Corporate domination over the party’s agenda — and, perhaps more importantly, the perception of corporate control over the party’s agenda — rendered the Democrats’ messaging on economic issues ideologically rudderless and resulted in a decline in support among working-class people across racial lines.
First, it’s important to debunk some facile media myths about Donald Trump and “the working class.” The bulk of Trump’s support is still from well-off whites who have always composed the core of the Republican Party funding and much of its voting base, and one should work hard to not feed into the easy media trope that Trump is overwhelmingly popular among “blue collar” or working-class voters. Nor should one fall into the trap (as some pundits have) of using “working class” and “white working class” interchangeably. Aside from erasing working people of color, this trap overlooks the fact that Hillary Clinton in fact won the working class across races, if one uses those making less than $50,000 a year as a proxy for the label.
What did happen — and what ought to deeply worry Democrats moving forward — is the massive swing of white working-class voters from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016 and the depressed turnout of black and Latino voters for Clinton relative to 2012 Obama. There was a 16-point swing across all races (though this is overwhelmingly due to whites) for those making less than $30,000 from the D to R column and a six-point swing for those making between $30,000 and $50,000. Turnout among African Americans and Latinos was also far lower than many expected, which represents an ominous trend for the party moving forward. To put it in marketing terms: the Democratic Party is failing, on a systemic level, to inspire, bring out, and get a sufficient majority of the votes of the working class.
The Democratic Party, as pollster Stanley Greenberg emphasizes, doesn’t have a “white working-class problem” — it has a working-class problem. “If there was one area where Democratic turnout was undeniably weaker in 2016 than 2012 it was among African Americans,” Patrick Ruffini wrote in FiveThirtyEight. Black turnout, especially in key swing states, was 14.1 percent less than election models predicted — far more than the 3.2 percent decline among whites. While it’s important to note the damaging effect of Republican Party attempts at minority voter suppression through gerrymandering and voter ID laws, the Democratic Party has failed to give many of those who can vote a reason to do so.
This is animated, in part, by the perception that the party is in the pocket of the rich. A poll in spring 2017 found that two-thirds of the public sees the Democratic Party as “out of touch with the concerns of most people in the United States today.” Meanwhile, a recent review of census data by the Washington Post found that African Americans are “the only U.S. racial group earning less than they did in 2000.” The unfettered capitalist economy partly enabled by Democrats since the 1990s has devastated the working class, doubly so the black working class, and the Democratic Party’s major role in that devastation continues to have a harmful effect on party prospects.
The party has attempted to convince working-class voters that it can advance the interests of the rich and working people with equal vigor. This sleight-of-hand was more feasible pre-2008 economic crash, but it has since lost credibility as inequality grows and entire communities are gutted by free market, anti-union, anti-worker ideology and policy. The champions of the growth-raises-all-boats mythology had their chance and they failed the vast bulk of working Americans. President Obama, with his unique political skills, preempted and co-opted economic populism to some extent (though it surfaced briefly and strongly with the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011/2012), but it re-emerged with Bernie Sanders’ insurgent primary campaign. In her 2016 general election loss, Clinton was outflanked on economic messaging by Trump’s huckster appeals to anti-NAFTA and anti-free-market sentiment.
Tone-deafness on class was seen time and again in Clinton’s campaign: avoiding clear, class-based messaging and instead offering up bloodless micro-targeted policies. Clinton didn’t propose free public college as such, but rather student loan abatement for potential “entrepreneurs” and a series of other convoluted, means-tested “solutions” — many involving GOP-like bootstrap work requirements. Her messaging on health care was just as deficient. Instead of speaking of health care in simple, rights-based terms (much less embracing single-payer Medicare for all), Clinton talked of “expanding ACA” and frequently employed needless modifiers before “health care” such as “access to” and “affordable.” While she would toss out the concept of health care as a right in the occasional tweets, her speeches and online texts rarely, if ever, framed the topic that way. “If you believe,” Clinton said in her convention acceptance speech, “that every man, woman, and child in America has the right to affordable health care, join us.” How the word “affordable” adds to that sentence — other than rendering it rhetorically weak and corporately palatable — is not clear.
The Clinton campaign mocked Trump for lying about his wealth, floating the idea of labeling him “Poor Donald” — a too-cute-by-half attempt to call Trump a financial fraud. That actually backfired, making Clinton look like a rich snob and Trump like a regular guy. (It wouldn’t have seemed so glib had Clinton herself said much about the issue of poverty on the campaign trail. Instead she, like the broader Democratic leadership, relied almost exclusively on the go-to, offend-no-one label “middle class.”) Clinton told a crowd in Lake Worth, Florida that she liked “having the support of real billionaires” because “Donald gives a bad name to billionaires.” That was a deeply strange messaging choice given that 82 percent of the population think the wealthy “have too much influence in Washington.” Most importantly, during the campaign Clinton — unable to throw stones from her glass house — virtually abandoned talking about pay-to-play big money in politics.
The surge in populism (which can be broadly defined as a dislike of “the establishment”), brought on by widening inequality and economic stagnation, will be filled by some political force or other — either the cruel and demagogic forces of the far right and its billionaire backers, or a racially diverse and morally robust progressive vision that offers people a clear alternative to the ideological rot of Trumpism. The mainstream Democratic storyline of victims without victimizers lacks both plausibility and passion. The idea that the Democrats can somehow convince Wall Street to work on behalf of Main Street through mild chiding, rather than acting as Main Street’s champion against the wealthy, no longer resonates. We live in a time of unrest and justified cynicism towards those in power; Democrats will not win if they continue to bring a wonk knife to a populist gunfight. Nor can Democratic leaders and operatives be seen as real allies of the working class if they’re afraid to alienate big funders or to harm future job or consulting prospects.
On environmental matters, similar problems abound. Leading Democrats have been forthright in condemning GOP climate denial, yet most of the same Democrats routinely indulge in denial that corporate power fuels climate denial and accelerates climate damage. While scoring political points by justifiably lambasting dangerous Republican anti-science positions, most Democrats have gravitated toward proposals (like various forms of carbon trading and cap-and-trade) that cannot come close to addressing the magnitude of the climate crisis. Steps like a carbon tax — necessary, though insufficient — are badly needed along with imposition of major regulatory measures to drastically reduce carbon emissions. While the short-term prospects for meaningful federal action on climate are exceedingly bleak, state-level initiatives are important and attainable. Meanwhile, it’s crucial that the Democratic Party stop confining its climate agenda to inadequate steps that are palatable to Big Oil and mega-players on Wall Street.
It’s telling that during the 16 years of the Clinton and Obama presidencies, when so many U.S. jobs were “outsourced” to cheap labor countries, one is hard pressed to recall either Democratic president ever taking a single U.S. corporation to task on the issue, even rhetorically. (To chair his Jobs Council, Obama chose the CEO of outsourcing pioneer General Electric.) Such silence and/or complicity on corporate greed and irresponsibility allowed a charlatan like Trump to grandstand as the savior of jobs and working people.
Perhaps the most literal instance of the party’s sense of corporate entitlement came in the summer of 2017 when the Democratic National Committee sent out fundraising mailers designed to look like collection letters to its supporters. The DNC team scrawled “FINAL NOTICE” across the envelopes and put “Finance Department” as the return address. The message it conveyed, intentionally or not, was: you owe us. That, not coincidentally, is a message the party leadership has been sending to core constituencies through its policies and campaign spending priorities.
Meanwhile, for the party, longtime neglect of rural America has come back to haunt. “If the Democratic Party wants to rebuild trust in rural areas — if it wants to win back states like Wisconsin — then it has to develop robust social policies that address rural needs,” journalist Sarah Jones observed midway through 2017. Fighting for rural broadband and obtaining more funds for Federally Qualified Health Centers in underserved areas have been important efforts and deserve higher priority. Meanwhile, the party should stop elevating Big Ag allies like Tom Vilsack, the Monsanto-smitten politician who served as Agriculture Secretary in the Obama administration for eight years. “Identifying the corporate power that holds back farm communities could revive Democratic fortunes,” author David Dayen wrote a few months ago. “Obviously, there are huge cultural barriers dividing Democrats from these areas, dominated by a media that paints them in the worst possible light. But the answer to that isn’t to walk away from the region, or present Republican-lite ‘moderates’ who line up with corporate interests; it lies in showing farmers you stand with them, not the monopolies.”
It must be stressed that any attempt to win over working-class white voters cannot be at the expense of a firm commitment to racial justice, LGBTQ equality or women’s rights. Attempts to win over those who exited the party in 2016 must never involve racist pandering or putting off issues of social justice lest they “offend” whites. Immediately after the 2016 election, several high status pro-Democrat pundits suggested Clinton’s loss was a result of a backlash to “identity politics” — thus blaming those most vulnerable to Trump for Trump. This posits a false dichotomy between discussing economic injustice and fighting for rights unique to certain communities. Indeed, women, trans people, Latinos, and African Americans disproportionately comprise the working class — and issues that specifically target them are, by definition, “working class issues.” Just the same, big tent goals such as higher minimum wage, single-payer health care and free public college — issues that have huge appeal among poor whites — will disproportionately benefit these communities.
Many party leaders have strongly advocated for women in such vital realms as reproductive rights, pay equity, protection against employment bias and equal access to public services. Yet the widening economic disparities that especially harm women — sometimes called the feminization of poverty — are directly related to policies that boost the power of large corporations. The corporate-friendly inclinations of the Democratic Party have ended up increasing rather than reducing those disparities, with dire consequences. As activist Carmen Rios points out, “women’s wages have gone stagnant, and women continue to find themselves on the bottom of every ladder, looking up through a glass ceiling.” In the real world, the well-being of women is indivisible from their economic circumstances and security.
Building an intersectional coalition — one that unites the working class across racial lines while addressing issues specific to people who are targeted based on identity — is key to creating an electoral force that can not only win, but also overwhelm the small group of wealthy white men the GOP works to further enrich. If the Democratic Party is to become such a political force, it will require a much bolder economic agenda to directly challenge corporate power.