Dems don’t need to act like Joe Manchin to win red states

Maybe Joe Manchin actually thinks that Stephen Mnuchin will be a decent secretary of the treasury. Despite his occasional dalliances with populist positions, Manchin’s record strongly suggests his instincts are oriented towards big business.

It’s also evident that Manchin has determined in recent years that his political survival depends on publicly rejecting what he believes his constituents in West Virginia view as the mainstream Democratic Party.

I think it’s beyond clear that cultural liberalism is not a hot brand in the state where Trump performed best. The role that formerly Democratic-leaning blue collar voters played in Trump’s electoral coalition has been exaggerated by the media, but in West Virginia it’s obvious that something fundamentally changed in the state residents’ perception of Democrats over the past 15 years. In 1996, Bill Clinton won the state by 15 points (he won the nation by 9). In 1992 he won it by 13 points (8.5 points better than his national margin). In 1988, it was one of 11 states the Michael Dukakis carried in what was a landslide victory for George H.W. Bush.

The national Democratic brand’s slip in the Mountain State appears to have begun with the disastrous performance by Al Gore in 2000. He lost it by 6.4%. John Kerry then lost it by 13%. Obama also lost it by 13% in 2008 but in 2012 he lost it by a whopping 27%. And in 2016, Hillary Clinton lost it by …. 42%, Trump’s largest margin of victory in any state.

There is a certain segment of the punditry, particularly those on the right, who point to this trend as evidence that the party needs to move to the right to become competitive again.

I’ve only been to West Virginia twice and in neither case did I discuss politics with anyone. But as is the case nationally, there is little evidence that suggests that West Virginians turned on the Dems because of any perceived shift on the left-right spectrum, at least not in the traditional economic sense. Al Gore was not further to the left than Bill Clinton. Hillary Clinton was not further to the left than Barack Obama. And none of those figures are to the left of Bernie Sanders, who I am confident would have, at the very least, bested Hillary’s dismal showing of 28%.

Finally, the Republican candidate who did better than any other Republican in the history of the state was one abhorred by the conservative establishment. Trump vowed to preserve Medicare and Social Security, barely talked about cutting spending and even promised to provide universal health coverage.

Instead, what both the data and anecdotes from the area suggest is that the voters of West Virginia, which is both one of the poorest states in the country and one of the states with the strongest labor legacies, have been turned off by what they perceive as a cosmopolitan ethos that is jeopardizing their economy, which is largely based on coal, and lifestyle, which is largely Christian, rural and gun-friendly. As is almost always the case in American politics, race is also relevant: Donald Trump’s demonization of Barack Obama as a foreign “other,” along with his insistence that immigrants are to blame for economic hardship experienced by citizens, likely had a stronger-than-average effect in West Virginia, which is 96% white.

For many progressives, my diagnosis of the problem hardly offers any comfort. Am I saying that Democrats have to oppose LGBT rights, abortion rights, immigrant rights and environmental protections to win back the white working class?

No.

It would probably be unrealistic to expect West Virginia to elect an anti-coal politician, but a lot of these other issues aren’t such a heavy lift when they are discussed frankly and stripped of the sanctimony and slogans that most liberal politicians have come to rely on. “Gay marriage? Sure I support it. If gay people want to be as miserable as the rest of us, why the hell not?”

On immigration, I’ll leave the messaging to Nic Smith, a Waffle House employee in Dickinson County, Virginia, the heart of Appalachian coal country.

“Ain’t no damn immigrant ever stole a coal job. And even if they did, would you really blame them or the people that hired them?”

On his Facebook page, Smith, who also dropped some knowledge in a Washington Post column a couple months ago, describes himself as “Just your average working class anti-capitalist, labor rights activist, and proud hillbilly.”

Suffice it to say, I think that people who talk and think like Nic are the answer to the Democratic Party’s woes throughout much of the country. It’s not just because he has ties to a culture that much of liberal America is disconnected from (although that certainly helps), but because he is presenting people with an explanation for their problems that is often validated by their day-to-day experiences.

While mainstream liberals struggle to tell people why immigrants aren’t the cause of their problems, Smith comes in with a far more compelling argument that his forebears in the labor movement had to make over and over again to their members: It’s the company screwing you, not other workers.

Manchin, of course, is the polar opposite of this ethos. He has major ties to big business interests and is a repeated apologist for its abuses, has exhibited only lukewarm opposition in response to anti-union legislation pushed through the state legislature by state Republicans and now he has voted to hand over control of the nation’s treasury to a man who embodies Wall Street exploitation of the poor and middle class.

Worst of all: He’ll probably lose.