Those loudest voices on Twitter aren’t marginal. The platform has become a petri dish for the formation of elite opinion, with outsized power in the political press, and it has provided a lane for smart and clever people who deserve a voice to have one. But the convulsions of everyday Twitter, a small club of media elites and professional opinion-havers, are plainly disconnected from the concerns of most Democratic voters. There’s a real risk that otherwise smart, promising 2020 candidates begin to self-sabotage in their haste to appease this microscopic cluster of social-media activists just because they’ve got a megaphone. Democrats won the House last November—and a bucket of governorships—not by charging to the left, but by flipping Republican seats with so-called “moderate” candidates who were attuned to the concerns of middle class suburbanites and working class white women, primarily health care. Socialist, capitalist, feminist, white, black: the voters of 2018 cared little for labels. And those voters offer the best sample set for Democratic politics moving into 2020.
Eastern Iowa makes for a useful guidepost. Dubuque, a former manufacturing hub that’s transitioned into a more diverse modern economy, sits on the edge of the Mississippi River. It anchors Iowa’s first congressional district, which voted for Obama twice and then went for Trump in 2016. Democrat Abby Finkenauer re-captured the seat last year for the reasons mentioned above: she talked about health care, health care, and health care some more, studiously avoiding national culture wars and whatever Trump told Fox News last night.
Tom Townsend, the president of the AFL-CIO in Dubuque, called it an uncomplicated political formula that national Democrats seemed to have lost sight of before 2016. And yet, he told me, several of the Democrats currently running for president aren’t presenting a coherent rationale for their campaigns. “There are a couple I have talked to, and I don’t have a clue why they are running,” he said. “Other than they want to run.” One candidate who does make sense for many of his fellow workers, he said, is Sanders. “He talks to average people in a language they understand. It’s been a long time since people came to Dubuque and talked about real Midwestern issues, not what donors wanted to talk about or what national people want to talk about it. What people liked about Bernie is he was genuine. No one thinks he was making crap up to get corporate donations.”