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Are Democrats Over-Learning the Lessons of Trump’s Victory?

The new conventional wisdom is that Democrats need to woo white working class voters who have been hurt by globalization. Not so fast, some say.

Justin Sullivan/Getty

The Hillary Clinton campaign made the decision early on to focus most of its attention on portraying Donald Trump as historically unfit for the office of the presidency. It was a strategy that appeared to be working, sending Trump’s unfavorability ratings into the stratosphere. At the same time, the campaign stuck to Clinton’s reputation, deserved or otherwise, for technocratic competence, leaving populist economic appeals to more credible surrogates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

This was, we now know, a colossal mistake. The problem for Clinton was that many of the voters who disliked Trump and thought he was thoroughly unqualified to be president voted for him anyway. There is now a widespread sense in the liberal press that, to combat the appeal of Trump’s drain-the-swamp populism, Clinton needed to make a populist pitch to the downscale white voters who turned out to be a pretty important lynchpin in the Democratic coalition, particularly in the Upper Midwest. “It’s very hard to argue that the struggle of everyday people on economic issues was a central part of her campaign,” longtime Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg told me. “It just wasn’t. It doesn’t mean that it wasn’t there. But she did not create a robust economic dialogue with working people.”

As the Democrats seek to put the pieces back together again, progressives and leftists are calling for a populist economic platform to be at the center of the party’s new agenda and identity. No less a figure than President Barack Obama appeared to ascribe to this idea. In his first press conference since Trump was elected, the president simultaneously laid out a new political playbook and subtweeted the Clinton campaign, saying, “The key for us—when I say ‘us,’ I mean Americans, but I think particularly for progressives—is to say your concerns are real, your anxieties are real; here’s how we fix them.” He added that Democrats, going forward, had to be “attentive to inequality and not tone deaf to it,” and had to reach out to “folks that are in communities that feel forgotten.”

But it’s one thing to embrace economic populism on a conceptual level, and quite another to translate it into a political platform and a governing agenda. To name just one issue: How does it square with the neoliberal championing of free trade, an issue in which Trump campaigned to the left of Clinton? Even Obama seemed to hedge on this issue, saying, “Yes to trade, but trade that ensures that these other countries that trade with us aren’t engaging in child labor, for example.”

For some Democrats, that won’t cut it. Jane Kleeb, who is the founder of Bold Nebraska and sits on Bernie Sanders’s post-election organization Our Revolution, said Democrats needed to do more to differentiate themselves from Republicans. “I think some Democrats have tried to run as Republican-lite and when a voter sees a Republican or a Democrat pretending to be a Republican they’re going to vote for the Republican,” she said. “So Democrats have to create a new path and show voters what it actually means to be Democrat again.”

Benjamin Jealous, the former head of the NAACP and a key backer of Bernie Sanders, largely agreed. “Moneyed interests in both parties don’t want to come to terms with it,” he told the New Republic. “They know the public has already been reckoning for a long time with the fact that our trade policies are not negotiated in the interest of the most impacted communities of every color—that unionized factory jobs, good pay, and benefits have been replaced by service jobs with low pay and often no benefits.”

This is in line with a critique made against the Clinton campaign throughout the election, one that has gained new currency in its cataclysmic aftermath. She lost partly because of her husband’s support for NAFTA and her own support of many free trade policies, notwithstanding her turnaround on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which doubled as evidence that Clinton would take any position to get elected). Workers simply didn’t trust her when it came to protecting their livelihoods. She was seen as being not on their side.

But not everyone agrees with this diagnosis. Rosenberg, for instance, told me that Clinton failed to convince voters that trade policies benefited them—and that Democrats are simply better at running the economy. In Rosenberg’s view, Clinton’s problem was that she abandoned an economic message for fear of seeming out of touch. The message itself was fine.

“People have argued that, since the age of globalization, working Americans have suffered,” he told me. “And that it’s globalization itself—and the wave of trade agreements and the way these things have evolved—that created this economic dislocation and the struggle of everyday people.” Not so, he says, if you look back at decades of economic data: “What we’re seeing is that in this age of globalization, with progressive policies and Democratic presidents, we can actually make globalization work. Republicans can’t.”

He added, “Large majorities are not unhappy with their economic conditions. Large majorities of the country aren’t bitter and angry at globalization and trade. None of those things are true.”

The New America Foundation’s Mark Schmitt also cautioned against catering to the largely older and white voters who turned out in droves for Donald Trump. “Their concerns are mostly cultural and identitarian,” he told me. “They see Washington simply as a place of people not like them—just different, and elite, and Jewish, and gay. It’s not their thing.... These people are old. They are fucking old! If you say a lot of them don’t have college degrees but their income is relatively high, what does that tell you? It tells you they’re old.”

Trade would appear to be one of the central battles in the Democratic Party as it prepares to mount a campaign to take back the White House in 2020—a fight between centrists and the party’s emboldened leftists. But there is reason to think that the party’s differences will be ironed out well before then. After all, the TPP is dead, killed by Trump. While Democrats like Obama were prepared to defend the TPP, it seems unlikely that 2020 Democratic primary candidates will be clamoring to revive it or propose a replacement.

Furthermore, the Democratic National Committee is under pressure to roll out a grassroots push in all 50 states. For many states—particularly those in the Midwest—trade deals that disproportionately affect manufacturing would certainly not pass muster.

And while Trump has promised to “tear up” the country’s trade deals, including NAFTA, his administration has signaled that it will be extraordinarily accommodating to the country’s financial institutions, opening up a broad line of economic attack for Democrats that avoids the thorny question of trade. Similarly, a common enemy—particularly one with authoritarian tendencies—will likely cause many of the Democratic Party’s diverse and often unruly factions to coalesce for the common, short-term good.

But for the long-term health of their party, Democrats need to figure out where they stand and bridge the gulf between the party’s elites and grassroots. Back in 1996, Bill Clinton promised a “bridge to the future” for workers who had been left behind by trade and technological change, attempting to square a circle and please both pro- and anti-trade factions in the party. But that bridge never got built. In 2016, Hillary Clinton paid the price for talking out of both sides of her mouth on trade. The next Democratic candidate cannot do the same.