Old Soul

Some learned friends in San Francisco were discussing the book “Hillbilly Elegy” last week as a view into another side of America, one that loves guns and sticks with Trump.

The book describes a family in Ohio that over the generations worked first in coal and then in factories, united by a love for church and family, riven by ill health and addiction.

There was a sense of “the other” in the San Francisco discussion, as though the book were about aliens in a strange land.

During the exchange, I was in a sense defending that world, because of long slogs in Oregon and Washington state working with my hands as I went through school. I spent my days with loggers and laborers, all white in the woods, all black on the concrete crews.

And come to think of it, I did ache to get back to my college friends by the end of the summer. But those guys – the crews were all men – were a varied, strong and memorable set of characters.

But the jobs they worked at, and supported their families with, and their unions that kept pressure on the company to pay fair wages – that is all gone.

The woodworkers union is defunct. The logging business is a ghost of its former self. The laborers union has been cut almost in half since those college years. Construction sites now mostly employ nonunion immigrants for the concrete work done in the past by unionized black crews.

The continuing failure of those aghast at the antics of President Trump to understand the long-term sense of loss and disenfranchisement among his supporters could well doom the hope of flipping the House and Senate this fall.

The empty factory buildings throughout the Midwest can be seen as standing symbols of the loss of the number of jobs that were done in those buildings. For the Democrats to allow Wisconsin, and in particular its blue-collar counties, to swing into the red column must remain as a rebuke that never ends, until they get back to addressing the fears and worries of the folks that used to work in those factories.

The Democrats say they get it, but that is not apparent from their publicity.

Their 2016 platform starts with an emphasis on jobs. But you have to hunt for the platform at democrats.org, while their social media reveals the unreformed operation that lost so many elections.

As I have belatedly discovered, social media can reach readers at exponential rates. But the Democratic Party’s Twitter site has pinned a three-month old tweet to the top of its page about a get-out-the-vote campaign.

The accompanying video features lecturing from Sen. Diane Feinstein and party leaders, all of it meritorious but not very exciting.

The second tweet shows a photo of Trump, with an indirect caption: “Trump’s drug plan isn’t as tough as his talk.” The third shows a picture of Iowa’s Republican Governor Kim Reynolds with a sarcastic caption about lack of school funding and breaks for millionaires.

The posts are not effective. The images are those of Republicans and the Democratic old guard. The attacks are oblique and fail to land with any force. To use Twitter-speak: BAD.

Contrast the Twitter feed of Bernie Sanders, who hits on similar themes. But his top three tweets are well packaged, timely and reinforce a steady political theme.

The first tweet on the Sanders feed gets at the issue of voting, with a sweeping proposal for reform. “Every American citizen over the age of 18 should be automatically registered to vote.”

The second attacks the issue of CEO pay: “We are dealing with a crisis of inequality and that is why we must start making the wealthy pay their fair share in taxes, not give more breaks to those at the top.”

And the third attacks again on the same issue with a tweet about net neutrality. It is accompanied by a video of Sanders framing the issue in terms of the “rich and powerful” against “the rest of us.”

His social media crew gets it. The points are simple and consistent. The images support the message.

The Democrats were once “the party of the working man,” which would now correctly translate as “the party of working men and women.” If they want to dent Trump’s working class support, they must search for and find that old soul in themselves.

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