In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt and other Democrats swept into power in a landslide largely because they championed working class issues. Yet in 2016, fortunes weren’t so good for Roosevelt’s party, as Republican Donald Trump won a historically high number of working-class and pro-labor voters, propelling him to the presidency.
I saw this shift on the ground here in Pennsylvania, a state which hadn’t voted Republican in decades, yet went for Mr. Trump in 2016.
Lackawanna County (where I serve as president of Scranton City Council) is a good case study in what happened. President Obama won it with more than 63 percent in 2012, yet Hillary Clinton got barely 50 percent. The reason? Donald Trump focused on the issues that matter to this community, such as the loss of manufacturing jobs. Many people felt ignored by Mrs. Clinton – including me, a Democrat that voted for Donald Trump.
For Democrats to win over voters like me, they need to return to their roots and, as many top labor unions are urging, restore the party’s focus to kitchen table economics and the key issues that affect so many working-class Americans.
So far, many of the 2020 presidential candidates seem to be at least attempting to acknowledge this. However, we must always be vigilant that we do not lose sight of the working women and men we seek to represent.
Hillary Clinton’s approach to Pennsylvania is a great example of this. Pennsylvania is supposed to be Hillary’s second home. Virtually every poll suggested she would own Pennsylvania. Yet, when she visited Pennsylvania, she mostly confined her visits to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. She treated the rest of Pennsylvania like fly-over country that her campaign didn’t need to bother with. When she did come to the Northeast, it wasn’t to rally working class Pennsylvanians. It was to rub elbows with high-dollar donors. In essence, she lost touch with the working class and it showed in both her message and in where she spent her time here.
President Trump was an entirely different story. He visited Northeastern Pennsylvania frequently. He held rallies in Scranton and Wilkes-Barre and really connected with the people who live and work here by talking about issues that matter to them. Within days of becoming the Republican Party’s nominee, one of Trump’s first stops was Scranton.
Democrats should also be a little more selective in what groups they align with. Here in Scranton, for instance, we have several great labor unions I’ve worked with – the Fraternal Order of Police and International Association of Fire Fighters, for example. However, not all unions are the same, and supporting the wrong ones could hurt Democrats’ political chances.
For example, the United Farm Workers union in California recently showed during the Gerawan Farming incident that, sadly, it didn’t support the interests of its members.
In the early 1990s, the UFW abandoned workers at Gerawan Farming, depriving them of the representation they were owed. The union then came back 20 years later and tried to impose a harmful new contract that the workers hadn’t negotiated or asked for, lowering their take-home pay and depriving them of their right to continue striking. The workers pushed back.
The response from Democratic lawmakers was to side with UFW leadership and kill legislation that would have protected workers from this type of treatment. It didn’t stop there. Democrats on the Agricultural Relations Board went so far as to block recognition of the workers’ election to leave the UFW over their treatment, forcing the workers to seek relief in the court which was ultimately granted.
I’ve been involved in labor contract negotiations, and let me tell you, this one was a real blunder. The workers stood up to demand better treatment, but the union leadership ignored them, and the Democrats supported the leadership over the membership of the UFW.
I bring this up as a classic example of where Democrats have lost their way and because of that, are losing elections. Democrats should have listened to the working people represented by this union. They didn’t. They sided with leadership over membership. The same can be said of the 2016 election.
Democrats need to stop ignoring working-class voters, return to their working-class roots, and listen to the membership over the leadership. If they don’t, I believe they will be just as disappointed in November 2020 as they were in 2016.
Pat Rogan, first elected to the Scranton City Council as a Democrat in 2009, currently serves as its president.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.