Left on Main Street

I was heading out the door after making a speech in Defiance, Ohio — a quaint, charming town deep in the state’s northwest corner — when a middle-aged man in faded jeans and a hunting jacket stopped me and extended his hand. “Excuse me, Ms. Brown,” he said. “I just wanted to let you know that I’m a registered Republican.” Given that my father, Sherrod Brown, is a longtime Ohio politician and a longer-time Democrat, such an introduction usually does not bode well. But, rocking side-to-side with his hands tucked deep into his pockets, the man continued: “I also just wanted to let you know my wife and I are paying attention this year, and you people are talking about stuff we care about.” His gesture toward the front of the large room indicated that “you people” was in fact the group of us who had just spoken — the Democrats of Ohio.

It was our second stop on a whirlwind get-out-the-vote tour around Ohio the week before Election Day, and I was riding along as a representative of my father in his bid for US Senate against Republican incumbent Mike DeWine. The tour targeted towns like Defiance, small and conservative enclaves typically dismissed by Democrats focusing on Ohio’s liberal base. Come Election Day, the tactic would prove effective after all; reaching out to towns that had been off the map for the national Democratic Party for years invigorated Democratic campaigns across the country. Democrats retook Congress with a gain of six seats in the Senate and thirty in the House, while picking up six governorships.

Pundits have seized on these results from all sides, anxious to make sense of this year’s historic political about-face. From Jonah Goldberg in The Columbus Dispatch to Rudi Batzell in our own Columbia Spectator, the general consensus is that the Democrats merely sold out to moderate voters to savor the sweet taste of majority once again. The subtext here is grim: the Democrats have neither muscles strong enough nor positions durable enough to ensure any sort of uncompromised sustainability.

The victories of Senators-elect Jim Webb (D-VA) and Bob Casey (D-PA) reinforce the idea that the Democrats had to go right to go big. After all, both are social conservatives, and Webb even served as Secretary of the Navy during the Reagan Administration. But at the same time, liberals like Senators-elect Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) also defeated their incumbent opponents, and their victories point to a more complex equation. In Ohio — the state that sealed the deal on George W. Bush’s return to the White House two years ago — voters elected my father and Governor-elect Ted Strickland. Not long ago, such across-the-board progressives would have been met in towns like Defiance with, well, defiance.

Considering the motley crowd of new Democrats representing our country, this year’s political shake-up has offered mixed messages. While the voters of Virginia and Pennsylvania chose Democrats with traditionally red tendencies, how did other Democrats, like my father and Claire McCaskill, manage to remain “true blue?”

Some two months before the election, my father’s campaign released a commercial about the economy. In the ad, he walks along a fence outside an abandoned Ohio factory and, looking straight into the camera, comes down hard against trade agreements — the very arrangements that became the locus for Washington bipartisanship during the Clinton years. He talks about Ohio’s loss of manufacturing jobs and unfair practices whereby overseas workers are paid “three or four dollars a day.” In response to his opponent’s support of NAFTA, CAFTA, and the like, my dad asserts: “He says it’s just business — I say it’s wrong.”

Unsurprisingly, each campaign visit to a union hall brought at least one positive mention of this ad. And yet, somewhat less expectedly, the commercial also garnered countless words of praise from average non-union voters, inspiring huge cheers in speeches statewide. In a crowd of 1,500 at a rally in Youngstown, my father’s vow to fight for fair trade and against free trade met with as many claps and shouts as his calls to end the Iraq War. CNN exit polls showed that 39 percent of national voters and 42 percent of Ohio voters ranked the economy as “extremely important.” This year, when voters thought about the economy, most thought about trade, not taxes.

That distinction made a huge difference this election cycle because it became one way in which voters turned away from the usually effective Republican modus operandi. Promises of tax cuts tend to complement rhetoric on anti-abortion and pro-gun conservatism, all stances that resonate powerfully in rural areas of Ohio like Defiance. Historically, Republicans have tapped into that rhetoric because of its reliability in securing votes — a phenomenon due, in large part, to its admittedly “populist” appeal.

Although we traditionally associate populism with the liberal politics of William Jennings Bryan, the concept can operate anywhere on the political spectrum, provided that — as its Latin root populus suggests — it reacts to the beliefs or worries of “the people.” One party often beats another depending on which brands of populism are at play. In a conversation I had with John Nichols, a writer and political analyst for The Nation, he talked about the different variations of populist politics. To Nichols, one example of conservative populism is the proliferation of anti-immigrant views — sparked by fears of job loss — that have inspired conservatives to plug anti-immigration laws across the country. “There is a populist component to that because people are concerned about their jobs and circumstances,” he says.

That John Kerry maintained a twenty-point lead over George W. Bush in Ohio’s more urban counties and still lost the state is a clear sign that, among other things, this “conservative populism” was at work in rural areas during the 2004 Presidential election. Two years later, in this fall’s midterms, my father received about fourteen points more than Kerry did in some rural counties. And he won the state by twelve points.

In part, this change is due to what the press has accurately pegged as an ideal year to be a Democrat. Leading up to Election Day, the country looked disapprovingly at the President’s job in Iraq; Ohio’s term-limited Governor Bob Taft had approval ratings in the single digits, and Mark Foley’s sordid instant messages delivered another formidable, pre-election blow to Republicans. It was the perfect storm.

But in a state like Ohio, a twelve-point win does not happen merely because of a swing among reactionary voters. What really made my father’s twelve-point victory and Governor-elect Strickland’s resounding twenty-three-point triumph possible was a long overdue answer to the pervasive conservative populism of recent years. By addressing Americans’ fears of unemployment — the very same fears that fueled the “conservative populism” Nichols described — Democrats in Ohio and elsewhere configured a populist message in terms of the economy and trade.

“It’s much harder to be an economic populist,” Nichols told me, “because you’re really asking people to move beyond emotional reactions and toward an analysis of the economy. But if it’s done right and with sophistication, you can really shape the politics.” Whereas the assertion that the “Democrats sold out” implies that no real progressive can win big races, Nichols, for one, argues precisely the opposite: many of the 2006 elections were won through a progressive populist affirmation of new political ideals, rather than through mere negations of the failing conservative strain. (More accurately, it was a combination of both).

As polarizing as politics can be, most Americans still want the same basic things in their lives. They want to possess the resources to put their kids through college without having to be fearful of losing their jobs. They want their parents to be able to get the medication they need in old age. They want their country to be respected — not despised — around the world. Democrats did not have to change or manipulate the will of the American people to get elected this year; they simply had to recognize the American people and rearticulate their message.

Despite analyses suggesting that Bush’s performance was the central issue in the November elections, 39 percent of voters said that “Bush was not a factor” in their decisions, whereas 32 percent said their vote was meant to “oppose Bush,” according to CNN polls. The importance of the economy outranked the importance of Iraq, terrorism, and so-called “values issues” in the minds of voters. In 2004, only “values issues” outranked the economy, and only by two percentage points. Considering the strikingly different face of the 2006 election results, it is fair to say that something other than — or at least in addition to — “lesser-of-two-evils” thinking was at play this year.

As I traveled across Ohio, from Defiance to Stockport and eventually back to Columbus, I saw a genuine enthusiasm, one that could not be the sign of mere resignation among voters. In Stockport, a young couple that had driven an hour to attend that evening’s Democratic dinner took notes during the speeches and simultaneously gnawed on ears of corn. Afterward, they followed me to my car to stock up on buttons and pamphlets to pass along to their friends. Another man, a retired Ohio transportation worker, invited me to stand with him as he smoothed his “Sherrod Brown” bumper sticker onto the back window of his station wagon.

To set the record straight, the man whose name my new friend was affixing to his car is no moderate. In fact, many thought my father to be so liberal — so progressive — that his chances of winning the Ohio Senate race would be slim, particularly given areas like Stockport and Defiance. A November New York Times article about Senator Harry Reid recounts a conversation between Reid and Senator Chuck Schumer, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. As the two men watched election results roll in, Reid remarked, “Remember, Chuck, when they said Sherrod was too liberal?”

In a state like Ohio,which paints its politics somewhere between purple and red, a guy who supports gay rights and abortion rights, who opposes free trade, and who voted against the Iraq War and the Patriot Act inspired worry among politicos, pundits, and outspoken bloggers from the get go. But from day one, I watched my father’s campaign steadily pick up steam and overcome peoples’ doubts precisely because he never apologized for his progressive positions, nor tried to hide under the cloak ofa political moderate. Instead, he talked to Ohioans about what he has always believed and then showed that those very things are, as he has said so many times, “right down Main Street, right down the center of America.” For Democrats and progressives, this is the new populism.

And it works. People all over the state shared their excitement about “populist” issues with me. At the first meeting of the newly minted North Dayton Democratic Club, members in attendance ranged from a young man my age, to a middle-aged mother of a soldier stationed in Iraq, to an older woman whose friends introduced her — despite her initial embarrassment — as a “recovering Republican.” Her friends thanked me for my father’s pledge to increase the minimum wage and for his outspoken opposition to the pharmaceutical industry’s monopoly on drug prices. The “recovering Republican” had not joined in on her friends’ conversation with me but had been quietly observing, and when I later asked what convinced her to come to the meeting that night, she did not miss a beat: “Our economy’s goin’ to hell.” That was enough for this Republican to start recovering.

The phenomenon this election brought to light is a bit like a pair of jeans that finally fits again after years without wear: the Democrats did something right his year. They fought to the majority successfully, albeit with the politics of two disparate camps.

The moderate-leaning strain of this election, which separated the blue from the red on the basis of being anti-Bush, was effective in the hands of Democrats like Webb and Casey.What was a gutsier move, however, was the politics of this year’s other Democrats who, like my father, refused to trend purple. But to stay on message and remain politically viable demands that politicians kick away the crutches of affected moderate politics and learn, finally, how to walk on their own. If they can do that, the progressive populist message that formed some of the muscle in the Democrats’ legs this year can provide some semblance of sustainability and, more importantly, a big sense of appeal.

In our conversation, Nichols compared populism to electricity. He said, “It’s the energy that powers our politics. Popular appeals help parties to win, help candidates to get elected."

If they choose to evince areal progressive populism in unapologetic terms, the Democrats could re-electrify their image. Questions about the “future of the Democratic Party” would finally cease to go unanswered. In 2006, Democrats had a boost; they culled many of their votes from opposition rhetoric, an option that will no longer be available to what has now become the majority party. This boost has given the Democrats a window of opportunity to show Americans what they stand for, and to show that what they stand for is not inherently polarizing.

Indeed, Democrats have all the electricity they need to light up Main Street. They just need to flick the switch.