Nina Turner on How to Make the Democratic Party Great Again

The former Senator from Ohio and Bernie surrogate says the answer is plain and simple: "We need to give a shit about the people."

by Gabby Bess
Dec 8 2016, 2:50pm

Photo by Arun Chaudhary

Former Ohio Sen. Nina Turner does not have many kind words for her fellow Democrats. After spending the last year campaigning across the US for Sen. Bernie Sander's historic primary run to become the party's presidential nominee, the 48-year-old has seen what the Democratic party could stand for. Their showing in this year's general election, she says, is not it.

"They lost because they lost their way. They lost their message, they lost their focus, and they forgot why we really were—or are still, I hope—the party of the working people," she told me over the phone. Her voice was emphatic, and the grave post-mortem somehow seemed like the most uplifting thing I've heard since November 8. Turner was a staunch voice for progressives during the election, and she will be a crucial voice now.

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As it stands, the Democratic party is the largest apparatus with the power turn the country away from the dark path that Donald Trump, along with a Republican-controlled House and Senate, is leading it down. But to realize that potential, the Democrats have a lot of work to do. Turner, who now serves on the board of Sanders' Our Revolution, puts it more bluntly. "We need to give a shit about the people," she said.

She sees the results of election not as a victory for a demagogue spawned from reality television, but as a loss for Hillary Clinton. Indeed, Trump won with 25 percent of the nation's vote. Voter turnout was the lowest it's been in two decades. Where it mattered, the working class and middle class voters that make up the Democratic base did not feel moved to vote for Clinton's centrism and Wall Street ties. Throughout her campaign Clinton stressed the stakes were too high for people to sit this election out, but that is precisely what voters did.

It is in bad faith to blame them for it: They felt disenfranchised, and stayed home. According to Slate, the Democrats lost 1.17 million people with incomes under $50,000 in the Rust Belt states who voted for President Obama in 2012.

Trump only energized 335,000 additional voters in those states who were not deterred by his blatant racism, sexism, and xenophobia—and certainly some who were actively motivated by it—to believe in his promise that he was going to make America great again. All of Trump's promises to fight for regular Americans are already proving to be hideous lies. This year's election should be a lesson in what happens when people have no choices.

Working class men and women deserve a champion.

"The Democratic party didn't have a compelling reason for people to come out to vote," Turner explained. "Just being anti-Trump, as we see, did not work. The party should have been aspirational and talked about why we are the party of the people and why our platform matters."

Turner saw firsthand how the Democrat's campaign—which tested slogans like "America Is Already Great," often had to attempt to spin establishment politics as experience, and was riddled with flip-flops that made Clinton's newly-adopted progressivism seem disingenuous—failed to resonate with people in her state. "Ohio suffered, like a lot of Midwestern states, under the weight of trade deals that really diminished a lot of good-paying manufacturing jobs; a lot of the blue collar workers in the state are suffering, just like many of their counterparts across the country. I'm not terribly surprised that Mr. Trump won Ohio," she said.

"As much as President Obama deserves a lot of credit for helping to pull our country out of the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, that still doesn't ameliorate all of the challenges that working class families have," she continued. "The working class and middle class in this country have not seen increases in their wages and their relative wealth. They find their quality of life diminishing because they have to work more jobs just to keep up with what they had five or ten years ago. We have a millennial generation that is not doing as well as people who were their age ten and even twenty years ago. They're saddled with debt if they even do decide to go to college. The quality of life prospects are bleaker than they were and people are working harder."

Nina Turner and Bernie Sanders. Photo by Eric Elofson.

Turner says she can't help but think Sanders' democratic socialism should have been the left's answer to Trumpism in an era where wealth inequality is at its peak. That the Democratic party "put their thumb on the scale in the primary" in favor of Clinton, she says, is just another example of what went wrong. "If [Sen. Sanders] went head-to-head with Donald Trump, I believe he would have won because he believes in the people," she said. "Working class men and women deserve a champion. They're tired of people just telling them what they want to hear to get elected and they don't necessarily follow through."

The task for the Democratic party now is to get ready for the state elections in 2018 by organizing the party around those very people. Republicans currently control the majority of state governments and winning some of those elections could really make a difference in the tenor of the country. "We always focus in on the Presidential election, and Republicans are focused on governors' mansions and state legislatures, and that is why they are in full control of 25 of them. It shouldn't be the case that the party that shut down the government in 2013, gives tax breaks to the wealthy, and leaves the middle and working class on their own is winning," Turner said.

"We have to pay attention to [Trump] voters, but we can't throw away the coalition of progressive people of color and progressive whites who really make up the majority, about 51 percent," she added. "Black and Hispanic people are disproportionately impacted by income inequality, but the white working class has lost a lot of economic ground, too. Both can be true. We need to pull in everyone who is suffering and acknowledge their pain, not continue to bombard them with stats about how the unemployment rate is down and Obamacare is the best thing since sliced bread."

The Democrats could take a lesson from Our Revolution: The organization has been stumping for progressive candidates up and down the ballot. Last week the call team rallied around Julie Nitsch, who is running for the Austin College Community Board of Trustees on a platform of affordable childcare for student parents. The rest of us, meanwhile, should become just as deeply invested, Turner says. "I want people to be mad as hell," she said. "Be mad as hell and work toward something. Find an issue and find a candidate that you believe in."