhites. Appalachian Democrats, in particular, cannot run on social positions as liberal as those of their confreres in blue metropolitan areas.
And it is not just that certain messages must be moderated. There is also the all-important question of the messenger. As Andrew Levison argues in The White Working Class Today (2013), one of the most fundamental problems Democrats have with the white working class is that at the national and state levels, with some honorable exceptions, they typically run candidates who are out of touch with these communities (almost never hailing from them) and, worse, who project disdain for them (wittingly or not). Voters return that attitude in spades, anathematizing Democratic elites as self-serving politicians. Fixing this problem will require a course correction from years of institutional decay for Democrats at the local level and a concomitant de-prioritization of these voters by Democratic leaders. The first step to reaching many of these voters is convincing them that even if you have never been part of their communities, you understand them and do not look down on them.
Manchin offers one model for how to do that. Catte takes him to task, but his moderation on social issues may well be necessary. Manchin may have some latitude for moving to the left economically (though energy issues will pose a sticking point), but West Virginia’s social conservatism—about 60 percent of the electorate there supported confirming Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, far above national figures— does mean that Manchin needs to tread lightly on noneconomic issues.
Recently reelected senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio provides another instructive example of how successful Democrats in conservative areas adapt to the political realities of their states. Brown has bucked the tide in Ohio by remaining popular even as other Democratic politicians there have failed. He has prospered as a robust economic populist, including on trade issues, and his down-to-earth persona helps win him a hearing among white working-class voters, who give other Democrats the cold shoulder. (Consider, by contrast, the unsuccessful campaign for governor by Democrat Richard Cordray, who projected a Washington-centered nerdiness and was most comfortable reaching out to voters in Ohio’s big metro areas.) Brown has also been cautious about signing onto Medicare for All, though he is on record supporting Medicare expansion for those aged fifty-five to sixty-four. And while his positions on same-sex marriage and other social issues are fairly liberal, he is careful not to put these issues front and center or portray them as the cornerstone of his Democratic identity.
Still, I would agree with Catte that Manchin, in particular, probably belongs to the Democratic past in these areas. The future likely lies with a new breed of candidates who are more forthright on a populist, progressive economic agenda and somewhat less cautious on social issues. In that sense, Sherrod Brown and his artful economic populism provide a better model for the Democratic future in Appalachia.
It is fair to say the Democratic Party as a whole is moving to the left, propelled by a sweeping indictment of economic inequality and united on core social issues such as opposing racism, defending immigrants, promoting LGBTQ rights and gender equality, and advancing criminal justice reform. Democrats today—aspirants for the 2020 presidential nomination, especially—are far more willing than Democrats of even ten years ago to entertain and endorse big ideas. Taxing the rich is in; worrying about the deficit is out. The center of gravity of the Democratic Party has decisively shifted from trying to assure voters of fiscal and social moderation, as it did under Bill Clinton and to some extent even under Barack Obama, to promising active government in a wide range of areas.
These developments will have, and should have, an analogue in Appalachia. But there should be differences in how this shift to the left manifests itself in New York compared to West Virginia. Catte and likeminded activists forget this at their peril