Much of the conventional wisdom since the disastrous electoral loss in Nov 2016 is that the Democratic Party lost because it had become too focused on identity politics and the educated liberal urban bastions on the two coasts. Bernie Sanders has maintained that a lack of an economic agenda that clearly benefits the working and middle classes was what turned voters away from the Democrats.
But a recent article in Vox provides a very different take on this issue. It points out that populism is on the rise all over the world in democracies which have far more socialized economic systems than what we have.
This had occurred to me a while ago. I had been trying to envision what possible Democratic / Progressive platform would have brought any significant number of Donald Trump’s supporters to our fold. My answer was, there isn’t one.
The whole basis of the Democratic / Progressive liberal agenda is diversity. It is about championing the rights of minorities and vulnerable populations. It is about LGBT rights, It is about a woman’s right to choose. It is fundamentally about ensuring that all Americans have a level playing field when it comes to economic opportunity.
Of course, as Bernie Sanders has so aptly demonstrated, liberals have fallen far short of achieving this level playing field. But the Vox article is fairly convincing in maintaining that this wasn’t actually the reason we lost the election.
The fact is that I cannot envision what agenda would both preserve the fundamental focus on civil rights, minority rights, women’s rights, maintaining the social safety net, and be based on the philosophy of mixed public / private management of the country’s economy. It is fundamental to Liberal and Progressive philosophy that the government has a crucial role in managing those things which we determine to be “public goods” on behalf on the American people.
These include clean air, clean water, the environment in general, our rivers, the ocean, endangered species, fish runs, and the social safety net (sometimes called the welfare system). Health care has, since its inception, been a mixed bag. The government has policies which heavily “regulate” the industry, and via medicare, medicaid, and the veteran’s administration covers some financing, but the majority of our system is private. It is an “employer based” system and insurance is provided by private insurers.
So, what do we see on the right? It certainly is not a monolithic group. The GOP base is made up of a disparate groups and philosophies. But one unifying element is an almost visceral dislike of the Federal Government. The Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, which has hijacked the Party’s agenda, wants to see smaller government, less regulation, a strong focus on property rights (as opposed to the public good), and far less Federal civil rights interference in state and local matters.
It is impossible to separate our current “populism” from “nativism”. The core demographic supporting Donald Trump and the farther right politicians is non-college educated whites. And they are Christians. This group is adamantly opposed to immigration. It wants to see deportation of undocumented residents. It wants to see a Wall built on the Mexican border. It wants to see an almost total ban on immigration from Islamic countries.
This group has gradually been influenced over a period of decades to become an anti-diversity, increasingly white supremacist group. They are convinced that diversity is a war against our Eurocentric values and heritage. They are xenophobic and more isolationist than we have seen for many years.
My point here is that these people are rabidly opposed on a very fundamental level to almost EVERYTHING we liberals and progressives stand for. They do not believe that the government should have much of a role in anything beyond defense and law enforcement. They believe that the social safety net is a giveaway of public money to undeserving minority moochers. They are made uncomfortable by cultural values different than their own, especially when they are introduced into their previously homogeneous communities.
So, I would ask, would an vehemently anti-abortion person be persuaded by an economic program designed to benefit their demographic to vote for a Party that is firmly committed to “choice”? I would say nothing would do that.
I would ask what would persuade a voter who hates the Federal Government, is convinced that all politicians are corrupt, and feels that just about everything the government does that he sees is bad, to vote for a candidate that believes in a single payer, national health system administered by the government? I would say nothing.
I would ask what would persuade a voter who is fundamentally frightened by minorities and immigrants, who wishes to see the clock turned back to when white exceptionalism was the rule in our country and minorities just had to go along, to vote for a candidate from a party that is fundamentally associated with equal opportunity and rights for all… that has made “inclusion” the basis of its philosophy? I would say nothing.
I think it is time to understand that the country is polarized between extremes that really are not going to be reconciled. One side is not going to be persuaded to join the other side. This is a conflict that is going to have winners and losers. The losers will not be happy. And nothing we can do as liberals and progressives will change that fact.
So, no, the Democratic Party does not have to abandon its focus on diversity and identity politics. What it needs to do is incorporate a more progressive agenda into a plan that targets it liberal / progressive base. It isn’t about winning over the Tea Party folks in the heartland, or the uneducated workers on the rust belt. It is about finally coming up with a program that actually does improve the lot of the folks that have been Democratic supporters all along.
Let’s make it clear to our minority populations that we have a real commitment to ending the war on drugs, shifting decriminalization to support via education, rehabilitation, mental health services, business development in the urban centers, etc. Let’s have a comprehensive plan to provide economic incentives and create educational / vocational alternatives for our workers who will be increasingly replaced by the robotics revolution.
To take back the country we need to motivate the folks that have traditionally been our base of supporters, not try to win over a group of folks that isn’t going to be won over no matter what we do. Instead, we need to maintain the focus we have had but actually start to deliver the goods. It was disinterest in our base this election that gave us Donald Trump, not a huge mandate.
Check out the article on Vox
No easy answers: why left-wing economics is not the answer to right-wing populism