A memo released a few days by Democracy Corps, based on interviews with working-class voters in Florida and Ohio, has not gotten the attention it deserves. It underscores how deeply working-class people sense that there is something fundamentally wrong with the American economy, and that both the conservative wrecking crew in Congress and the green-shoots cheerleaders on the other side are out of touch with what these voters expect of their leaders.
Erica Seifert, a senior associate with Democracy Corps, participated in those focus group sessions, and in this interview we discuss some of the insights that emerged.
As the memo makes clear, what these voters see is an economy that is fundamentally stacked against them. Yes, there are signs of “recovery,” but it is not necessarily a recovery for them. One of the biggest concerns that emerged is that “American jobs have been fundamentally restructured to pay less,” with the consequence that heads of households have to work as many as three jobs instead of just one or one-and-a-half – and even with three jobs they still struggle to make ends meet. “You have to work twice as hard to make half as much as you used to” was a typical comment from a focus group participant.
What is also potentially worrisome is that these workers “have downsized and adapted their expectations for a good economy.” Their hopes are simple: a few dollars left over at the end of the month to put into a savings account, an increase in pay a year from now. Beleaguered voters too tired and beaten down to agitate could be fertile ground for politicians who would continue the very policies that have resulted in these voters feeling tired and beaten down.
Yet as these voters feel themselves sinking in this new, more brutal and inequitable American economy, they are looking for champions. These are the people who will articulate what these voters intuitively know – that four decades of conservative ideology has resulted in an economy rigged in favor of the wealthy and corporations as the expense of the middle class and the financially struggling, and strong measures are needed to dismantle the rigging and make the economy fair for all.
They also know that we should be investing in the future – that we should not be foregoing needed investments in our public assets in the name of fiscal austerity or turning public assets into private profit centers. They know that shortchanging public education and loading down college students with debt is doing real harm to individuals and to the overall economy. And while they distrust government, thanks in part to years of right-wing anti-government propaganda, they instinctively know that government functioning for and empowered by the people is a core part of making the economy work again for working people.
The only question is who will step forward in the coming weeks and months to articulate a compelling vision that will unite these economically struggling voters into a potent, progressive political force.