By Eric Timmons
What do Democrats in Wisconsin stand for?
After months of ads and mailers and bonfires of campaign cash, I have no idea, except that they’re not Republicans. As we saw, that was enough to win the presidency, despite Joe Biden’s anemic campaign, but at the state level it wasn’t nearly enough to overcome the GOP’s structural advantages.
Here in Wisconsin, Democrats need a bold agenda to build up a working-class coalition that can beat back entrenched conservatism in rural areas and win new support in cities. This year’s elections gave us a few clues on what that agenda could look like.
Deep red Oklahoma and Missouri both voted in favor of expanding Medicaid, a government-run health insurance program. Florida voted for Trump, yet also in favor of a $15 minimum wage. A large majority in Colorado voted to institute a paid family leave policy. South Dakota, Montana and Arizona all voted in favor of legalizing marijuana.
The results show that straightforward, material policies can cut across party lines, especially when divorced from spin and politicking. Issue-based campaigns that offer material benefits to the working class win. Consultant-driven centrism, phony symbolism, and substance-light appeals to partisan identity – in other words, regular Democratic Party campaigns – are less successful in general and completely hopeless across most of rural America.
The message for Democrats: Take a stand on bold policies. Run on material issues that offer tangible benefits to the people. And keep policies simple. Everyone understands a $15 minimum wage. An expansion of the earned income tax credit? Not so much.
On health care, Wisconsin stands as an island among its neighboring states, the only one not to have expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Democrats in Wisconsin do support Medicaid expansion but have been stymied by the GOP. Still, they should fight much harder on this issue and push to go further.
For example, why not allow all Wisconsinites access to public insurance through a BadgerCare for All system? Gov. Evers claimed to support such a program during his campaign, and in 2017 state Rep. Eric Genrich, D-Green Bay, and Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee, introduced a BadgerCare for All bill. The proposal would be a start, although there’s no real alternative to a national single-payer system, as proposed in the Medicare for All bills. But Democrats at the state level can push for expanded public insurance and use their platform to fight for single-payer at the federal level. This would be popular. A Fox News general election exit poll, much noted on the left, found that 72% of voters supported changing to a “government run health care plan.”
On the minimum wage, Wisconsin is also a laggard. Among our neighbors, Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois all have substantially higher minimum wages. Only Iowa is united with Wisconsin in still clinging to the paltry $7.25 an hour federal minimum. Critics will say few workers are actually paid the minimum and that group includes many young people starting their working lives. But the young deserve a living wage as much as anyone else. And boosting the minimum wage, by raising the floor, has an impact all the way up the wage chain. It’s also a winning policy. Unsurprisingly, the idea that a 40 hour work week should provide enough to sustain a decent living is widely supported across party lines. A $15 minimum wage (at least) would improve the lives of millions, and substantially boost demand in the overall economy, helping businesses big and small.
On marijuana, a large majority in Wisconsin back legalization, but Democrats remain far too timid in their support. The reason legalization is so popular and has swept much of the country is that it’s a policy that wins support across the spectrum, from the libertarian right to the social justice left, and one with little downside. It could also raise significant sums through taxation, which could then fund other progressive policies, perhaps in health care or the environment.
Finally, on paid family leave, the pandemic has made the need for this basic, fundamental right more apparent than ever. It’s absurd that the wealthiest country in the world lacks a robust national paid family leave policy and a reflection of the fact that corporations and the rich, rather than the working class, have far too much power in this country.
The Colorado Paid Family and Medical Leave Insurance Act, approved on Nov. 3 by a 15-point margin, will provide workers up to 12 weeks of paid leave per year for various qualifying absences, including to care for a family member with serious illness, or to bond with a newborn or a child placed through adoption or foster care. Polling has shown that paid family leave has broad bipartisan support, so much so that President Trump himself supported it as part of his 2016 campaign.
These four policies – a higher minimum wage, expanded public health care, paid family leave and legalizing marijuana – all have broad appeal across party lines and could be enacted at the state level. Many Democratic politicians already support them, but too often that support is tacit, or melts away when faced with opposition or grumbling from donors. Democrats in Wisconsin should put these policies front and center in their campaigns, and not just at election time. They should talk about them relentlessly. Campaign mailers should spell them out. They should be printed on yard signs and blasted across the web. Forget about scoring points over Republicans through some scandal dug up by consultants. Forget about delivering vague appeals to the mythical center. Give the working-class material improvements to their lives through universal programs, that’s how we win.
Top image: Striking fast food workers were joined by university workers, students, janitors, retail workers and airport workers in the Twin Cities calling for a $15/hour minimum wage and paid sick days. Fibonacci Blue/CC BY 2.0 Email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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