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Who’s Really Left Behind?: Reconnecting with Middle America Requires More than Messaging 

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

One of the many unintentionally revealing outpourings of anguish from the Democratic elite in the wake of Hillary Clinton's rout came from Rep. Debbie Dingell, a longtime Washington insider.


Before the votes were cast in November, Dingell had an inkling that Mrs. Clinton might not be faring so well in the Michigan district that either Mrs. Dingell or her husband has held since the 1950s. Dingell was game for anything. "I took Bill Clinton grocery shopping that Saturday--too little, way too late," Dingell subsequently recounted in a Washington Post opinion piece.

A shopping center! It was that bad, Muffy!

The rust belt voters who decided the presidential race this year are so frequently described as people who felt "left behind" that you might be forgiven for believing the more enlightened parts of the country have been raptured into the skies in one of those Tim LaHaye end times novels in the "left behind" series. Well, in a sense, the coastal elites have been raptured up into a space far, far from the middle of the road Americans who deserted them in November, and now progressives like Ms. Dingell are eagerly searching for ways to "reach out" to the "left behinds," people who live in the real world (and who have votes, the main factor recommending them to the coastal elites).

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the San Francisco progressive millionaire, who has presided over the loss of 63 House seats, 10 Senate seats and 12 governorships--not to mention Nancy's speakership--since President Obama took office, says that the problem is "messaging." Democrats just need to learn how to talk to these exotic specimens of humanity in the rust belt. In other words, they just need Rust Belt Berlitz classes to learn to speak the language of the indigenous peoples of flyover country. Rep. Tim Ryan, the Ohio congressman who mounted an unsuccessful charge against Pelosi for the minority leadership post, agreed that to some extent the Democrats had primarily a communications problem but called for "a new message, and a new messenger" to "connect with" voters in middle America. Ryan's voting record was so similar to Pelosi's that, other than trying to speak the supposed language of middle America, he would not have made fundamental changes. But it is a moot point. On Wednesday, Democrats voted for the old messenger, and likely their attempts at a new message will fail to address the deeper policy and cultural issues that made so many voters say eight years of relentless progressivism were enough.


But, when you get past messaging, are the Democrats willing to make any changes that help them connect with, or placate, voters who appear less sophisticated in the eyes of the Democratic leadership? How about Planned Parenthood funding with taxpayer money? Many rust belt voters may find themselves unclear as to why their own hard-earned taxpayer money should be given to an organization that pays its well-coiffed president Cecile Richards a salary of $427,597 a year ($590, 928 when benefits and retirement are factored into the equation). This is not to attempt to evoke envy but to point out that normal people are likely to find this largess with their money puzzling and no messenger, no matter how savvy, can explain that away.

Democrats who believe that it is just a matter of messaging strategy should step back and recognize that their party has gone too far in certain directions and that normal, middle of the road voters, deplorable as this is, are more inclined to sympathize with those who see their lives go up in flames, frequently small family businesses, destroyed by a howling mob than with the howling mob itself. So far, Democrats seem unwilling to criticize Black Lives Matter and those fueling destructive protests or to stand up for the hard-working black community, whose members are bearing the brunt of those riots and attempts to neuter the police. There is no way to make such policy directions more palatable simply by packaging them differently.

Nothing looked so out of touch with regular people than Hillary Clinton's messaging of striving to shut down coal mines, and then, when confronted by a miner, offering to replace the lost jobs with job training programs. What genuine adult would prefer job training to a job? Attempting to dress this policy idea up in poll-tested language isn't going to hide the reality. Democrats would have to reevaluate their priorities and decide to downgrade the demands of the rich, radical environmentalists—who also tend to be major donors—in favor of commonsense environmental policies with a consideration for hard hat jobs. That's a change I wouldn't count on.


Culturally, the distance is great, too. You have to have a heart of stone to begrudge Hillary Clinton the innocent pleasure writ on her face when surrounded on stage by the likes of Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Jay Z or assorted rappers. News flash: normal people out in the hinterlands by the time they have reached a certain age are likely to regard Lady Gaga as weird and find rap lyrics even more vulgar than Donald Trump's mouth. Rapper YG's promise to distribute "F--k Donald Trump" bagels is not the sort of thing one wants the kiddies to hear in more upright (and adult) parts of the country. Rust belt voters also are likely to be put off at the notion of paying higher taxes to provide "free" college so kids can learn to dislike their roots and protest over weighty matters such as hurtful Halloween costumes (while avoiding getting a serious education).

But it is not the adult people of middle America, the people tempered by economic travails of the last eight years, but still valuing faith and work, who are left behind. It is the Democrats who are left behind--left behind with their vulgar and puerile culture, which they believe is cool, and left behind with the notion that they can regain the votes of hard-working people in flyover country by tinkering with "messaging."

They risk being left behind permanently if they can't change, not just the wrapping paper, but some of their policies and attitudes, too.

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