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Resolving the Democrats’ False Choice

How the party can win both the “missing Obama millions” and the Obama-to-Trump voters


The Democrats are flipping one seat after another in the Trump era, and yet, they’re still re-litigating 2016. The latest entry in this ongoing debate pits liberal think-tanker Sean McElwee and three political scientists, who argue that the Democratic Party can retake the White House by courting the predominantly young and black former Obama voters who stayed home in 2016, against New York Times election expert Nate Cohn, who argues that the Democrats must instead win back the blue-collar whites who flipped from Obama to Trump.

But the respective paths laid out by McElwee et al. and Cohn aren’t mutually exclusive. The way out of the Gordian Knot of identity politics versus class politics is to take intersectionality seriously. Instead of pitting voters of color against white working-class voters in an imaginary election, Democrats should target their policy proposals and political appeals to voters who bridge the gap: the black working class.

Reaching this predominantly young and disaffected group will mean ignoring calls for Democrats to tone down the party’s newfound commitment to social justice. It’ll also mean embracing the type of full-throated economic populism that the party has shied away from ever since its post-McGovern “neoliberal” turn. The one thing Democrats must not do is continue moderating their party’s message, especially on economics, in the hope that upscale whites will save them.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign (in)famously pursued educated suburban moderates, who it believed would be turned off by Trump’s coarseness. “For every blue-collar Democrat we will lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two or three moderate Republicans in the suburbs of Philadelphia,” Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the Senate, told The Washington Post in July. “The voters who are most out there figuring out what to do are not the blue-collar Democrats. They are the college-educated Republicans or independents who lean Republican in the suburbs.”

In explicitly targeting college-educated whites, Clinton’s 2016 campaign was the apotheosis of decades of attempts by New Democrats to woo the “rising learning class” of “wired workers” and suburban “soccer moms.” While this centrist strategy failed to deliver Democrats the White House in the tossup elections of 2000 and 2004, it succeeded in hastening the class inversion of the Democrats, as the party shed blue-collar whites for white-collar ones.

The 2016 matchup—pitting the cosmopolitan technocrat Clinton against the jingoistic populist Trump—seemed perfectly suited to provide the long-awaited vindication of the New Democrats’ electoral vision. But Clinton didn’t do as well with upscale whites as her strategists (and many pundits) expected. Yes, she improved on Obama’s margin among whites with a college degree, but it wasn’t nearly enough to overcome the factors highlighted by Cohn (her historically poor performance among non-college whites) or by McElwee (a significant decline from 2012 in African American turnout and support).

The question facing Democrats in the wake of 2016’s defeat has been how to piece together a winning coalition from these three groups—college-educated whites, non-college whites, and people of color—and what strategies will be necessary to do it.

Centrist Democrats have called for the party to emulate the triangulation of Bill Clinton, and thus eschew both the redistributive economic populism embodied by the growing Bernie Sanders–Elizabeth Warren wing of the party and the increasing focus on “identity politics” represented by the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements. This strategy, its supporters say, will not only win back many working-class whites, but also turn former Romney voters into the Democratic Party’s “new base.”

Meanwhile, most anyone opposed to yet another New Democrat rerun has chosen between a renewed emphasis on either working-class whites or people of color. Hence the McElwee versus Cohn clash. But an important reality is often overlooked in this debate: The Democratic Party’s decades-long focus on upscale whites and its struggles with both blue-collar whites and people of color are related. As Democrats have moderated themselves to win the votes of “wired workers” and the like, they’ve alienated everyone else.

The belief underlying Hillary Clinton’s electoral strategy was that she was free to court white suburban moderates because Trump’s racism would translate into high support and turnout from African Americans and Latinos. But the election results proved otherwise. For decades, the Democratic Party has taken black voters—and voters of color, more broadly—for granted, believing that they had nowhere else to go. But as 2016 showed, they did have somewhere else to go: home.

As McElwee and his co-writers note, the African American voters who sat out 2016 were disproportionately young. But they were also disproportionately working-class. Despite the overwhelming focus on the white working class, larger percentages of blacks and Latinos than of whites are working class, whether measured by income, education, or self-identification. And soon people of color will make up the majority of the working class.

So it’s worth it for Democrats to take seriously why they failed to connect with the black working class in 2016.

The working class African Americans who stayed home in 2016 didn’t do so because Obama was no longer on the ticket—as some observers (including Cohn) have argued—but because they’d experienced little progress socially or economically since the Great Recession and because, as they told any journalist or pollster who would listen, they didn’t think either Clinton or Trump would do much to improve their lives.

The economic anxiety that afflicts working-class whites bears down even stronger on working-class blacks, who have long been overlooked by pundits and politicians, even as they found themselves near the bottom rung of the American economic latter.

But the Democrats don’t have to choose between working classes of different colors. African Americans are to the left of whites on just about every economic issue. That means that in order to target the needs of the black working class, Democrats will have to adopt the type of populist economic policies that, many observers argue, are Democrats’ best hope of winning back some of the Obama-Trump voters that Cohn and others believe are necessary for the party to be competitive in presidential and congressional contests.

The white voters for whom racism trumps all are lost to Democrats. So there’s no sense, morally or politically, in the Democrats’ returning to Sister Souljah–style racial pandering to whites. But by combining racial and cultural progressivism with an economic platform that’s equal parts Bernie Sanders and Black Lives Matter, Democrats can turn out Obama voters who stayed home in 2016 and win back some Obama-Trump voters.

While that type of economic populism might alienate some (though certainly not all) of the upscale whites that centrist Democrats have spent decades courting, the Clinton-Trump contest proved conclusively that “Romney Democrats” don’t exist—and even if they do, pandering to them on economics will only further alienate working-class Americans of all colors.

Decades of focus on upscale whites has perverted the Democratic Party’s policy priorities and led to Trump’s election. Fully out of power in Washington, and decimated at the state level, the Democrats have little to lose by trying something new. Listening to the black working class is the best place to start.