Swing districts. Purple regions. The mythical undecided voter, who has yet to choose between Clinton and Trump one week before the election. This is the stuff modern political campaigns are made of: complex campaign infrastructure that devotes millions of dollars largely to targeting the mythical political middle.
As establishment and progressive Democrats are feeling a dire urgency to take back the House and Senate in 2018, many are convinced that the old playbook is the only way to win. The establishment still holds on to the pipe dream of a Biden-type candidate who will make things right by winning back the white working class voters lost to Donald Trump. A safe option, who would never polarize voters like a woman or a candidate of color would.
Yet this “winning strategy” is driving us into the war of inches. Traditional campaign dynamics are choking our political choices at the ballot. As so-called progressives are bending under pressure to please those in the political middle, Democrats are waffling on issues as fundamental as reproductive freedom and taking in refugees. The fear of upsetting Trump voters has made candidates too timid to stand for what’s right. Thus, at the ballot box we’re left with a choice between Mountain Dew and Diet Mountain Dew… neither are really that good for you.
Yet beyond political choice, there is something deeply problematic with how modern campaigns are run at the mercy of the middle. When campaigns remain focused on those who are already politically engaged by targeting “triple prime voters” who have voted in the past three primary elections, those who are already disenfranchised are again left out of the political calculus.
Who is left out? Just take a look at who conservative voter suppression targets: poor people, people of color, students. Not just through racial gerrymandering. But through strategies aimed solely at keeping certain people from voting, from state legislatures all the way down to local boards of elections. Racist voter ID laws. Shutting down student polling sites. Severely limiting early voting and same day registration. Purging minority voters from registration rolls. Stripping over 6 million people with felony charges of their constitutional right to vote. Patently undemocratic forces that serve to divide and conquer our communities.
Yet some of our so-called ‘liberal champions’ are perpetuating this marginalization and exclusion from democracy by running campaigns targeted at the already politically engaged middle. Those at the margins are taken for granted and pandered to, not spoken to.
When there are undeniable forces against real democracy, when over 6 million Americans can’t vote due to a felony charge, can we really call ourselves a democratic society?
We must reject the old playbook. It was written by winners in a game that some of us were never even allowed to play in.
Rather than aim for the middle, we must aim to expand, broaden and enfranchise.
Our debates today are dominated by questions of funding, efficiency, and economic growth when we should be asking questions about deprivation, hunger, and oppression.
How do you engage those who have been disengaged, disenfranchised, left behind by modern politics? We speak directly to those who have been left out with a moral platform.
You don’t offer someone who is bleeding from a wound a band-aid and chicken soup. You offer an affordable visit with a proper doctor. A moral platform rejects the political discourse of band-aid solutions and directly addresses the wounds.
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What does it mean to address wounds directly?
When the heel of economic depravity crushes poor blacks and whites alike, it means understanding that racial and economic justice go hand in hand and must be at the center of any platform.
When over twelve percent of people can’t afford to see the doctor, it means demanding Medicare for all.
When we have long-term conversations on catastrophic climate change, it means short-term, immediate justice for black and brown Americans whose drinking water is polluted by ash, coal and lead.
When we’ve been fooled into believing that paper straws and individuals recycling can save the earth, it means holding the big-time polluters accountable.
When we are the richest country in the history of the earth and millions of citizens live paycheck to paycheck, it means considering a universal basic income.
When an abhorrent 20 percent of children in our country live in poverty, it means pushing for a child allowance policy.
When decades of neoliberal policies of market efficiency have failed to address the fundamental racial wealth gap and intergenerational wealth transfers that perpetuate it, it means considering bold policy ideas.
When six million Americans in our democracy cannot vote because of a felony charge, it means restoring the constitutional civil rights of the systematically disenfranchised.
This is how you win a election the moral way. If you’re at the top and living quite comfortably, some of these proposals may sound uncomfortable to you. But that’s the point—it speaks directly to those who have been at the mercy of immoral policies for generations.
Like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Andrew Gillum and Jess King, principled campaigns have upset establishment expectations by giving a seat at the table to those who historically have never been part of the conversation. Sure, this model won’t work everywhere right now. Progressive candidates have stumped in places like Kansas and lost. But this isn’t just about winning today. This is about fighting a long-term battle, and changing what’s politically possible by building a movement.
Imagine if every person who couldn’t vote due to a felony charge had voted in the past two elections. Imagine if every person who didn’t vote because they felt left behind by our modern politics and economics felt compelled enough to vote. Imagine if all the people flexed their power over the people in power. How radically different might our country and our institutions look?
I’m certainly interested in finding out.
Lance Tran is a Trinity senior. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.