By David K. Shipler
The distraught Democratic Party is at odds with itself about how to counter the unconventional presidency of Donald Trump. On the revolutionary side are the Bernie Sanders supporters and others who want to trash the party’s own establishment, play Tea Party politics, and obstruct everything proposed by the White House and Congressional Republicans. On the pragmatic side are the political pros who want to get elected in states that went for Trump. Both sides recognize the need to win seats in local races and state legislatures, plus the all-important governorships ahead of the 2020 census that will determine redistricting.
Among the key decisions that must be made is how—or even whether—to approach the white working-class citizenry that voted for Trump. Some argue that the nationwide demographic wave favors Democrats as minorities ride to majority status in the country at large. Identity politics will eventually work as the percentage of whites diminishes, so goes the reasoning, because Republicans have turned their backs on minority interests while Democrats have embraced them.
But the assumption has flaws. First, minority voters come in many different political flavors and can’t be counted on to vote overwhelmingly for liberal Democratic ideas, even if they’re most helped by them. Socially conservative currents run through certain nonwhite subcultures: the anti-abortion views promoted by some black churches, for example, and an anti-regulatory position among small-business owners. It’s possible that an aversion to female leaders was partly responsible for Hillary Clinton’s poor showing in Florida’s largely Hispanic counties. Exit polls showed that Trump won 28 percent of the Hispanic vote nationwide, to Clinton’s 66 percent, compared with Obama’s 71 percent in 2012.
Second, turnout requires enthusiasm, and voting by African-Americans, who supported Clinton 88 to 8 percent, was lower than the Clinton campaign had banked on. Thinly disguised voter-suppression tactics aimed at minorities were probably responsible in the states that have enacted voter ID laws and cut back on early voting and the number of polling places. But the fervor necessary to overcome those obstacles was absent. Her loss of Pennsylvania, for example, was partly the result of a relatively low African-American turnout in Philadelphia.
Third, racial, ethnic, religious, and gender identities govern voting patterns only to a point. Socio-economic levels were decisive among whites in 2016, when Trump won 67 percent of whites without a college degree, and Clinton won only 28 percent, the largest margin in any election since 1980. Although 54 percent of all women voters cast ballots for Clinton, 53 percent of white women voted for Trump, notwithstanding his displays of misogyny. Gender identity proved too shallow to lift Clinton into the White House.
These and other results can be read in various ways. On the one hand, Democrats who want to write off blue-collar whites can argue that racial animosity influenced white voters who resented affirmative action, saw race-based preferences as anti-white discrimination, and were peppered with anti-Obama propaganda for eight years. A black president did not usher in a post-racial era but animated latent bigotry instead. Some virtually all-white enclaves felt alienated from their own country—a diversifying America that did not look like them. So the word “again” at the end of Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again” summoned up a myth about a place that could never be recaptured and, in fact, never actually existed. But it is the focus of yearning.
In this analysis, an attempt to preach progressive, inclusive Democratic principles of tolerance is bound to fail, and further alienate by driving whites into their own identity politics. On the other hand, Obama drew votes from whites without college degrees who then voted for Trump, suggesting that racial aversions can be countered by appeals to new thinking and reform.
You don’t have to be racist to resent forfeiting your home, your job security, even the craft in which you’ve spent your working life. The directionless sense of drift and despair, recorded in the rise of white deaths by alcohol, drugs, and suicide, should have been enough to propel Obama, Clinton, and other Democrats to reach deeply into those communities. That they did not do so was their momentous failure, and to fail to do so now would be tantamount to sentencing them to the “basket of deplorables” in Clinton’s deplorable statement during the campaign.
Democrats can be true to their principles and also attract the white working class. They need candidates—not just a presidential candidate, but candidates at every level—who can compassionately campaign for the benefit of those whites left behind, as well as the citizens of color left on the margins. There is no conflict between the interests of those folks and Democratic policy ideas. The human connections between policies and people have to be made by candidates who are good communicators.
This is the basis for uniting the country. Although many whites might not want to see it, a natural kinship exists between struggling whites and blacks and Hispanics on this economic playing field. After all, when asked to list the issues that mattered most to them, 46 percent of Hispanics named the economy, way ahead of terrorism, immigration, and foreign policy. If Democrats in Congress are smart, therefore, they will support Trump’s $1-trillion infrastructure proposal if it’s configured sensibly. And if it fails to gain traction in the Republican House and Senate, Democrats should swallow hard, cast their lot with Trump on this one, and point to Republicans as the culprits.
In sum, Democrats should not turn their backs on Trump voters. They should court them.