Sinema, Manchin, and the Political Homeless

Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema: the centrists blocking Biden's agenda |  Democrats | The Guardian

We’ll get to Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin in a second.

The City has an interesting article on New York City Council becoming majority women for the first time and the replacement of three more conservative Council members from the Bronx with progressive Latina women.  Men rooted in the Bronx “borough’s evangelical Christian or business communities . . . , Fernando Cabrera, Ruben Díaz Sr. and Mark Gjonaj” either retired or were term-limited out of office and replaced by Democrats Pierina Sánchez, Amanda Farías and Marjorie Velázquez.

That’s “replacement theory” in action.

At the same time, Eli Valentín of Union Theological Seminary had an interesting and important observation about the change. “More than an ideological shift, it’s a generational shift,” Valentín said, noting that the “55 and over” crowd no longer has a political home.”

Back to Sinema and Manchin.

Between March and August, Senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, both Democrats, embarked on a campaign to subvert, obstruct, and altogether scuttle President Biden’s “Build Back Better” legislation “that funds universal pre-K, Medicare expansion, renewable energy credits, affordable housing, a year of expanded Child Tax Credits and major Obamacare subsidies.” A version of President Biden’s bill passed the House of Representatives this morning and moves to the Senate. Whether Sinema and Manchin decide some version of Build Back Better or not, they’re uncomfortable being in a multicultural, socially liberal Democratic Party with an expansive domestic agenda but can’t imagine switching to a white nationalist and insurrectionist Republican Party.

In other words, Both Sinema and Manchin are politically homeless while holding office as Democratic senators.

It’s helpful to think about a part of the white working class population as politically homeless as well. In a recent (but undated as far as I can tell), Andrew Levison of The Democratic Strategist follows up on some research by unions to divide WWC voters into categories of Democrats, Extremists, and Cultural Traditionalists with the “Cultural Traditionalist” category being the group to whom Democrat direct their political messaging. What makes men and women in the cultural traditionalist camp “gettable” for Democrats is that they agree with ideas of diversity, pluralism, and tolerance even as they have a herrenvolk orientation toward the flag, patriotism, and religion that I would think also makes them open to appeals from the extreme right. Levinson also argues that “traditionalists” have a strong commitment to the local community which Levinson views as something in common with the extremists but which I believe could cut both ways given the decline of rural communities here in KY and across the country.

Given that Levinson only hopes to get the Democratic share of the WWC vote back up to the 2008 level of 40%, he appears to (realistically) assume that Democrats could not appeal to a majority of Cultural Traditionalists. But he sees Democrats as potentially appealing to some Cultural Traditionalists among the WWC because that constituency doesn’t identify with Republican Party extremists and only reluctantly or unenthusiastically voted for Trump. In other words, there is a segment of the WWC “Cultural Traditionalist” vote that is uncomfortable with both parties, politically homeless, and therefore could potentially vote Democratic in local, state, and national elections.

I grew up in small town Upstate NY (Waverly in the Southern Tier) and have been living in rural Kentucky for the last 30+ years. From my perspective, Levinson’s own recommendations for themes seem awkward and ineffective:

1. The America that the extremists are fighting for is not the America I grew up in.”
“2. I love the American flag as much as any American but I would never use a flagpole
flying our flag as a club to assault other Americans that I call my “enemies.” That is not the
American way.”
“3. The values I grew up with are good values and I want them to endure. But the values
of the people who want to turn Americans against each other and divide our country are
not my values.”
“4. Decent people can stand up for traditional American values without turning America into
something that is deeply un-American.”

That’s all defensive and unappealing. I can’t imagine anyone in KY changing their vote on the basis of those arguments. Let me suggest some alternative themes that have a better chance of working.

  1. Effective and active government. Effective government was stressed by Bronx Latina progressives, but I heard the same at a Democratic rally here in Rowan County, KY. The local county Judge-Executive and Morehead City mayor both talked of effective government getting things done in their remarks. It’s a strong theme that can work. Given the American rescue plan and the Infrastructure, the Biden administration has already shown that it can do the same.
  2. Rebuilding Communities: Rural communities and small cities have been declining for decades and need to be rebuilt. On the positive side that includes jobs, education, medical services, and access to transportation and broadband. But rebuilding also involves the long-term work of drug rehab, adult education, and family courts. The Democrats need to be able to make this a plus as the Infrastructure and Build Back Better bills are implemented.
  3. Choices for Young People: It’s been known for a long time that the best, brightest, and most ambitious young people leave their towns. One thing the Democrats could do is pose their community building efforts in terms of giving young people a real option of staying in their home towns if they want. That’s something that speaks to the community attachment element of “Cultural Traditionalism.”

Political homelessness is a structural element in a political system in which the two major political parties are rapidly becoming more polarized. One thing the Democrats need to do is to pose themselves as the better option for those among the politically homeless who are open to their message.

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