The Throwback Democrat

Sherrod Brown could help his party win back white working-class voters—but he’s out of sync with the mercilessness of American politics.

Sherrod Brown
Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Ordinarily, Senator Sherrod Brown isn’t given to high rhetoric. He speaks in a guttural rumble that acts as a physical restraint on flights of oratory. His graying, incorrigibly unruly hair imposes a check against self-importance. He tosses out self-deprecatory throwaway lines that show an appreciation of political absurdity (“If you go to Nevada and you say Ne-vah-da, you’re disqualified”). His manner—open, unpretentious, amused—reflects his political values, which have something to do with individual dignity and human solidarity.

When we spoke recently, he explained those values by quoting three sources. The first was the Bible, Matthew 25—the story of the sheep and the goats, in which Jesus separates the righteous from the unrighteous according to whether they fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, tended the sick, and visited the imprisoned: “Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

Brown has always loved this passage, but in one way it troubled him. The notion of “the least of these” offended his egalitarianism. He couldn’t imagine a great religious leader, whether Jesus, Muhammad, Moses, or Buddha, claiming any human being inferior to any other. A few years ago, Brown found an edition called the Justice and Poverty Bible, in which the verse was translated more to his liking: “Whenever you did it for any of my people, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you did it for me.”

I pointed out that this version was less poetic.

“It is less poetic,” Brown said. “But it’s also more just.”

We were sitting at a long table in the gray-carpeted, barely decorated conference room of Brown’s office on Capitol Hill—an unlikely setting for either poetry or justice. But Brown was getting to the heart of his moral philosophy, and he moved on to the second source—lines from a 1967 speech by Martin Luther King Jr.:

If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, go out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures. Sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and Earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.”

These first two are favorite quotations; Brown pulled them out when he won reelection in November. The third isn’t the sort that politicians generally cite. It comes from Tolstoy’s Resurrection—his last and most obscure novel, about a well-to-do man who forces himself to experience the misery and degradation of those lost souls in society’s lower depths. The novel makes us see what horrors we accept as normal when we allow ourselves to feel no love for other human beings. Brown quoted a phrase about a certain church official named Toporoff—a man “like all those who are quite destitute of the fundamental religious feeling that recognizes the equality and brotherhood of men.”

“Underpinning all faiths is really a belief that all people are equal,” Brown said, “whether you street sweep, or whether you write for The Atlantic, or whether you run for office.”

You don’t hear politicians talk about “the equality and brotherhood of men” any more. It sounded to me like Eugene Debs, the great socialist leader of the early-20th century. “Jeez, don’t put that down,” Brown said, before acknowledging that with Debs pretty much forgotten, the comparison would have no effect one way or the other. Even “the dignity of work”—the name Brown has given to the tour that he’s currently taking through Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada with his wife, Connie Schultz, a Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist—feels nearly outmoded. The language asks a lot of us. It asks more than many voters want to give. It’s out of sync with the mercilessness of American politics today, and completely antithetical to the selfish cynicism of the current president, a man like Toporoff: “At the bottom of his heart he believed in nothing, and found such a state very convenient and pleasant.”

If you’re going to talk about “the equality and brotherhood of men,” you’d better mean it, and you’d better live it. Brown grew up comfortably in Mansfield, Ohio—his father was a doctor and his mother a social activist—and he attended Yale, where he majored in Russian studies. (Schultz forbids him from speaking Russian in public.) He was elected to the Ohio state legislature right out of college, in 1974, and he learned his trade by hanging around local union halls and listening to the members talk about their lives, troubles, hopes. In other words, Brown discovered Tolstoy before he discovered the working class. In the shallow version of American politics, he would have had to choose between bookish idealism and the cause of ordinary people. Instead, his love of the first nourished his commitment to the second.

Brown’s whole career—eight years in the state legislature, eight more as Ohio’s secretary of state, seven terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, and his current third term in the Senate—has been a steady, if unspectacular and often losing, fight for the well-being of working people. Class politics is in his marrow. On a table in his reception area sit a miner’s safety lamp, a United Mine Workers beer stein, and a plaque with a caged canary, a symbol of the progress made in workplace safety in the past century. Instead of a senatorial pin, he wears a canary on the lapel of his union-made-in-Ohio suit. He has been talking about unions, adequate wages and benefits, affordable housing and prescription drugs, access to health care, and unfair trade deals long after it ceased being fashionable, and long before it became fashionable again.

Brown’s approach to politics is a kind of throwback: He wants to return to a period when the American middle class was strong and secure, and its champion was the Democratic Party. He and Schultz almost named their rescue mutt after their fellow midwestern liberal Hubert Humphrey. Only the Vietnam War and the unloveliness of Humphrey’s first name made them turn instead to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Brown has devoted more energy to defending the remnants of the New Deal than to crafting sweeping legislation. His work on foreign policy is comparatively thin, and even on domestic issues his policy ideas lack the boldness of Elizabeth Warren’s and Bernie Sanders’s—he hasn’t come out with his own proposal for a wealth tax or single-payer health insurance. But he has an authentic passion for the people whom the policies are intended to help.

His social views are in step with his party. He is pro-choice in a socially conservative state; in 1996 he voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, which many Democrats supported; he recently called President Donald Trump a racist on national television. Yet he manages to be a die-hard liberal without giving the impression that he intends to upend tradition or challenge the virtue of anyone who disagrees with him. His concern for people who do hard, underpaid work is so evident that some of them might overlook positions of his that they abhor. “In Zanesville or Youngstown, they know I’m pro-choice, always have been. They know I’m for marriage equality 25 years. They know I have an F from the NRA,” he said. “But they also know I want their kids to be able to go to Eastern Gateway Community College if they want, or Youngstown State, and they know I’ll vote for the overtime rule, and they know I’ll fight for unions, and they know I’ll fight against Trump—against every president screwing them on trade, as this president is starting to.”

Nothing would test the proposition that the Democratic Party can regain its old working-class base like a presidential candidacy of Sherrod Brown. He has a strong record on issues of race and gender, but you’re less likely to hear him speak of patriarchy and white supremacy, let alone intersectionality, than of justice, equality, and dignity for all people. It’s a real question whether this will make him acceptable to progressive activists today.

He calls himself a populist. When I asked whether populism has a dark side—xenophobia, racism, reaction—he refused to surrender the word to the right. “Did you ever read Agrarian Rebel?” he asked, citing C. Vann Woodward’s study of the late-19th-century populist Tom Watson of Georgia. “He evolved into a racist, not a racist populist. I don’t think a populist can be racist. Populism isn’t racist; it’s not anti-Semitic; it doesn’t divide people; it doesn’t give tax cuts for the rich; it doesn’t keep people down. There’s a coal-mine owner in Ohio, a guy named [Robert E.] Murray, nonunion coal mines. Some paper called him a populist because he says he is. No, he isn’t. He’s a coal-mine operator that screws everybody.”

Brown’s idea of populism is working people of every color joining together. “The best example of populism is when poor whites and poor blacks, led by Watson and whoever the black leaders were at the time [came together] … That’s what real populism is. It’s taking on money, it’s taking on influence, it’s taking on privilege.” But after the populist defeat of 1896, Watson abandoned interracial politics and embraced an especially vicious brand of racism and anti-Semitism, while remaining a bitter critic of corporations and banks. This turn allowed him to ascend the ranks of the Georgia Democratic Party and eventually win election to the Senate. Whether or not the late Watson should be called a populist, his career shows populism’s fragility, its susceptibility to demagogues. The idea of the equality and brotherhood of men runs like a bright gleam throughout American history, but at every turn hatred is waiting to snuff it out.

Brown doesn’t distinguish between workers of different races (except to point out that while white workers have it bad, blacks have it worse). For him, the dignity of work is a universal term. But it’s impossible not to make the distinction when, in Ohio and elsewhere, working-class white and black voters largely support opposing candidates, and especially when the favorite candidate of many white workers makes no secret of his bigotry. Brown implied that he has the ability to reach both groups. Perhaps too wishfully, he attributes Trump’s victory in Ohio in 2016 to flat wages, not racism. More realistically, he acknowledged that the vast swath of the country between Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and St. Louis—except for a few cities such as Columbus and Chicago—has grown more conservative as its population ages and its demographic makeup stagnates. His support in the blue-collar Mahoning Valley around Youngstown has been in decline throughout his Senate career, but he still won reelection last November with almost 60 percent of the vote in that region. He was the only Ohio Democrat to win statewide, with a margin of almost 7 percent; in 2016, Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 8 percent.

These numbers suggest that Brown might be the kind of Democrat who can win in what he called the “four states that most matter”—Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. (“Florida matters, but they always steal in Florida, so who knows.”) But his weakness as a candidate is the possibility that he embodies a party that no longer exists. If Democrats deepen their image as a bicoastal party of educated and urban voters who feel less and less solidarity with older, whiter residents of the heartland, then the four states that most matter might remain out of reach in 2020.