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Universal pre-K, which was once considered a pipedream for liberal Democrats, is coming closer to reality — because predominantly white conservatives in the deep red state of Alabama have decided to dream along with liberals. After decades of lobbying by early childhood advocates, local businessmen agreed to fund individual programs and initiatives, and used their influence with the staunchly Republican legislature to increase state spending on pre-K in 2012 by $9 million, up 47 percent from the year before. In the 2016-17 school year, that figure went up to $100 million. Now, the state is number 1 in pre-K quality, according to The National Institute for Early Education Research, resulting from a change in mindset about a historically progressive issue.

Students dance during an after school 'Love for Learning' night of activities with parents and children at the Byrd First Class Early Learning Center on February 12, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. The Byrd First Class Early Learning Center houses all of the city's pre-K students in one school.
Students dance during an after school ‘Love for Learning’ night of activities with parents and children at the Byrd First Class Early Learning Center on February 12, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. The Byrd First Class Early Learning Center houses all of the city’s pre-K students in one school. Credit: Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

My, how times have changed since when I worked in public schools in Louisiana! It was only 2014 when Bobby Jindal, then the Republican governor of that red state, stalled when he was offered $15 million in federal funds under the Obama administration to expand pre-K programs. Jindal eventually accepted the funds, but first he showed off his conservative bonafides by threatening to turn away money from a Democratic administration to fund a liberal priority. There seemed to be a dividing line that kept conservatives from transgressing in progressive territory.

Pre-K hasn’t been the only crossover issue. Last year, Republican legislators who vowed to dismantle the Affordable Care Act were put on the defensive by GOP supporters who demanded that their representatives instead maintain or improve upon the law. And in December, Congress passed a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill, the First Step Act, something that the Democratic Party has been trying to pass for decades. Yet universal pre-K, healthcare and criminal justice reform were once considered too liberal even for establishment Democrats to take up, for fear that it would turn off white working-class voters.

For instance, the 1994 crime bill proposed by the Clinton administration included the Violence Against Women Act and an assault weapons ban, but the bill showed that he was tough on crime — at black people’s expense. With $9 billion for prison construction and $8 billion for 100,000 police officers, the bill was a cornerstone of the prison industrial complex, which disproportionately affected black people. Clinton clearly accommodated the racist fears of white working-class people. But the bill came back to haunt Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton when she ran for president in 2016. (I, for one, couldn’t let her Trump-like “super-predator” reference go.) My, how times have changed.

But the more things change, the more they remain the same. To wit, the unspoken but still obvious accommodation of white working-class voters that would have Democrats deny their own progressive ideals. Republicans in many areas are now embracing what were once considered liberal causes while establishment Democrats are still trying to prove they are conservative enough to be elected by white working-class voters, shrugging off good progressive ideas.

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On the campaign trail in 2016, Hilary Clinton presented a doomsday scenario if the progressives’ goal of a single-payer healthcare system was implemented, stating it would “end all the kinds of health care we know.” This was, I believe, an attempt to differentiate herself from her progressive challenger Bernie Sanders. But Clinton, who was Secretary of State in the Obama administration that passed the ACA, should know better than anyone that Obamacare was packaged as a step toward a single-payer system that delivers universal healthcare.

Republicans in many areas are now embracing what were once considered liberal causes while establishment Democrats are still trying to prove they are conservative enough to be elected by white working-class voters.

When Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, Democrats ramped up their shortsighted efforts to attract more of the working-class voters who supported Trump in 2016. Economic hardship, particularly among the white working class, was supposed to have been the reason these voters aligned themselves with Trump. Yet Gallup research showed that Trump voters are “slightly more likely to be employed and no more likely to be out of the labor force than those who see him unfavorably.” Meaning that Democrats were (and still are) chasing the wrong voting bloc. However, members of the Democratic Party are bending over backwards and throwing their progressive principles to the wind, trying to figure out the best way for Democrats to win working-class voters (read: white people) and to make sure they appeal to Middle America, another euphemism for white folk. (Because most politicians can’t conceive of the heartlands and black people in the same sentence.)

“There’s always been something problematic about the Democratic Party’s fixation on white working-class voters,” wrote political commentator Sally Kohn for The Daily Beast. “[W]hile the entire rest of the marketing and outreach universe has moved toward niche markets…the Democratic Party continues to treat its black base like an afterthought, or worse, an inconvenience.”

Let’s be real. Divisions in the Democratic Party aren’t between progressives and centrists, or radicals and the establishment, or protectionists and free traders. There is an existential crisis in the Democratic Party about whether white working-class voters should be at the center of the party. No one inside the party is going to be so explicit as to say, “The center of our party is reserved for white people,” but old-school members are coming very close.

Don’t believe me? Just listen to the advice that outgoing Indiana Senator Joe Donnelly, who lost to a Republican in the midterms, gave his fellow Democrats about not pushing for liberal causes and policies that only resonate with the coasts. “[W]hen you talk ‘Medicare-for-all,’” Donnelly told CNN in late December, “you start losing the people in my state. When we start talking about, ‘Hey, we’re going to work together with the insurance companies to lower premiums,’ that’s what connects.”

Related: Charter school leaders should talk more about racism

In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Terry McAuliffe, the former governor of Virginia, recently mocked the idea of a federal jobs guarantee — federally backed employment — and free college as “dishonest populism.” McAuliffe, who many consider a future presidential candidate, did acknowledge that Democrats need to be progressive, but his commentary completely missed the fact that pre-K in Alabama partly came out of a progressive effort to get universal pre-K. Obamacare and criminal justice reforms were also once considered out of reach. But they’ve come to pass, from a relentless pursuit of ideals. And the fact that McAuliffe even mentioned a federal jobs guarantee means that it’s part of the political discourse.

Democrats gained a majority in the house after the 2018 midterms partly because of unapologetic progressives such as New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and should have much to celebrate. Last week, to great fanfare, they ushered in an energetic, historic and diverse 116th Congress: the most women in a single class; the first Muslim women; and the first Native American women. Most of the increase in diversity has occurred in the Democratic Party. Republicans, on the other hand, are looking less and less like America, and more and more white and male.

Defeated Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill told CNN of Ocasio-Cortez this month, “I’m a little confused why she’s the thing…a bright shiny new object, came out of nowhere and surprised people when she beat a very experienced congressman.” McCaskill added, “[P]arts of the country that are rejecting the Democratic Party, like a whole lot of white working-class voters, need to hear about how their work is going to be respected, and the dignity of their jobs.”

Donnelly, McCaskill and others who lost to Republicans might advise their fellow Democrats not to pursue policies that would scare the white center of their purple states. But they are too shortsighted to see that their white constituents also want and need ideas that they deem too progressive. We may not know yet how to achieve free college for all, or a single-payer healthcare system, or universal early childhood services — but we are closer than we’ve ever been. Along with a federal jobs guarantee, these “pie-in-the-sky” policy goals will help form a social safety net that Americans, including white folk, will increasingly need in the future as blue-collar jobs that can support a family dwindle.

Remember, Obamacare was once deemed too progressive too, but now Republicans can’t get rid of it because their own supporters value what it gives them. The Democratic Party must continue pressing why their big ideas work for everyone — not just for working-class whites.

This story about quality Pre-K was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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