Conor Lamb’s Victory Proves the Economic Populist Case

According to the conventional wisdom about the 2016 election, Conor Lamb should never have had even a fighting chance in Pennsylvania’s 18th District.

The wisest luminaries have mournfully told us that Obama-Trump voters are unreachable bigots who cannot be persuaded by liberal politics if an unabashed racist leads the Republican ticket. They brought charts indicating that Trumpism is strongest in somewhat wealthier districts to deny the possibility of an economic component to Trump’s appeal, and by extension the impossibility of an economic appeal to win some of them back. Forget about the white working class, they intone: it’s gone forever unless candidates either appeal directly to bigotry, or we end racism entirely in places like the Rust Belt. And they hammer again and again that the only way for Democrats to win isn’t persuasion of voters Democrats lost in 2016, but rather liberal base turnout through appeals to social issues, combined with a softened economic approach tailored to winning over disaffected Romney-voting suburbanites who dislike Trump.

None of this turned out to be accurate.

Earlier this week, Conor Lamb and the voters of Pennsylavania’s 18th district obliterated all of these shibboleths dearly held by so many of the eminences of standard liberal punditry.

The district was almost the perfect test case for it. Trump won the district by 20 points in 2016, even though it has more registered Democrats than Republicans, and even though Democrats had performed better in the district before. It’s a mostly working class, blue collar district buffeted badly by trade and automation policy. The district is 95% white with no significant college towns, so the potential for maximizing turnout among youth and people of color was limited. Yes, the anti-Trump backlash and differential enthusiasm between Republicans and Democrats means that to a certain extent different partisan sectors came out to vote in 2018 than in 2016, but realistically the only path to victory for a Democrat was persuasion of voters that shifted from Obama to Trump.

As my colleague Martin Longman noted, Conor Lamb did exactly that–without resorting to even soft bigotries or giving ground on core economic principles. He took the Joe Biden/Tim Kaine line on abortion and refused to play to racist grandstanding on crime and welfare. Sure, he took some positions on guns and coal that might make a Democrat from coastal California or Massachusetts cringe, but even on those issues Lamb was far better than a Republican, advocating for stronger background checks and green energy investment to combat climate change.

Most importantly, he did not take the Third Way approach in terms of being centrist on economics. In that regard, the attempts of Third Way types to embrace Lamb as one of theirs is ludicrous: Lamb hit Wall Street and corporate tax cuts with sharp elbows, and made an unequivocally economic progressive pitch in his victory speech:

“Within 12 hours of giving away our tax dollars to the wealthy and big corporations, Speaker Paul Ryan announced that he would try to pay for it by coming after Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid.”

“I believe that every American has a right to go see a doctor when they’re sick, and that means every American has a right to health insurance they can afford.”

And, of course, this:

“public support for programs like Social Security and Medicare is nearly universal, because these programs are universal. (applause) They are America’s way of saying ‘we are all in this together.”

Lamb also won by embracing labor unions wholeheartedly and without reservation, and labor returned the favor. All too often, Democrats over the last few decades have pursued an approach that sidelines or opposes labor in the service of business efficiency. Lamb proved that embracing labor is an important component of winning back white working class voters who understand that the economy didn’t “leave them behind” as is the common euphemism on the center left, but rather that Wall Street stole their livelihoods from them in order to maximize shareholder return.

It’s also worth noting that despite his heterodoxy on some important issues, no major organizations on the left attacked Lamb. MoveOn endorsed him. Democracy for America, which had been critical of Doug Jones in Alabama, did not object. Our Revolution was quiet. It’s widely understood that to win a district like PA18, certain compromises will have to be made–but not on social justice, and not on giveaways to Wall Street. Quite the opposite.

There is no question that racism and sexism contributed heavily to Donald Trump’s win. Many of Lamb’s voters undoubtedly supported Trump in part for some bigoted reasons. But Trump is still the head of the Republican Party and still governing as an unreconstructed bigot. Lamb’s Republican opponent Saccone embraced the culture war approach wholesale when it became clear that tax cuts weren’t working to bring out the faithful.

But the notion that Obama-Trump switchers are unpersuadable by leftist economic populism? Dead wrong. Conor Lamb proved it. Adam Serwer’s nationalist delusion is no delusion, and the pessimism that declares that the persuadable white working class is lost to Democrats without a generation of social reconstruction is simply unwarranted. Nor is the message that works in districts like PA18 incompatible (except for guns and fossil fuels) in most respects from that which will work to turn out the Obama coalition. And it is directly the opposite from the agenda of those who would defend the economic centrist stances of blue dogs and economic centrists like Feinstein and Kaine.

Democrats can turn out the liberal base, satisfy the progressive left and win back most of the Obama-Trump voters all the same time, using mostly the same approach. They just have to have the courage to do it, and eschew  the droning conventional wisdom of the mandarins and talking heads.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.