Dems’ Dilemma: Economics or Culture?

A special election in Montana will provide an early test of whether the party can win by emulating Bernie Sanders’ campaign agenda.

Rob Quist and his wife, Bonni, react after he was named as the Montana Democratic Party's nominee in the May 25 special election to fill the state's vacant U.S. House seat, at a news conference in Helena on Sunday.
AP Photo/Bobby Caina Calvan
March 7, 2017, 8 p.m.

One of the most significant debates coursing through the Democratic Party is whether 2016 was a realigning election—moving working-class whites firmly into the Republican camp—or whether it was an outlier, thanks to Hillary Clinton’s unpopularity and the appeal of a blunt-speaking businessman without ties to Washington. Democratic groups are scrambling to survey voters who defected to Trump to determine how to better appeal to working-class voters. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders and his followers are adamant that an unabashedly liberal economic agenda is the key to winning back persuadable Trump supporters.

Ultimately, the argument is one pitting those who believe that economic anxiety is the driving force behind Trump’s support against those who believe that it’s a cultural backlash to the Democratic Party’s lurch leftward during the Obama era. Progressive party leaders are betting that the formula back to power is straightforward: Win over disillusioned voters by offering more government benefits, such as free tuition for college and a single-payer health care system. They insist that this is the way to energize an ascendant liberal base of millennials and nonwhites who were left cold by Clinton.

But former British Prime Minister Tony Blair published an important essay last weekend about the predominance of culture over economics in this global populist surge. “Progressives need to acknowledge the genuine cultural anxieties of those voters who have deserted the cause of social progress: on immigration, the threat of radical Islamism and the difference between being progressive and appearing obsessive on issues like gender identity,” Blair wrote in The New York Times.

This is a critical question for Democrats. If enough Trump supporters can be won back by appealing to their economic self-interest, Democrats have an obvious playbook for the future. The Republican efforts to roll back Obamacare, which could expose older, blue-collar workers to greater financial risk, is one reason Democrats think real-life results will carry more weight than the president’s populist rhetoric. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s attacks on Trump’s “swamp” Cabinet, filled with Goldman Sachs bankers, is a clear bet that Democrats believe the GOP’s fiscally-conservative policies will alienate the president’s supporters. But if Democrats have lost touch with the values of Middle America, it’s harder to see them regaining much lost ground.

Their first shot at testing an aggressively populist message will take place in Montana. Ryan Zinke’s appointment to the Interior Department opened up a House seat in a state where Democrats have run competitively in recent years. Sen. Jon Tester won two terms as a plainspoken prairie populist, and is running for reelection next year. Last November, Trump won 56 percent of the state’s vote, and Steve Bullock continued the Democratic lock on the governorship by focusing on bread-and-butter economic issues.

The Democratic nominee for the at-large House seat is banjo-playing liberal activist Rob Quist, who was an outspoken Bernie Sanders supporter. He’ll be facing wealthy Republican businessman Greg Gianforte, who narrowly lost to Bullock in last year’s gubernatorial election.

There couldn’t be a clearer contrast between the two candidates’ biographies and ideologies. Quist, a mustachioed son of ranchers, is a more-crunchy version of Bernie Sanders. He writes politically charged folk music. He is a champion of single-payer health insurance. He’s supportive of greater regulations on gun ownership. The GOP-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC is already attacking Quist for supporting military cuts.

Gianforte is more like Mitt Romney than Donald Trump. A software entrepreneur, he made millions when he sold his start-up company to Oracle. He’s already committed to spending some of his fortune in the congressional campaign after donating $5 million to his gubernatorial campaign. He’s a champion of tax cuts, supports entitlement reform, and is a down-the-line social conservative. In last year’s governor’s race, Democrats showed he’s far from an imposing candidate, but Quist is running further to the left than Bullock.

You couldn’t script a better test case of two political opposites who feed into the opposition’s caricatures: the carpetbagging businessman who spent much of his career in New Jersey against the hippy-dippy socialist. And they’re competing in a state where voters tend to support Republicans, but have a history of voting for the right kind of Democrat. The results of the election will go a long way into testing the theory whether Democrats can win with a progressive economic message without moderating at all culturally.

If the Sanders theory of elections is true, working-class Montana voters will get behind Quist because his economic vision is geared towards their interests. But if the Blair worldview is closer to reality, Gianforte will succeed in painting Quist as out of touch with average Montanans. If Democrats don’t win this seat, the party’s candidates will see they can’t run on economics alone.

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