As a matter of preference, television sitcoms rank somewhere behind handyman shows and zombie apocalypse series when it comes to my viewing habits. But like 25 million other Americans last week, I watched the societal/political phenomenon that is “Roseanne.”
For me, watching this working-class family struggle to make ends meet was eerily familiar.
I listened to people just like the Conners express their frustrations in many focus groups leading up to and after the 2016 election. I heard hardworking voters express their hopes and fears in places like Pittsburgh and Orlando, Columbus and Nashville. Not all were Donald Trump supporters. In fact, many were disillusioned working-class Democrats and independents who saw Trump as a risky — but the only — alternative to Hillary Clinton.
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These focus groups were sobering experiences. Every politician should be required to sit through a few of these as a requirement to run for office. You learn a lot.
Hitting the issues
Watching Roseanne Barr’s second act last week, I realized as I listened to her character vent about her family’s economic situation that she would have fit right in with most of these voters. Her issues in the sitcom were the same ones that drove the 2016 election — jobs and the economy coupled with people’s growing frustration that their government seems unable to deliver solutions to their problems.
In the opening episode, Jackie, Roseanne’s liberal sister, angrily asks her how she could have voted for Trump.
“He talked about jobs,” Roseanne fires back. “He said he’d shake things up.”
I heard, almost verbatim, these same words in focus groups as I tried to understand why people were seriously considering voting for Trump, despite many having real misgivings about his candidacy. It was stunning. Finally, a Hollywood political script got it right and did it with some good-natured humor. Fly-over country responded by giving the show’s premiere one of the largest audiences in sitcom history.
Headline: Hollywood discovers America!
The show played in places like Tulsa, Cincinnati and Kansas City. Manhattan and L.A.? Not so much. Neither city was in the show’s top 20 markets.
Why did the sitcom’s ratings set records? Like much of television today, it had a political take but unlike most programming, it was both funny and fair to a group used to being portrayed as, well, “deplorables” — working- and middle-class Americans who lean center-right.
Clinton’s learning deficit
Hillary Clinton lost the election largely because many voters thought she offered no clear economic plan to change their lives for the better. More than a year later, she doesn’t seem to have learned anything from her devastating loss to a man she clearly detests.
Her recent remarks have turned the former Democratic presidential nominee into the poster child for liberal elites whose reality is more likely to revolve around power yoga and resistance marches than coupon-clipping and making the mortgage.
In a speech in India, Clinton boasted that she “won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward.” She then went on to blast Trump’s message as backward-looking and regressive, implying that those who voted for him “didn’t like black people getting rights or women getting jobs.”
Clinton still doesn’t seem to understand why she lost, but Roseanne does. In a recent New York Times interview, the comedian described how little America has changed since the first “Roseanne” aired 30 years ago.
“Same jokes, same kind of thing,” she told Patrick Healy. “Just trying to get through paycheck to paycheck and handle it.”
She went on, “Having no jobs and people losing their homes and you know that never, ever being talked about on television.” She said she wants to tell stories about “how families are struggling and what they do about it.”
What does living paycheck to paycheck sound like? A middle-aged woman in a focus group told me she had less than $20 in her checking account to last until the end of the month. Her husband, she said, was wondering how they were going to buy groceries.
Another woman explained, “I can’t really afford to invest as much in my retirement because I’m living paycheck to paycheck as it is.” A fifty-something man in western Pennsylvania had churned through a series of blue-collar jobs when his skill set became obsolete. He worried, “I’ll never have a good job that I can retire from. If I could get a good paying job, that would be something to me.”
In our latest “Winning the Issues” survey just out of the field, 54 percent of Americans still say they are living “paycheck to paycheck.”
To many in the media, my focus over many years on jobs and the economy as the country’s driving political issues probably sounds like broken record, but the fact that “Roseanne” attracted more viewers than any recent TV premiere isn’t accidental. The show has tapped into the frustrations that drove nearly 63 million people, many just like the Conners, to take a risk in the 2016 election.
Only one in four Americans today believe their voice is being heard. Roseanne is listening. So should Washington.
David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a long-time advisor to Congressional Republicans. He served as the Director of Planning for then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and non-profit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.