New research suggests working class whites want what Democrats propose … but don’t think Democrats can deliver. (More)

Working Class Whites to Democrats: First, Make Government Work

Remember when Vermont was poised to become the first state to offer single-payer health care? Turns out that’s not happening, or at least not soon:

Just a few years ago, lawmakers in this left-leaning state viewed President Obama’s Affordable Care Act as little more than a pit stop on the road to a far more ambitious goal: single-payer, universal health care for all residents.

Then things unraveled. The online insurance marketplace that Vermont built to enroll people in private coverage under the law had extensive technical failures. The problems soured public and legislative enthusiasm for sweeping health care changes just as Gov. Peter Shumlin needed to build support for his complex single-payer plan. Finally, Mr. Shumlin, a Democrat, shelved the plan in December, citing the high cost to taxpayers. He called the decision “the greatest disappointment of my political life.”

The cost was one issue. The plan would have been funded by an 11.5% payroll tax and a sliding scale income tax of up to 9.5%, but those would have replaced the employer’s and employee’s shares of health insurance premiums. The net cost, for businesses and families, would have been about the same as buying insurance.

The deeper issue was that Vermonters didn’t believe their state government could make the system work:

“There’s a backlash against all things health care reform because Vermont Health Connect has been such a bad experience,” said Trinka Kerr, the chief health care advocate at Vermont Legal Aid, which gets several hundred calls a month from people who have encountered problems with the exchange, including billing errors and even delayed access to care. “Sometimes they’ll say, ‘I’ll just go without insurance,’ and we try to convince them that’s not a good plan. They don’t like the way this is working and want to go back to the old way.”

“Ensure that average citizens get both their say and their money’s worth”

The Vermont health care experience is consistent with Stanley Greenberg’s surveys of working class white voters:

Democrats cannot win big or consistently enough, deep enough down the ticket or broadly enough in the states, unless they run much stronger with white working-class and downscale voters. That includes running better with white working-class swing voters, of course. But it also includes winning more decisively with white unmarried women, a demographic group that, along with minority and Millennial voters, is integral to the Democrats’ base in a growing American majority that I call the Rising American Electorate. Working-class whites and white unmarried women are both key to competing in the states where Republicans are pursuing a conservative governing agenda unchecked and to keeping Democratic voters engaged in both presidential and off-year elections.

Greenberg’s data, from research conducted in partnership with the Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund and Every Voice, suggests that Democrats can reach working class white voters, if we know where to start:

These voters, as we shall see, are open to an expansive Democratic economic agenda – to more benefits for child care and higher education, to tax hikes on the wealthy, to investment in infrastructure spending, and to economic policies that lead employers to boost salaries for middle- and working-class Americans, especially women. Yet they are only ready to listen when they think that Democrats understand their deeply held belief that politics has been corrupted and government has failed. Championing reform of government and the political process is the price of admission with these voters. These white working-class and downscale voters are acutely conscious of the growing role of big money in politics and of a government that works for the 1 percent, not them.

Greenberg concedes that some working class whites – especially in the South – may be motivated by “a race-conscious aversion to government spending that they believe fosters dependency and idleness.” And he admits progressive Democrats simply cannot reach those voters.

Yet the white working-class and downscale voters in our surveys do support major parts of a progressive, activist agenda, particularly when a Democratic candidate boldly attacks the role of money and special interests dominating government and aggressively promotes reforms to ensure that average citizens get both their say and their money’s worth.

“It’s about how you describe that connection to people”

Conventional wisdom says campaign finance and government reform are upscale liberal issues. While this week’s New York Times/CBS News poll found that 84% of Americans think money has too much influence in politics, the same poll found that less than 1% of voters said that was the most important issue facing the nation.

That seems to disprove Greenberg’s thesis, but the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent explains why it may not:

[Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD)] – who has long championed reform that would give candidates who restrict the size of their donations public matching funds, boosting the influence of small donors – told me that the key to making the issue matter to voters is, above all, not to discuss it in isolation. Sarbanes told me:

It is hard sometimes as a stand-alone issue. But the way you can motivate people around this is, you go to an issue people care about – the environment, food safety, jobs and infrastructure – and you lead them from there to the fact that money is standing in the way of progress on that issue.

It’s about how you describe that connection to people. Once you do that, they will carry it with them. You’ve built a narrative around something they care very, very deeply about. We just have to get better in our messaging and in making that connection for people.

“Three decades of disinvesting in government’s capacity”

Greenberg and Rep. Sarbanes focus on campaign finance reform and, as we saw above, polls show that does resonate with voters. But that seems like a classic Catch-22. Barring a sea change at the Supreme Court, meaningful campaign finance reform will require a constitutional amendment. Passing such an amendment would require huge Democratic majorities in Congress and in 38 state legislatures. But to get those majorities, Democrats must first show they can make government work … by making campaign finance reform.

But Lee Drutman and Steven Teles suggest there may be another way:

America’s political institutions are suffering from profound decay. The political parties – especially the Republicans – have become so constrained by their activists and addicted to short-term one-upmanship that they are incapable of governing together. At the same time, the political power of the very wealthy and organized business interests has reached levels that undermine our legitimate expectations that the political system should be able to solve big problems and generate shared prosperity.

These twin phenomena are part of the same basic pathology – the capture of our governing institutions by concentrated interests and the weakening of the structures that aggregate and balance public preferences and channel expertise toward workable consensus.

They also have a similar cause: more than three decades of disinvesting in government’s capacity to keep up with skyrocketing numbers of lobbyists and policy institutes, well-organized partisans, and an increasingly complex social and legal context. Instead, policymakers have increasingly turned to the information and analytical capacity provided for them by those with the biggest material and ideological stakes in the outcome. This dependence has created a power asymmetry crisis that has been quietly building for almost four decades.

Drutman and Teles argue the problem is not simply that industry groups and PACs spend billions of dollars on campaigns and lobbyists. The root problems are what social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven called Expert and Informational Power: access to skilled and experienced experts, and to the information those experts need to craft policy.

The Gingrich Revolution lobotomized Congress, as we discussed yesterday, and Drutman and Teles say that’s the best first place to start fixing government:

So long as we have a congressional staff that lacks a high level of expertise, and that constantly cycles through the institution, often on their way to becoming lobbyists to help out the next class of legislative neophytes, no amount of campaign finance reform or electoral noodling will make a difference. If we can’t figure out how to give Congress back its brain, we may wake up to realize that we are more like Brazil and Mexico than Germany or Denmark.

“A reform action … that would increase their own power”

That may sound like more pie-in-the-sky dreaming, on a par with a campaign finance reform amendment, but Drutman and Teles explain that better legislative staffing is not just a liberal Democrat idea:

Convincing Congress, especially this Congress, to invest in its own staff capacity clearly won’t be easy. But neither is it inconceivable. Even small-government conservatives are feeling pressure to do something about the influence of corporate lobbying. Improving congressional capacity is a reform action they can take that would increase their own power, wouldn’t force them to agree with liberal get-the-money-out-of-politics types, and wouldn’t directly cross the corporate lobbying community. For those concerned about the malign influence of corporate power on our democracy, increasing government’s in-house nonpartisan expertise is almost certainly a more promising path forward than doubling down on more traditional reform strategies.

And while both campaign finance reform and improved voter turnout draw howls from self-described ‘constitutional conservatives’ – a topic we’ll explore in more depth next week – I defy any Tea Partier to explain how the Founding Fathers intended that Congress would merely vote on laws that were written by corporate lobbyists.

Finally, voters and politicians who truly care about “waste, fraud, and abuse” should agree the Government Accountability Office and other auditing agencies need enough trained staffers to do their jobs.

Government reform is not a stand-alone campaign issue, but Democrats can and should link reform to every issue voters care about. To earn voters’ support for progressive policies, we must acknowledge that our government is broken … and be ready to explain how we can fix it.

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Happy Friday!