New Times,
New Thinking.

The Democrats must forge a political centre based on class, not identity

The party urgently needs to reconnect with the needs of ordinary people in conservative and rural parts of the US.

By Sohrab Ahmari

Senator Chris Murphy’s indispensable watchword is “conversation”. By my count, the Connecticut Democrat used the word no fewer than 20 times in a recent phone interview, or roughly once every 90 seconds. It dawned on me that he was doing this deliberately, and with good reason: Murphy, 50, believes his party’s political salvation lies in listening to the rural and conservative swathes of the population that Democrats have too often dismissed in recent years.

“I’m not saying that you’re going to steal 20 per cent of Trump’s base” by engaging such voters, he told me. “But you could have a meaningful conversation with about 10 per cent, and that would be good politics for my party, but it would also be really constructive for the country to have a conversation between people who are traditionally thought of as Hatfields and McCoys” – a reference to a legendary family feud in 19th-century Appalachia.

Such rhetoric usually gets a politician labelled a “centrist”. But if by centrism we mean merely a willingness to split the difference between two sides of an issue, Murphy is anything but. He’s a progressive whose Senate record garners him a 100 per cent rating from the National Education Association teachers’ union and a zero rating from the National Rifle Association. But he insists that the nation’s deepest crises won’t be solved by shutting out “folks in our country who may not align with us on 100 per cent of the issues we care about”.

The rolling crisis that has consumed American life since the financial crash of 2008 has entered a curious stage under President Joe Biden. On paper, GDP expanded by 5 per cent in the third quarter – the sort of growth we were once told would forever elude developed countries. Construction for manufacturing is spiking, inflation is edging down, and the jobless rate remains low by historical standards. Yet polls indicate broad discontent with the economy and the president overseeing it.

“I think the way we measure the health of the economy is disconnected from the way in which people experience the economy,” Murphy explained. “The unemployment rate matters. But if the jobs are all part-time, low paying and shitty, then people are going to care more about quality employment than just simple employment.”

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It isn’t only that flesh-and-blood people easily fall through the gaps in official statistics. It’s also that the public-policy apparatus has lost sight of what true human flourishing requires. It ignores our yearning for connection, community and belonging. Neoliberal capitalism proved especially acidic to working people’s sense of moral and material stability. And while Team Biden has been described fairly as the nation’s first post-neoliberal administration, Murphy worries his party isn’t doing enough to address working-class misery.

One sign of the disconnect was “Rich Men North of Richmond”, a country song released online in August 2023 that went viral and soon topped the Billboard charts. “I’ve been sellin’ my soul, workin’ all day,” wailed singer Oliver Anthony. “Overtime hours for bullshit pay.” True, the song included a verse about fat people on welfare – a common right-wing trope – but mostly, it vented rage at business elites and the Washington ruling class.

Murphy suggested that the sentiments expressed in the song should prompt his party to think hard about the dealignment between small-town America and the Democrats. For stating the obvious, he was mobbed by online lefties upset that the senator was appeasing the populist right.

Yet he remains unapologetic. “I’m really proud of what Democrats passed in the first two years of the Biden administration,” he said, citing infrastructure investment and boosting the federal government’s power to negotiate drug prices with Big Pharma, among other measures. Still, he added, “after we passed all that, it didn’t feel like people were feeling any better about their lives or about government”.

This should alarm Democrats because the right is doing a better job of tapping in to ordinary people’s anxieties. What launched his own “journey” on these issues was a deep reading of the New Right, most notably the Catholic political theorist Patrick Deneen. “I do think the New Right is having an energising conversation about how frustrated [Americans are] feeling with the pace of modern life,” even if he disagrees with their proposals.

Yet he also looks for points of collaboration with the populist elements of the right. “I see more and more significant support for labour unions from Republicans than I did five or ten years ago.” But even on labour, Murphy’s thinking goes beyond typical Democratic talking points. “I don’t want the right to think that my conversation about economic power and loneliness is just a stalking horse to build up unions. The growth of labour unions is an integral part of the growth of other civil-society institutions like churches and synagogues and mosques where people also find connection.”

Murphy is one of the lead Democratic negotiators on the US-Mexico border crisis, another source of friction between downscale Americans and his party. “Democrats might have a different idea of reform than Republicans do, but we should be reformers when it comes to our border. I’m testing the proposition that there are some new opportunities for the left and the right to find common ground.”

It might be the most important conversation in the United States today.

[See also: Donald Trump is yesterday’s man]

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This article appears in the 17 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trump’s Revenge