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- September 9, 2023

Virginia Mercury: Democrats need to embrace economic populism’

(Republished with permission under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.)

Editor’s Note: This piece by local organizer and former candidate Ben Litchfield appeared in the August 30 edition of Virginia Mercury. We missed it last Saturday, but are pleased to bring it to you today.

A few weeks ago, Governor Glenn Youngkin was on Fox News talking about the state of the national economy. In his segment with Laura Ingraham, he described how a trip to the grocery store is still a “gut punch” for working families with more than 60% of Americans living paycheck to paycheck. The cause of our economic woes, according to the governor? The Biden Administration’s social welfare programs that lifted millions of families out of poverty during the pandemic.

Bidenomics is working to reduce core inflation, create millions of jobs and support small business growth. Many Americans, however, agree with Gov. Youngkin’s assessment of the national economy. According to a recent CNN poll, more than half of Americans feel the economy is getting worse and remain deeply dissatisfied with their personal finances. In other words, they are not feeling the economic recovery and, for Democrats, that’s a big problem.

The governor’s economic populist rhetoric may well resonate with a majority of the electorate who feel tired, frustrated and short-changed from the grocery store to the gas pump. Many Americans have cut back on their own spending and changed their grocery buying habits. Housing prices and interest rates remain stubbornly high. Voters could have little stomach for talk of how well Bidenomics is working, as they continue to have to tighten their belts.

The challenge then, for Democrats, is to present a competing narrative about the national economy that speaks to the lived experience of the working class – meeting them where they are – and that offers real solutions instead of the destructive economic policies of Republicans like Glenn Youngkin that have hollowed out the middle class, worsened economic mobility and allowed rampant corporate consolidation. Democrats need to shine a light on the snake oil salesmen.

To do so, they need their own brand of progressive economic populism.

At the national level, politicians like U.S. Senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania have already shown that Democrats can win over working-class voters with an unapologetically populist message. Fetterman campaigned on fighting price gouging, cutting taxes for working people, building more products in America and ending corporate greed. Rather than losing miserably, as some predicted, the Carhartt-clad, tattooed then-lieutenant governor won bigly.

In winning his election, Fetterman defied conventional Democratic Party wisdom: that only centrist candidates can win in swing states (or swing districts). He spoke to the pain that many working-class people feel in a way that few politicians do – except, perhaps, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. When he said, “I’m going to fight for everyone in Pennsylvania who ever got knocked down and had to get back up,” it was electrifying.

To appeal to the working class, Democrats need to show a serious commitment to holding big business accountable for abusive practices that worsen economic inequality, stifle economic mobility and take away economic opportunity from working-class Americans. Anti-corporate sentiment is hugely bipartisan, according to the Pew Research Center, with a vast majority of Democrats and Republicans agreeing that large corporations have a negative impact on society.

For instance, rather than pointing a wagging finger at government programs designed to help the working class, like Gov. Youngkin, Democrats should rightly blame the handful of large food companies abusing their market dominance for delivering that “gut punch” that Americans are feeling at the grocery store. Companies like Cargill, Tysons and General Mills booked record profits during the pandemic. That gut punch at checkout is courtesy of corporate greed.

Big Food is also using its extraordinary market power to abuse its workers, hurting their ability to make ends meet and provide for their families. During the pandemic, when food workers were heroically putting their own lives at risk to keep our grocery store shelves stocked, their employers were conspiring to suppress their wages, and, as if straight from  Upton Sinclair’s muckraking novel, the Jungle, some were using child labor to clean slaughterhouses.

As the largest purchasers of farm products in the United States, these companies are also hurting our rural communities and family farms. The result is that American shoppers pay more at the grocery store and family farmers receive less. As working-class Americans struggle to put food on the table – or, in the case of family farmers, get it there – greedy food companies are exploiting them, and Democrats need to call it for what it is: theft.

As for that pain we’re feeling at the gas pump? Big Oil also recorded “blockbuster” profits last year while continuing to steal land from working-class and rural families to build their pipelines. And when they inevitably break, or spill, which they always do, it will be those working-class and rural families struggling to deal with the environmental and public health mess left behind.

Democrats also need to show a serious promise of tax reform that sees big corporations and corporate executives pay their fair share of taxes and workers receive a tax break. Over sixty percent of Americans feel that corporations and the wealthy do not pay their fair share of taxes. Trickle-down economics and corporate welfare, which are the go-to policies for Republicans like Glenn Youngkin, are nothing more than wealth transfers from the working class to the wealthy.

Moreover, Democrats need to offer solutions that tackle the root cause of voters’ economic malaise, which is the lack of any economic mobility. More than income inequality, the lack of economic mobility leaves working-class families feeling stuck and hopeless. Less than half of children today will grow up to earn more than their parents, which is lower than at any time in recent history. Democrats must offer those working families hope for a better future.

By embracing progressive economic populism, Democrats can speak to the felt reality of the American public and take the fight directly to snake oil salesmen like Glenn Youngkin, who trade on working class resentment to line the pockets of the well-heeled and well-connected. The Democratic Party will be stronger for it and the American people would be better served.

Ben Litchfield is the former Chairman of the Stafford County Democratic Committee, a member of the Seventh Congressional District Democratic Committee, and a former candidate for the Democratic nomination for Senate District 27

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