Leaders of the Democratic Party have spent the nearly nine months since the 2016 election discussing how to respond to the shocking results of November 8.
Although the party actually picked up seats in both the House and the Senate, losing the presidency to someone as manifestly unqualified as Donald Trump certainly constituted a crisis for the party (as well as the country and the world).
How is the discussion among Democrats going?
Surprisingly well, actually. As I will discuss below, their new Better Deal plan is a modest but important step in the right direction, and more importantly, it shows that the Democrats seem to have avoided taking a disastrous step in the wrong direction.
This is pleasantly surprising because there has been a great deal of noise about how Democrats need to start abandoning their core progressive principles—or perhaps merely downplaying them—in order to win back their former supporters who defected to Trump. Fortunately, that betrayal of Democrats’ collective soul seems not to be happening.
Even so, such a discussion was inevitable because Trump’s Electoral College win was made possible by the narrowest of margins in what had been three reliably blue, formerly industrial states: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
White voters without a college education appeared to drive those results, suggesting to some cynical analysts that the Democrats’ best way forward was to move backward: Democrats used to win by getting the votes of these defectors, so Democrats need to get them back again.
To be clear, most of Trump’s voters were in fact not from the white working class, because his was the usual coalition of Republican suburban and pro-business voters. Even so, because this tiny slice of Trump’s voters provided the crucial difference in those key states, the post-election analysis has to a large degree been obsessed with those formerly Democratic voters.
One narrative that unfortunately began to dominate the post-election conversation was that current and former blue-collar white voters had jumped ship because the Democrats had become too interested in so-called identity politics. Supposedly, “boutique issues” like transgender rights were the problem, despite the lack of evidence or logic supporting that argument.
A less offensive suggestion was that the Democrats might not need to abandon their support for women’s health and reproductive choice, or their commitment to civil rights for racial and other minorities, but they did need to “get back to basics” and start emphasizing economic issues again.
One particularly extreme version of this latter argument was not merely the claim that Hillary Clinton and the Democrats had misallocated their time by overemphasizing noneconomic issues, but that Donald Trump had won because he actually had a winning economic message.
In what is easily the most forehead-slappingly inane comment that I have read since the election—and there is a lot of competition for that dubious distinction—one commentator wrote last month:
President Trump won the election in large part because he was one of the few candidates from either party to address terrible problems in the left-behind parts of the country, including the drug epidemic, declining labor force participation rates and the rising cost of health care.
The author of that nonsense is not a Republican operative, and the rest of his column provided a reasonable analysis of how Trump voters will react to Russia-related revelations. But that only makes the statement all the more absurd.
Although it is almost too painfully obvious to write it down, it is worth remembering that Trump never proposed anything that would “address terrible problems.” In fact, he barely said or did anything that rose to the level of being a “proposal,” except in his full-on endorsement of standard-issue Republican trickle-down economics.
Other than saying that he would cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy—the very beneficiaries of the policies that had created the problems in the Midwest and elsewhere—what did Trump stand for? Build a wall. Lock up Hillary Clinton. Repeal the Affordable Care Act. Also, leave Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security alone.
Even setting aside what we now know about his insincere promise to give everyone “great” health care (and his enthusiastic support for Republicans’ efforts to cut Medicaid), Trump during the campaign never actually made anything that could even charitably be called an argument. Instead, he made simplistic, conclusory statements: “You’ll get tired of all the winning”; “The world will respect us again.”
What he never did was explain how any of that would happen. It would just happen because he said so.
The blunt fact is that Trump is the one who was playing identity politics, exploiting the cultural divide rather than economic unfairness. “Cultural anxiety” among white people explains Trump’s success much better than anything else.
The problem is that “cultural divide” is a euphemism for bigotry versus inclusiveness, so pundits find it safer to say that Trump’s appeal was based on economic issues, even though he never articulated anything close to an agenda that someone who cares about middle- and lower-middle-class people could endorse.
But maybe the claim is that Trump somehow seemed to be addressing these issues, whereas other candidates were not doing so. Again, screaming about factory jobs and the good old days is not a plan for action, but was the problem that other candidates never even tried to address the concerns of the anxious working class?
Bernie Sanders, of course, actually did what Trump is being credited with doing. He presented a platform specifically designed to address the needs and concerns of those who had become the collateral damage of post-industrial America, and his unlikely rise to runner-up status in the Democratic primaries attested to his success.
Maybe, however, Sanders is among the “few” candidates who did what Trump supposedly did, and the real assertion by that pundit is that Clinton did not do so. Even that claim is nonsense, however, because the major achievement of the Sanders campaign was in pulling Clinton away from her center-right past and getting her to understand that the “safe” political strategy was now actually based on left-leaning policies.
Clinton moved toward Sanders on the minimum wage, trade, health care, and other issues. Moreover, she did so not merely by including Sanders-friendly positions in the official Democratic platform, but she actually believed in them and argued in favor of them.
Because of the election’s outcome, it became all too easy to criticize Clinton simply as a matter of 20/20 hindsight. Had she won Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, she would have won the election, so the conventional wisdom quickly converged on the idea that she obviously must not have emphasized what the swing voters in those states cared about.
Some of this is merely a matter of saying after the fact that Clinton should have spent less time attacking Trump’s daily barrage of self-disqualifying statements, in order to emphasize what we have now decided “really mattered” to these anointed voters. Had she recalibrated, the thinking goes, she could have pulled it off.
Maybe so, but there are certainly other explanations available. For example, what really counts as “fake news” is the completely fabricated stories about Clinton that were being sent to social media sites by (largely foreign-based) “bots.” According to one report, in Michigan, these viciously false anti-Clinton stories were “shared just as widely as professional news in the days leading up to the election.”
Maybe Clinton could have overcome even that barrage, but information like this makes it much harder to take seriously the “Clinton blew it in Michigan by not doing enough campaigning there” narrative.
Also, there is now more than circumstantial evidence to support the idea that former FBI Director James Comey’s October 28 letter to Congress regarding possibly relevant emails in the Clinton investigation really did make all the difference in the election.
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Notwithstanding all of that, however, there has been plenty of good reason for Democrats to try to learn lessons from the election. Even if the “blame Clinton” narrative is wrong, we are not going to re-run the 2016 election in 2018 or 2020. And Democrats really did lose some voters. Bringing them back, and bringing others in, would certainly help in future elections.
As I noted above, some of the post-election narrative has been based on an unfortunate embrace of the idea that some members of the Democrats’ coalition have to be prioritized over others, in what would surely be a divided-we-fall strategy.
A few months ago, for example, Bernie Sanders did himself no favors by seeming to say that women’s rights were secondary to economic issues. The idea, from a crude vote-counting perspective, is that women (and, in other iterations, other victims of bigotry) will stick with the party even if Democrats prioritize white working-class male voters’ concerns in an attempt to win back that tiny slice of Trump’s voters.
The simple fact, however, is that this is not only a backward-looking strategy, but it is not even necessary as a matter of pure vote counting. In 2016, Clinton could have won easily without winning back any of the people who switched to Trump, because there were many times more people who went from voting for Obama in 2012 to not voting at all in 2016.
Those non-voters included a large number of minorities and other people who are “boutique” voters in the views of the anti-identity politics crowd. A successful effort to reach out even more emphatically to minority and other voters would have been a winning strategy in 2016. Those voters might well have been affected by the fake news bots that were spewing misinformation about Hillary Clinton, making it all the more necessary to reach out to them, who would otherwise be sympathetic.
What about the future? The number-crunchers at fivethirtyeight.com determined in May that Democrats can retake the House in 2018 without winning back any Trump voters.
Also, Steve Phillips of the Center for American Progress recently described how the Democrats can win in 2018 by putting a surprisingly small amount of money into an effort to convince infrequent voters to go to the polls—again, mostly including minority voters. Phillips concludes:
The country is under conservative assault because Democrats mistakenly sought support from conservative white working-class voters susceptible to racially charged appeals. Replicating that strategy would be another catastrophic blunder.
Exactly. But again, what is the harm in at least trying to win back the voters who were willing to indulge Trump’s bigotry but who now could be convinced to see the light? Along these lines, I argued back in January of this year that if
…we say that Trump has a unique pipeline into the souls of his supporters, we run the risk of believing that all of them will stand with him no matter what, which is true only of a core group of true believers (who would have been just as steadfast in supporting any Republican). In reality, many of the people who have given Trump the benefit of the doubt thus far will have every reason to become disillusioned and walk away.
Sure enough, Trump’s base has been shrinking, which suggests that some of his voters might be back in play in future elections. Even though Democrats do not need those voters, would it not be good to have them, if for no other reason than to run up the score?
And that brings us back to the Democratic Party’s announcement of their Better Deal plan. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer both penned op-eds earlier this week to describe the first stage of their party’s worker- and middle-class-friendly policy agenda.
This is the kind of announcement that is somehow both platitudinous and too policy-oriented at the same time. Creating “good-paying, full-time jobs for 10 million more Americans in the next five years” sounds great; but in order not to mirror Trump’s empty promises and magical thinking, it is necessary to mention eye-glazing details like “a massive new national commitment to expanding apprenticeships and paid on-the-job training that advances their skills and careers.”
This means that no one should expect this kind of policy announcement to sound like Franklin Delano Roosevelt on his best day, even with the Democrats’ attempt to update his New Deal label.
But the good news is that, in the fight for the soul of the party, it appears that the Democrats are not in fact going to be abandoning their future in order to recapture their lost voters of the past.
Yes, Schumer made an unfortunate claim that people “feel, rightfully, that [the political and economic] systems are rigged against them, and they made that clear in last year’s election,” which seems to concede that Trump won not by appealing to white anxiety but by being a friend of the beleaguered little man. One hopes, however, that this is not what Democrats will emphasize in the months and years ahead.
In any case, the Democrats seem to have decided to do what I thought was the sensible thing all along. They are taking seriously the idea that, no matter what one might say about Clinton’s messaging last year, it is always possible to do a better job of communicating with voters.
If people do not know that Democrats still stand with the non-rich while Republicans are the party of the plutocrats, then Democrats need to fix that. Frankly, I do not see how anyone could have failed to notice that cryingly obvious fact long before now, but apparently some people did.
What the Democrats should be (and apparently now are) ready to say to their former voters who flipped to Trump is this:
We are not going to stop being the party that is committed to social justice. If we can only win over you Trump voters by appealing to what Trump appealed to, count us out.
But we are here to tell you that if you really are motivated by economic anxiety and are looking for the party with a real program to improve your future, we are it (and we were all along). You’re welcome back anytime.
There is no reason for the Democrats to compromise their principles in order to win back Trump voters. The majority of these voters are surely not coming back, but those who are reachable might respond to a clearer economic message from the Democrats.
Chasing Trump voters by denigrating other voters is both immoral and guaranteed to fail. So far, it appears that the Democrats have figured that out.
Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar and a professor of law at George Washington University. He teaches tax law, tax policy, contracts, and law and economics. His research addresses the long-term tax and spending patterns of the federal government, focusing on budget deficits, the national debt, health care costs and Social Security.
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