• Language that Everybody Understands: Talking to Representative Debbie Dingell

    How should Democrats discuss their political vision for 2021 and beyond? How can they win back the respect of workers who feel left behind? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Representative Debbie Dingell. Dingell serves Michigan’s 12th District in the US House of Representatives, where she has made it a priority to provide a Midwestern perspective on concerns of working families. As a member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Dingell has emphasized initiatives to invigorate domestic manufacturing, improve access to quality affordable health care, support seniors and veterans, and protect the Great Lakes. Recognized as one of the 25 hardest-working members of Congress, Dingell focuses on forging bipartisan solutions. Before being elected to Congress, Dingell worked in the auto industry for more than three decades, including as President of the General Motors (GM) Foundation, and as a senior executive responsible for public affairs. She also has chaired the Wayne State University Board of Governors.

    Our conversation (centered on Dingell’s role as one of four co-chairs of the recently restructured House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, as well as on the Democratic Party’s medium-term future) took place during the final days of 2020.


    ANDY FITCH: Some congressional Democrats (Pramila Jayapal, for example) recently have described to me the need to reframe certain political discussions from a perspective of morals and values — not only a tactical perspective of electoral or legislative strategy. What do you see as a few pressing moral visions for the broader Democratic Party to unite around, to make vivid for the American public, and to fight for?

    DEBBIE DINGELL: I’ll start with how COVID has provided the opportunity for Americans to really see and understand the fractures around healthcare in this country. As the only industrialized nation that doesn’t guarantee all of its citizens access to healthcare, we face the pressing moral questions of: is healthcare a human right? Is clean water a human right? Which basic necessities of living should all of us have access to?

    Too often, we’ve let others define these issues in our public conversations. But if you ask some of the toughest conservatives (who call Medicare for All a “socialist” project), they also believe someone sick should be able to see the doctor, and afford the prescribed medicine, and not have to worry about losing their workplace insurance or seeing their benefits reduced — and then winding up with even higher costs and longer waiting times. When we discuss issues like these in terms of morals and values, the other side doesn’t get to define the whole debate. People understand what we’re trying to accomplish. They can see that establishing a basic right to healthcare will make their families and their neighbors better off.

    Some congressional Democrats (Sheldon Whitehouse, for example) recently have offered a stark contrast between Democratic tendencies to gravitate towards overheated public debates, and Republican tendencies to pursue change (or at least preserve power) through less high-profile procedural or institutional means. Where do you see the need for a more strategic, persistent, implementable, and sustainable approach when it comes to the Democratic Party’s coordination of its communications and policy initiatives?

    Again, we have to do a better job of articulating our vision, and defining what we want to accomplish. We also have to stop attacking each other. I’ll offer an example from the past and then take this into the future.

    So first, going back to getting Social Security passed, I’ll admit to a little bias here. My father-in-law helped to pass our Social Security laws. At that time, America had old people living on the street, with nobody taking care of them. Our country eventually had to recognize how much worse off many of our older people were, compared to older people in other countries. So Congress introduced Social Security, and some politicians called it a communist idea. My father-in-law actually had crosses burned on his lawn. Can you imagine anybody responding like that to Social Security today?

    But as Democrats, I think we often make the mistake of talking in big words. Progressives in particular don’t always use language that a working man or woman and their families and friends could bring to the dinner table, to start a conversation. I think we need to do better talking in language that everybody understands. So what does a working family want? What does every American deserve? They should make enough money to put enough food on the table. They should have equal opportunity. They want to buy a home or rent an apartment in a safe neighborhood. They want to send their children to a school and college that will give them a good future. If someone in their family gets sick, they want that person cared for by the right doctor, and able to afford the prescribed medicine. They want a safe and secure retirement. That may all sound basic, but that’s what we’re fighting for.

    We have far too many Americans working in poverty. And quite frankly, the value that we put on various jobs also needs rethinking. COVID should make us all reassess the value of certain job categories. What does it mean that we started 2020 assuming a lot of people didn’t deserve 15 dollars an hour, and then these very people were the glue that held our whole society together? We need to put more value on the work they do, and articulate that, and really appreciate that.

    And again, we need to discuss these issues in a way that people can understand, from their own perspective. We can’t always communicate in such abstract or idealistic ways. We need to talk to people across the country on their own terms. I particularly feel this in the Midwest, where people think that the coastal elites drive so many of their problems, and can’t seem to recognize that Americans across this country, working men and women in a plant, on a farm, in a school, in a grocery store, driving a bus — they’re just really good people who want to make a decent living and give their family a good quality of life.

    Well Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb recently argued in this column that: “One fundamental value we as Democrats hold in our hearts and in our guts tells us that we don’t leave people behind…. We don’t forget the people struggling and the people hurting. And yet, the Democratic Party has done all of that to rural voters since the 1980s. We have left rural Americans behind. We have stereotyped them. We have written them out of the policies that we most fiercely fight for.” Where do you see the Party most needing to devise 50-state solutions, for which most daunting 21st-century challenges?

    I agree with her on us leaving many rural areas behind. We also haven’t done enough for a whole lot of working men and women. I mean, four years ago, I told the media: “Donald Trump could win.” Everybody laughed at me. But Trump talked about certain issues that really mattered to many working people, and made them feel understood. I’ll never forget what happened to the auto industry in 2008, and not just the auto industry. People in manufacturing jobs across this whole country had thought that if you worked hard, and played by the rules, your job was safe and your future was secure. But suddenly it wasn’t. That fear and anxiety still lives in the hearts of many working men and women.

    And then specifically in rural communities, you have Big Farm getting all these subsidies and breaks, and nobody caring about independent farmers trying to save their land. A family might have passed down its farm from generation to generation. But today the government works against this family protecting the farm it has held onto all that time. Many of those farmers probably have good reason to think many Democrats don’t give a damn about them. Many auto workers don’t think Democrats give a damn about them — and they still thought that in the 2020 election. They see trade policies shipping their jobs overseas. They see their children having fewer job opportunities. They feel stuck competing in this global marketplace with nobody looking out for them. They deserve our respect. And we as Democrats need to earn their respect.

    Then when you talk about 50-state solutions, obviously climate change and the environment stand out. Whether or not somebody participates in the intellectual discussions, they can see the wildfires and hurricanes. They can feel the new threats to their local economy. But it’s also hard to look far into the future when you sense your own job might disappear. So again, we need to talk about these very important issues in the right way. We need to make clear that protecting our environment will also mean protecting jobs, and keeping jobs here.

    So look, I’m a Michigan girl. My best examples come from home. As we move towards electric vehicles we need to build consumer confidence that we’ll have the infrastructure and the battery range. But right now, most of the battery production and a lot of the innovation happens overseas. We need to find ways to rebuild our own manufacturing base.

    I also believe very strongly that when the government accepts bids at the federal level, we can’t always just look at cost as the main concern. We often need to make national security one of the top criteria. We can’t depend on other countries to develop our future car batteries. We should build them here. We hopefully have learned from COVID that we never should just depend on India and China for our medicines and PPE. Or today China actually builds a lot of our electrical grid and its generators. What does that mean in terms of the software used, our understanding of how it works, our security? And for all of this we need to ask: how can we better support manufacturing and manufacturing jobs in this country?

    Just before the election, Sherrod Brown emphasized to me the need for Democrats, for all voters, for Americans in general to feel tangible benefits right away from Joe Biden replacing Donald Trump as President. What legislative steps will congressional Democrats likewise need to take in 2021, to fend off possibilities for a 1994- or 2010-style midterms outcome in 2022?

    Sure, in this committee we’ll need to focus on that. But first, most broadly, I’ve never seen this country more divided — and I’m a student of history. I wrote my master’s thesis on civility in Congress, and how that reflected on the country. But we’ve been just torn apart in recent years, and it’s not just Donald Trump.

    Joe Biden, thankfully, knows how to work across the aisle, how to bring people together. And I think right now our country needs, first and foremost, somebody with empathy and compassion and a knack for helping us to heal. So if he can somehow find a way to start bringing Americans together again, that seems like the most important first step.

    At the same time, we can’t even begin to address America’s economic needs unless we have an effective national COVID strategy. President-elect Biden has shown leadership on that, by quickly naming his COVID task force. Over the next six months, if we can get enough Americans vaccinated, then our economy can start coming back, and our children can return to school, and many more people can return to work, and restaurants and many small businesses can reopen. But then we also need to answer ongoing questions like: what kind of economy do we want? How will it support people in manufacturing jobs and on small farms? What kinds of investment does it need, and how can we make sure it works for all Americans?

    And I know you asked about our domestic politics, but quite frankly, it also stands out to me (even just in the last week) how much we’ve damaged our relationships with the rest of the world, and have lost the trust of close allies and many other nations. We definitely need to build that back up. A lot of Americans might ask: why should we even get involved with all of those other countries? Why should we give foreign aid? So we’ll need to explain (again in understandable terms) the importance to our own national security of reconnecting with other countries around the world.

    Do you see specific ways in which the revamped DPCC organizational structure can help to carry out the goals you’ve discussed today?

    Well, I like how it forces us to work together, and with all segments of our caucus. Maybe the fact that we don’t have as big of a majority will get the whole caucus talking to each other more. As a legislator, I’ve always valued talking to people across the spectrum in my caucus, and reaching across the aisle to work with Republicans. My husband taught me all of that. But I see it as one of the biggest challenges we face right now. None of us has all the answers. Each of us has different life experiences and a useful perspective to offer. God gave us two ears and one mouth for good reason. We all need to listen more and talk less (especially in these first few months), so that we can respond and really help to heal this country.