Section: Opinion

Sherrod Brown’s populism shows 2020 path

On Jan. 30, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown spoke to a crowd of around 300 people in Brunswick, Ohio to kick-start his “Dignity of Work” listening tour. This tour will take him to Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. In his speech, Brown continued the fight from his 2018 reelection campaign to reclaim the mantle of “populism” from President Donald Trump. He criticized Trump for peddling what he calls “phony populism” that “distract[s] from the fact that he won the White House to enrich billionaires like himself.”

Brown’s embrace of the populist label — he won reelection convincingly this year while every other Ohio Democrat for statewide office lost — provides the Democratic Party with a strategy for taking on Trump in 2020. By portraying Trump as a “phony populist” rather than condemning populism writ large (as the liberal and “Never Trump” conservative commentariat love to do), Brown exposes Trump for the fraud he is while still acknowledging the legitimate economic grievances of his supporters.

This distinction will be key in the 2020 presidential election cycle. While spirited senate and gubernatorial campaigns by Democrats in Arizona, Texas and Georgia suggest those states may swing Democratic in the future, they cannot yet be counted on for electoral votes in 2020. No matter who they are, the Democratic nominee will have to fight to win back Trump voters in the Rust Belt states of  Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio.

But does this mean that Democrats will have to sacrifice their stances on issues like abortion, marriage equality, gun control and transgender rights to win back the heartland? Brown’s record suggests the answer is no. Since winning a seat in the Ohio legislature at age 22, Brown has kept a consistent liberal record on many issues. This includes voting against the Iraq War, supporting the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and advocating stricter gun control.

Brown can hold liberal positions on social issues because he is also has been a diehard defender of workers’ rights. He is well-known for opposing the North American and Central American Free Trade Agreements (which Trump ran successfully against in the Rust Belt). He is also a sharp critic of the banking and finance industries.

Brown’s motto for his 2018 campaign and his current listening tour, “Dignity of Work,” distills the broad appeal of working-class populism. In Brown’s words, the “Dignity of Work” means “we fight for all people, whether they punch a clock or swipe a badge, earn a salary or make tips, whether they are raising children or caring for an aging parent. And as we celebrate the dignity of work, we unify.”

The vast majority of people understand firsthand that the economy is not working fairly and that the billionaires at the top are making out like bandits while, according to CNBC, 40 percent of adults can’t cover a $400 expense. Uniting people around such a shared understanding has great political potential for a Democratic Party looking to unify its unruly big tent.

Running a campaign focused on forging a working-class coalition would not only put Democrats in the best position to beat Trump in 2020, but it would also build a movement that will hold the party accountable for passing the broad-based progressive solutions which polls show most voters support. This would strengthen the Democratic Party and differentiate Brown from Barack Obama and his 2008 presidential run. While millions of people were inspired by his charismatic call of “Hope and Change,” Obama let that enthusiasm fizzle out and give way to naive notions of post-partisan governance that were never realistic.

With the Republican Party under Trump practicing the politics of division and hate as a masquerade to advance the interests of the American oligarchy, Brown’s possible campaign (along with other self-proclaimed populists like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) can help the Democratic Party become the champion for the rest of us.

Nick Becker ’22 is an undeclared major from Pittsburgh, Penn. You can contact him at


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