In respective post-election “taking stock” articles, Columbia History Professor Mark Lilla for the New York Times and Alex Seitz-Wald at NBC suggest how the Democratic Party can return to prominence. Lilla contends that Trump’s victory should mark the End of Identity Liberalism. Identity liberalism, as practiced by Democrats like Hillary Clinton, consists of appeals to discrete groups identified by race, ethnicity, gender, and sexually orientation. This is a losing strategy, Lilla argues, and must be rejected in favor of one that seeks to attract voters based on shared economic interests and overarching national goals.
Seitz-Wald is less dogmatic. In Democrats: Left in the Lurch, he contends that Democrats must choose between two strategies which he dubs the Ohio Path and the Arizona Path. Similar to Lilla’s prescription, the former consists of communicating to white working class voters an overt populist economic message while “de-prioritiz[ing] policies that are either unimportant or alienating to these voters, like immigration reform, and so-called identity issues.” Following the Arizona Path means more group identity politics based on near-term forecasts that the electorate will consist of an increasing percentage of Democratic voters of color. Seitz-Wald does not state a preference between the two paths.
What neither Lilla nor Seitz-Wald contemplate is an approach that recognizes that the white working class and the great majority of non-white voters share nearly identical economic interests and the differences between the groups will likely be ameliorated in a growing economy in which the bottom 50% reaps the preponderance of income gains.
Indeed, American history since the New Deal demonstrates that the fortunes of the white working class and minorities are joined at the hip. From the 1930s through the late 60s, African-Americans and other poor and working-class Americans saw their economic fortunes relative to the affluent rise substantially. It’s no coincidence that during the last fifteen years of this period, blacks achieved remarkable gains in civil rights.
While fortunes for the lower middle-class stagnated in the 70s, the poorest Americans saw their relative status continue to rise until Ronald Reagan took office. The whites who abandoned the Democratic party in 1980 may well have been motivated in part by resentment at their worsening economic condition under Jimmy Carter. Once in office, Reagan attacked unions, slashed the safety net, and with Democratic assistance, taxes on the wealthy. Since then, both the white lower middle-class African-Americans have seen their share of the nation’s wealth evanesce – a destabilizing trend made far worse by the free trade deals vigorously championed by Presidents from both parties.
Besides economic justice and civil rights for blacks, liberals made remarkable gains in a number of other areas from the mid-50s to the 70s. The environmental movement came to the fore as did the women’s rights and closely-related reproductive rights movements, and the United Farm Workers enjoyed important wins towards the end of this period. Over the past 36 years, however, all of these progressive groups have had been fighting rear-guard actions. The only identity group in America to see a meaningful improvement in its legal, and possibly economic, status since 1980 is gays.
To become the dominant national party again, Democrats must unite behind policies that serve the economic interests of poor, working-class, and middle-class Americans. This means fighting against every trade deal that pits fairly paid domestic workers against overseas laborers making 90% less. It also means fighting for, among other things, 1) higher taxes on the wealthy, 2) unions, 3) universal healthcare, 4) a tight safety net from birth to death, and 5) truly affordable higher education for all who are qualified. Indeed, this is so crucial for the party’s success, that it must adopt as a litmus test for its candidates a demonstrated commitment to redistribution of wealth and income down.
Democratic wins will result in a better quality of life for the great majority of Americans of color and the white working class. Other important progressive priorities will also get attention. For example, when Americans feel economically secure, they are more likely to support initiatives to protect the environment just as they supported civil rights in the mid-1960s.
Assuming the truth of this political paradigm, Democratic primary voters should have rallied behind Bernie Sanders. His long and documented record opposing “free trade” deals, meant he would have had a better chance to attract sufficient numbers of the white working class to beat Trump in the crucial Midwest. Were he elected, he would have fought harder for the working class and they would have fared better than under a Clinton presidency. Ultimately, this would have led to a greater willingness throughout the nation to address important social justice issues.
Still a major schism emerged between white and black Democrats. While whites narrowly preferred the more progressive Bernie Sanders, more than three times as many African-Americans voted for Hillary Clinton as they did for Sanders. This overwhelming support, which accounted for her comfortable margin of victory, puzzled many of us on the left. We believed Sanders’ record and rhetoric demonstrated, not only a greater commitment to the poor and working-class who are disproportionately black, but also to issues like police brutality and incarceration that are of particular importance to black Americans. Clinton, however, succeeded in convincing many African-Americans that Sanders’ focus on economic injustice bespoke an insufficient commitment to racial justice.
In order to regain power, therefore, Democrats must continually stress the commonality of interests between the white working-class and voters of color. They must also recognize that the latter along with women and those whose sexuality falls outside of the heteronormative have struggles that are distinct from those of poor and working-class whites. But they must do so in a way that does not diminish the outsize role that class and wealth at birth play in determining one’s future.
In their respective columns, Lilla and Seitz-Wald neglect to mention another critical priority for Democrats. Nominating candidates whose history is free of financial peccadilloes and any whiff of corruption. In seeking power, Democrats rightly stress the need for a government that is big and powerful enough to rein in integrated multi-national corporations and to protect the less fortunate from capitalism’s sharp edges.
There is a danger for wealthy ostensibly progressive candidates however in making this argument. When criticizing a system that has richly rewarded them, they risk charges of hypocrisy and self-righteousness. Many of Hillary Clinton’s supporters were baffled by the fact that their candidate was dogged by corruption charges and questions about her honesty. They argued that by any reasonable measure Donald Trump’s record in these areas is more egregious. Of course, most voters didn’t like Trump either and he ended up with many fewer votes nationally than Clinton.
But Clinton called for government to play a much greater role in alleviating various societal pathologies exacerbated by corporatism. Accordingly, her close relationship with Wall Street, which enriched her and her family beyond the wildest dreams of most Americans, and her refusal to publish her speeches to Goldman Sachs called into question her commitment to social justice – doubts that her decades-long record in public service failed to dispel.
It is important to note that President Obama has a remarkably scandal-free record and never faced any questions about his personal probity. Likewise, Bill Clinton was perceived as a crude parvenu and a cheater. But the only corruption charge against him was Whitewater which proved to be at the very worst a penny-ante scheme that cost the Clintons money.
Democrats must recognize that voters and the media hold them to a higher standard when it comes to allegations of dishonesty and self-dealing. Those who decry concentrated wealth and power have little credibility when they personally have parlayed political connections into many millions.
In sum, Democrats can return to power only if they run squeaky clean candidates with a documented commitment to economic and social justice. It’s going to be long road.