The endless debate about whether the Democratic Party will shift left or tack center overlooks a much more important dynamic: a shift in who occupies the center of the Party. As I’ve written in previous columns for the Arkansas Times, the nation’s ideological center is far more progressive than its establishment center. That’s why issues like universal health care, gun control and a jobs guarantee poll so well, despite their absence from the party’s platform before 2016. Americans are more progressive than our political parties give them credit for.
Ideological shifts shouldn’t be our focus in 2018 and beyond. As Vox noted, Third Way — a leading centrist think tank — isn’t offering any real alternative to the ideas put forward by more progressive groups. They are, in a sense, offering a watered down version of progressive ideas — more timid, to be sure, but without any real distinction from what critics often derisively term “the left.” Democrats are increasingly coalescing behind proposals like Medicare for All and free public college. Abolishing ICE and the rest of the surveillance state may not be far behind. Conversely, notions of a grand bargain that include dramatic cuts to welfare, Social Security and Medicaid have mostly been purged from the party.
At the heart of those shifts in policy has been a shift in power within the Democratic Party, driven by the rise of working-class candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Democratic congressional candidate in New York), Andrew Gillum (Florida gubernatorial candidate) and Mariah Phillips (Democratic congressional candidate in Tennessee), along with Arkansans Chintan Desai (Democrat running against 1st District U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford) and Josh Mahony (Democrat running against 3rd District U.S. Rep. Steve Womack). All have been endorsed by Indivisible this month. Though Republicans often fancy themselves champions of the working class, it’s Democrats who have long won their support, securing more than 50 percent of votes from those making $50,000 a year or less since at least 2008.
It is the working class’ ascendance — replacing the corporatists and donor class who once enjoyed control of both parties — that’s pushing the party toward a more progressive, populist center. That shift should be celebrated, as the party is being remade in the image of the coalition of voters who support it, what I’ve previously called the true center of American politics.
This phenomenon isn’t limited to the national party or reliably blue districts in coastal cities. It’s remaking the Democratic Party of Arkansas, too. The party’s chairman, state Rep. Michael John Gray of Blytheville, is a farmer — one who could have easily bowed to the pressure of Arkansas’s donor class, but instead chose to fight and organize his caucus in support of public education and Medicaid expansion in the last legislative session.
Wins by candidates like Gayatri Agnew (running against incumbent Rep. Jim Dotson of Bentonville for House District 93), who recently convinced the Arkansas Ethics Commission to approve the use of campaign contributions for child care while she’s campaigning, and Megan Godfrey (running against incumbent Rep. Jeff Williams of Springdale for House District 89), an ESL teacher in Springdale and one of the first candidates to offer English and Spanish language campaign materials, would likely accelerate the rise of working-class power in the state party.
This stands in stark contrast to the Republican Party of Arkansas. Though I’ve been critical of the DPA’s filing fees, they’re nothing compared to the cost of running for office as a Republican in Arkansas. In nearly every office on the ballot this November, GOP candidates paid almost twice as much to run for office — including $7,500 to run for the state senate. No working class person could afford to run as a Republican in Arkansas.
This is set against the backdrop of a seemingly endless parade of corruption within the state’s GOP. As the indictments, plea deals and convictions rolled in over the spring and summer, Republican leaders consistently showed themselves to be out of touch — Governor Hutchison, RPA Chairman Doyle Webb and prominent members of their caucus like State Rep. Charlie Collins (R-Fayetteville) seemed to be the last people in the state to denounce their colleagues for blatantly criminal behavior.
Perhaps the greatest insight from Ocasio-Cortez’s post-election media blitz was the argument that low turnout elections represent an opportunity for Democrats and that the needle can be moved in our favor by growing the electorate and catching incumbents off guard. Arkansas has one of the lowest election turnout rates in the nation; only West Virginia and Hawaii perform worse. If the blue wave comes to Arkansas, it will be because working-class voters hear and see themselves in the Democratic candidates on the ballot in November.