Why Do So Many Americans Think Democrats Are Out of Touch?

The party appears to be struggling to convince the public it represents a better alternative to President Trump and the GOP.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)

If Democrats want to regain the power they’ve lost at the state and federal level in recent years, they will have to convince more voters they can offer solutions to their problems.

That may be especially difficult, however, if voters think the party and its representatives in government don’t understand or care about them. And according to a recently released poll, many voters may, in fact, feel that way. The Washington Post-ABC News survey, released this week, found that a majority of the public thinks the Democratic Party is out of touch with the concerns of average Americans in the United States. More Americans think Democrats are out of touch than believe the same of the Republican Party or President Trump.

A single poll shouldn’t be given too much weight on its own, but the results arrive at a time when Democrats are trying to understand what went wrong last year, and what they need to do to win over voters. The results raise questions over why exactly the public thinks the party is so out of touch.

“This should be a huge wake-up call,” said Tim Ryan, the Ohio congressman who made an unsuccessful bid post-election for House minority leader. “Having two-thirds of the country think that your party is in la-la-land, that’s a bombshell. That should wake everybody up,” the Rust Belt Democrat who represents a state that Trump won and has argued the Democratic Party needs to improve its brand said, “and we should, as a party, be woken up already by the fact that people took a chance on Donald Trump.”

There is nuance to the results of the survey. A closer look at the numbers shows that while a majority of Americans believe the Democratic Party is out of touch, most Democrats do not, though that’s only by a slim majority. Democratic voters do, however, seem to have less confidence in their party—at least at the moment—than Republicans do in theirs. A higher percentage of Republican voters, at 60 percent, said that the GOP is in touch with the concerns of most people, compared with just 52 percent of Democrats who said the same of their party.

One explanation for this dynamic could be that liberal voters are looking to rationalize the results of the election, while Republicans may feel instinctively that their party is doing a better job of connecting with voters—because they won.

The perception might also be rooted in how much power Democrats have lost at the state and local level. The party’s grip on state legislatures eroded dramatically during the Obama administation. Voters may doubt that Democrats understand the challenges they face if the party lacks a substantial presence in their state.

“I do think that there’s a lack of trust that has amplified and grown between voters in certain parts of the country and the party, but I think that’s fixable,” said Adam Parkhomenko, a former Hillary Clinton aide. “We have to have a big tent, and the national party has to support state and local parties so that we can invest in candidates who can compete everywhere in the country.”

As Democrats try to determine how to better appeal to voters, some Democratic lawmakers think the party needs to start with a compelling economic agenda.

Representative Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, believes the party needs to make a clear case that it will fight for the working class. During the campaign, she urged Clinton to talk more about trade—a popular issue of Trump’s—and she vocally opposed the Obama administration’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, an international trade deal that Trump campaigned against. “Democrats need to be out front on trade, and show that we are going to protect workers,” she said. “This White House isn’t exactly walking their talk, but Trump understood that people had seen their jobs shipped overseas, and they were afraid.”

Representative Ryan thinks the party understands the financial hardship that many Americans face, and has better policy prescriptions to help them than the GOP. But he’s not convinced the party has persuaded voters of that: “It’s a real problem for us that we are perceived as limousine, latte-drinking liberals,” Ryan said. “Democrats can’t just message our way out of this. We need to put out bold and aspirational initiatives that will excite voters to the point they want to associate themselves with, and work for, the Democratic Party.”

Another potential issue for Democrats may be the perception that party elites are too close to Wall Street. A key part of Senator Bernie Sanders’s case against Clinton during the presidential primary was that the Democratic front-runner was cozy with the financial industry. When news broke earlier this week that former President Barack Obama will accept $400,000 to speak at a Wall Street conference, Senator Elizabeth Warren, a leading progressive voice, said she was “troubled” by the news, while Sanders called it “unfortunate,” at a “time when people are so frustrated with the power of Wall Street and big-money interests.”

Sanders and Warren have built their reputations on a willingness to take on banks and corporations, and to call out Democrats not similarly inclined. But they’re not the only lawmakers who seem uncomfortable by Obama’s decisions. “I’m not judging him over it,” Ryan said. But, he added: “the optics of that are awful. That is playing right into the very same issue that we had to deal with during the election, of making more money in one speech than people in my district will make in 10 years.”

A spokesman for Obama released a statement earlier in the week suggesting that whatever ties the former president may have to Wall Street, they are not compromising. Yet some critics believe that, despite his support for financial regulatory reform, Obama was far from tough on Wall Street—and that Democrats need to reckon with the extent to which their party has let down the working class. “Democrats can’t win until they recognize how bad Obama’s financial policies were,” Matt Stoller, a fellow with the Open Markets Program at New America, wrote in The Washington Post after the election, arguing that Obama’s policy agenda concentrated power in the hands of corporate elites at the expense of less wealthy Americans.

Pramila Jayapal, a Democratic congresswoman from Washington state who Sanders endorsed, believes it’s important for the party to demonstrate to voters that it will work for average Americans and not corporate interests. She hopes future Democratic candidates will reject super PAC money—as one way to ease any doubts that might otherwise exist in the minds of voters. “I don’t believe that everyone who takes money from corporations is corrupt, but I think that when people do accept corporate money, voters start to question whether they’re basing their votes on that money,” she said.

As Democrats strategize over how to convince Americans they understand their problems, the party may have to decide how much to embrace—or distance itself from—the legacy of its last president. And its broader legacy, too. If nothing else, the fact that so many Americans appear to believe the party is out of touch suggests an opposition message alone won’t be enough to win back power in Washington. In Jayapal’s words, the party “need[s] to rebuild trust with voters.”

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