Work That Doesn’t “Work” For Working Families

Regular readers know that headlines like this one over a piece by The Atlantic‘s Molly Ball make me a bit crazy: “The One Number That Will Decide This Year’s Election.” There’s never “one number” that decides any election, unless maybe it was the number of Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices in December 2000. A vote is a vote, and you can double-load statistics all day long to “prove” this or that performance-level in this or that demographic is the only thing that matters. Yes, there are in any given election certain categories of voters unusually susceptible to persuasion or mobilization, and smart parties and candidates place emphasis there. But tunnel-vision is generally a bad idea.

Now that I’ve ranted a bit, I’ll note that the “one number” Ball cites is the performance of Democrats and Republicans among voters earning less than $50,000 a year. It should be pretty obvious without thinking about it too deeply that this is a vast group of people with widely varied characteristics: race, ethnicity, religion, geography, occupation, age, family status, etc. etc. Carrying any group so large will naturally be associated with a successful campaign cycle. But the idea that there’s one way to appeal to this broad swath of the population is questionable.

As it happens, I agree with the campaign emphasis Ball’s muse in this piece–AFL-CIO political director Mike Podhoretzer–is encouraging Democrats to embrace: economic issues affecting low-to-moderate income voters. But the idea that people making under $50,000 a year are going to shift monolithically to the Donkey Party because it announces itself to be “populist” misses the myriad ways in which a winning voter coalition is assembled.

Some of you may remember when Dick Gephardt headed up the House Democratic Caucus and perpetually announced campaign “messages” that were sometimes parodied as “work that works for working families.” It never “worked” all that well; nor will any other simplistic message that ignores or discounts the many issues on which progressive governance can have a positive impact.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.