The Democrats were sweating the question of what to do about the white working class long before President Donald Trump came along. They used to be, virtually, the white working man’s party, while the Republicans used to be the white rich man’s party (with an influential African-American bloc) before the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board decision and the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, both signed into law by a Southern Democrat.
Race became then a complicating factor like never before. Southern whites abandoned the party. So did many white “ethnics” in major Northern and Midwestern cities who hated “forced busing” but loved Republican Richard Nixon’s message of “law and order.” Meanwhile, the Democrats had to make room for new and growing factions while holding on to what was left of the old ones.
Then came the election of America’s first black president. A new idea immediately took hold: Maybe the Democrats didn’t need to worry anymore about the white working class. The party’s base was increasingly diverse. The economy was changing dramatically. Maybe a party that relied heavily on voters who benefited from an economy based on manufacturing could safely and successfully pivot to voters who had not benefited from the old paradigm.
Obama didn’t think so. The president labored mightily to secure the support of voters in rusting industrial states like Wisconsin and Michigan, sending Joe Biden, the scion of blue-collar Scranton, to fire up crowds before joining in the attack of Mitt Romney, the corporate raider bent on tearing down the economy, as he tore down factories and good jobs. That populist message, and others like it, ensured Obama’s famous “Midwest firewall.” Even if he lost Florida and other swing states, he would still have won in 2012.
But even before his re-election, Obama was becoming a minority in his own party. As the Republicans made huge gains in the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014 – as well as in state legislatures around the country – Democratic elites, especially the party’s donor class concentrated on the coasts, remained convinced that time was on their side. Demographics, they told themselves, was destiny.
The story went something like this: The past belongs to the ignorant, the racist, the reactionary and those who could not keep pace with the technological challenges of the 21st century, while the future belongs to the Obama coalition, to the cosmopolitan and to the audacious who dared to hope for a more perfect union. Hillary Clinton’s loss was made more painful by the fact that everything post-Obama Democrats told themselves was true was false.
In retrospect, the problem was a familiar one. The Democrats tend to confuse politics for ethics. Sometimes they are the same. Sometimes they overlap. Sometimes they are distinct. But never in the history of the world has ethics been a substitute for politics. Post-Nixon Republicans have had no such illusions. They are often eager to jettison ethics if ethics threaten their hold on power.
Ethically speaking, the Democrats are right. Trump is a lying, thieving, philandering sadist whose pathological inclinations threaten American values and embolden America’s enemies. But being right didn’t win the election, and being right won’t win future elections. Yes, Clinton won 3 million more votes, but that means next to nothing as the Democrats rethink their strategy.
Central to that strategy should be the humble admission that the Democrats were wrong. Obama didn’t believe he could win without the white working class. Neither should any future Democrat. The party must continue, as it has for decades, to strike balance between old factions and new. The Great Recession, economic inequality, globalization and polarization are macro forces that have carved up the country in such a way that the Democrats face long odds in the Electoral College if they do not present a plausible alternative to Trumpism, especially in the Midwest. Yes, white won, as one of my favorite writers, Jamelle Bouie, put it post-election. But white has nearly always won. The strategy now should be figuring out ways to create electoral conditions in which white wins a little bit less.
The goal is more modest than it seems. The Democrats do not need, and should not try, to win over all white working class voters. Those like Bernie Sanders who decry “identity politics” and long for a return to labor movements are expressing nostalgia, or worse, not constructive advice. The party needs only to drive a wedge into that voting bloc. Seriously. It’s not going to take much. Trump won by about 100,000 votes in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.
The Democrats have the policy. Now they need the message. Time will tell what that will be. For now, my concern is about factions within the party that see appeals to the white working class as surrender to white supremacy. Indeed, the white working class was OK with bigotry. But being OK with bigotry is not the same as being for bigotry. And when the goal is driving a wedge into the white working class, racism can be met with powerful policies, like expanded Social Security, that only the Democrats can offer.
It has been argued that Trump expanded the map for Republicans, but it can also be argued that the Democrats allowed that to happen. The Republicans hope to maintain their hold on white working class voters in the Midwest. Perhaps they will, but not if the Democrats admit they were wrong and return to fight.