Mark Penn
Credit: Bill Rice/Flickr

If you show up in court without a lawyer visibly by your side, the judge will probably ask you if you have “representation.” That’s what lawyers do for their clients. They represent them. It’s also what political parties do for their clients. And we hope that their clients are at least sometimes the people in the states and districts the party’s politicians hope to represent. Too often, it seems, they consider their real clients to be big donors.

Nonetheless, we call the lower chamber of Congress the House of Representatives (or, alternatively, “the People’s House”) for a reason. Political parties aspire to place members in Congress where they can represent the interests of the people who are members of their party.

Mark Penn appears to have a loose grasp on this concept. He says “The path back to power for the Democratic Party today, as it was in the 1990s, is unquestionably to move to the center and reject the siren calls of the left, whose policies and ideas have weakened the party.”

It’s doubtful that it’s a good idea to pursue a strategy with the explicit aim of rejecting the values and interests of your clients. A lawyer who did this would lose the trust of the community he served. He might even be disbarred.

The better way to look at things is that the Democratic Party needs to be able to serve more clients than they are presently serving. There are too many communities right now who feel like the Democrats aren’t offering the kind of representation they want. They can find ways to meet these clients’ demands without, as a price, suddenly failing to do the one thing that they’re really fairly good at.

In fact, when you present this a zero-sum game, it becomes something you can’t accomplish. If the only way to add new clients is to lose the clients you already have, then you can’t grow. If you figure that your clients are loyal and, in any case, don’t have anywhere else to go for representation, you’ll discover that you’ve overestimated the strength of your position. There will be negative consequences if you keep going into court and doing a lousy job.

The way to look at this is not that the party has lost the support of white working class voters by doing too good of a job representing the people in their urban strongholds. The party has lost support from the white working class by doing a lousy job of representing the white working class. And there are a whole host of areas where the interests of the white working class and the Democrats’ urban base are not in conflict.

For Penn, the Democrats’ problem is that they’ve criticized the police and gone too far in pushing LGBT rights. They’re too soft on illegal immigration, and they’re proposing too many “socialist” solutions. But that’s how the Democrats represent their clients. Their problem isn’t that they do this too well. Their problem is that these issues aren’t addressing what is foremost on the minds of people living outside of the large population centers of the country.

If these people want someone to outlaw abortion, they’re going to hire the other firm. If they want someone to help them with the opioid epidemic then they might well hire the Democratic firm. If the Democrats would develop a plan for revitalizing small-town entrepreneurship and regional equality, they could take that plan to these communities and make a case that they’re best prepared to revitalize them economically.

If the Democrats have a problem, it’s their impulse to impose a uniformity on the party that just won’t work if the goal is to compete everywhere. Everyone seemed enthusiastic about Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy when he rolled it out as chairman of the DNC. Progressives want the party to compete everywhere. What they don’t want is to have the party speak with two voices on key issues. That’s understandable, but it’s easy to make the perfect the enemy of having any political power on the state or national level.

Too often, progressives operate from the reverse side of the same basic paradigm that Penn is using, which is that any emphasis on attracting white working class voters must of necessity involve a zero-sum calculation where they get the short end of the stick.

Admittedly, things can get uncomfortably fuzzy at the juncture where contentious issues meet. But progressives need to be mindful that civil rights, the environment and social justice are best served and protected when the broad left has majorities. If a little fuzz is the price for obtaining those majorities, the tradeoff is well worth it.

Living at all times at that intersection where divisions are emphasized and hashed out is not a productive way of going about our business. The productive course is figuring out how the party can serve the interests of potential clients in more communities without at the same time failing to represent the left.

Mark Penn doesn’t attempt this. At all.

This is why he is a legendary failure as a political strategist. But, to be honest, he’s only a mirror image of the same problem a lot of people on the left are having figuring out how to regain power. It’s one part of lack of imagination and two parts lack of effort. Progressives are always giving me reasons why white working class voters won’t support the Democrats even though the whole point is that their support elected Barack Obama and not Hillary Clinton. Their support gave the Democrats control of most state legislatures in the 1990’s and their lack of support is locking the Democrats out of power in a large majority of states in the present.

Mark Penn is right about only one thing, and that is that the Democrats are suffering terribly due to their loss of support from white working class people. The solution is not to try to become a party that serves white working class people at the expense of the still-loyal members of the party. That suggestion is idiotic on its face. The solution is to find a way to represent working people regardless of their race, and if that means that the party isn’t as coherent as some people would like, that’s just too bad.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at