One of the only things worse than seeing right-wing Republicans sweep an election is seeing Democrats take that drubbing and interpret it as an indication that they need to act more like Republicans. Which is why I wanted to yell “hallelujah!” when I read these comments from Dannel Malloy, the governor of Connecticut and the person poised to take over the Democratic Governors Association:
“The only middle-aged white men who voted for me were myself and my brothers,” Dannel Malloy, the progressive-friendly, two-term governor of Connecticut told BuzzFeed News in a sitdown interview. “So if we’re going to rely on middle-aged white men to win Democratic races again — you know, I mean I think we need to speak to a broader audience than middle-age white men.”
Malloy takes over the DGA — the arm of the party charged with expanding Democratic gubernatorial ranks — at a time when Democrats are split over how best to recover from brutal electoral defeats in the last two elections when President Obama wasn’t on the ballot. Some Democratic have suggested the party has spent too much time on its progressive base in the cities and it needs to shift focus away from issues like climate change and entitlement programs in order to win back white men voters who, in 2014, voted overwhelmingly for the Republicans. Malloy said that model isn’t going to work, even though has to try and keep governor’s mansions in red states like West Virginia and Missouri, where current Democratic governors are term-limited. And he has to help the DGA recover from deeply embarrassing 2014 losses in Massachusetts and Maryland, two Democratic strongholds where Democrats were expected to keep open seats.
Time and time again, Democrats have assumed that people of color and progressive women have nowhere else to go, so they play tug of war with Republicans over this mystical and all-important pool of gettable white men. When they lose, they think it’s because they didn’t run far enough away from Obamacare or some other left of center policy, not because their lack of courage or vision failed to motivate a more diverse, sustainable coalition. An eternal frustration I have with Democrats is that they will assume that embracing a progressive vision, and talking frankly about economic inequality, gender inequality, racism and LGBT issues will hurt them. Because they’re too afraid to ever step out and try, they reinforce the narrative that it just can’t be done. They could be investing time, energy, and the creativity of some of the greatest minds in progressive politics in developing a smart messaging and mobilization strategy that would engage these groups, but they are held back by fear and stuck in the patterns of the past. Malloy makes some gestures toward that kind of strategy:
“There are ways to talk about this issue in every single state. But if you’re afraid of the issue, or if some consultant tells you you can’t have a voice on that issue, then you don’t. And I think senators made mistakes, Congress folks made mistakes, governors may have made mistakes [in 2014,]” he said. “I’m not trying to throw stones at anybody, I’m saying we’re Democrats, we’ve got to stand for something. No person should work 35 or 40 hours a week and live in poverty. And certainly, no person should work 35 or 40 hours a week, live in poverty, and not have access to health care, particularly preventative health care.”
Of course, this is not a drum that hasn’t been beaten by women and people of color before. Will the Democrats be more receptive to hearing this message from a middle-aged white man? As annoying as that would be, it would at least put us on the path toward building a viable progressive majority that has clout in elections.
Instead of taking women and people of color for granted, why not focus on inspiring voters who aren’t white men to engage in the political process? There is also a not insignificant pool of white men who get it and will be inspired by that vision as well. Let Republicans cling to the rest of them. Democrats would be wise to heed these words:
“We have to speak to majorities,” he said. “And we’re probably never going to have a majority made up of middle-aged white men.”