Even before Donald Trump’s shocking victory last November, the press had already written the story of his rise. Despite studies showing that, like all Republican candidates, well-off whites formed the core of Trump’s support, pundits zeroed in on his white working-class backers, which most commentators defined solely in terms of education (whites without a college degree).
This dividing line ignored other crucial variables — such as income, self-identification, and occupation — but it fit with the popular belief that, from the office cubicle to the voting both, the postindustrial “New Economy” separated the intelligent from the ignorant in a virtuous meritocracy.
By the time Hillary Clinton conceded to Trump, non-college whites had become conflated with both the working class and racism itself. The Trump campaign, as one pundit argued, “laid bare the racial animus within the white working class and the Republican Party.”
While frequently wrongheaded, the outsized attention paid to the white working class wasn’t surprising.
For decades, Democratic defeats have been explained through the behavior of the working-class voters that formed the core of the party’s support in its post–Great Depression heyday. And for as long as the working class has been central to the Democratic Party, the working class has been presumed to be white.
But this singular focus on the white working class — rather than the working class as a whole, in all its hues — has (perhaps unintentionally) aided and abetted neoliberalism’s ascension in the Democratic Party. The fate of workers has been lost in the shuffle, undermining both the material wellbeing and the morale of what should be the party’s voting base.
Two truths about the white working class have framed the discussion of American working-class politics for more than fifty years. White workers, as political scientist Elisabeth Jacobs has summarized, are both “substantially more liberal” on economic policy and “marginally more conservative” on cultural issues than more well-off whites. This dynamic left the post–Civil Rights Democratic Party with a choice: move right on race, left on economics, or abandon the working class completely.
Since George McGovern’s landslide loss in the 1972 presidential election, the Democratic Party, under the influence of the neoliberal “New Democrats,” has chosen the final option. Rather than woo white workers with social conservatism or economic populism, the party decided to woo well-off white suburbanites with moderation on both social and economic issues.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign represented the apotheosis of this decades-long gamble. Her stunning defeat just as surely exposed it as an abject failure.
In the months leading up to the general election, both Democratic strategists and political pundits predicted that Clinton was headed for a sweeping victory. Telegraphing the consensus view, Vox called Trump’s nomination “a remarkable example of a major political party blowing a totally winnable national election” and referred to the nearly four-point gap between how well a generic Republican fared in the polls and Trump’s numbers as “The Trump Tax.”
Central to the belief that Clinton was sailing to an easy victory was the conviction that educated suburban whites would abandon Trump and his crude racism in droves. Acting on that conventional wisdom, Clinton downplayed economic populism and zeroed in on Trump’s divisive personality and general unfitness for office.
When the votes were counted, however, it became clear that educated white moderates hadn’t flocked to Clinton in anything close to the margins pundits had predicted. Even worse, Clinton’s strategy of avoiding economic populism had the unintended consequence of dampening the Democratic base’s enthusiasm, driving down support and turnout among both people of color and Millennials.
Nearly a year after the electoral catastrophe, Democratic elites still show few signs they’ve learned the right post-election lessons. Hillary Clinton’s new book blasts Bernie Sanders for offering “free ponies” instead of hardheaded policy.
And last month, Will Marshall, one of the cofounders of the Democratic Leadership Council — the preeminent group of neoliberal Democrats in the 1980s and ’90s — joined with other centrist Democrats to form New Democracy, a group that once again aims to stanch the electoral bleeding among working-class whites and further court well-off whites by steering the party right —away from the “distraction,” as Marshall put it, of progressive policies like single-payer health care.
By focusing on the role of white voters in Clinton’s defeat, rather than the failure of the Democrats’ neoliberal strategy, liberal pundits and party leaders are drawing the wrong conclusions from Trump’s victory. Instead of debating how to win white workers or doubling down on the misguided strategy of courting upscale whites, Democrats must train their attention on the needs of the working class as a whole.
This doesn’t just mean that the party must retain its concern with racial, gender, and sexual inequalities. It means that Democrats must move beyond vague discussions of diversity and opportunity, and begin committing themselves to fighting for a more substantive justice. It means they must make a real commitment to confronting income stagnation, rising inequality, and the increasing power of the rich in American politics.
Such a politics would not only win back many of the working-class whites who flipped from Obama to Trump this election. It would also increase turnout among Millennials and people of color, enlarging the Democratic base by bringing many low- and moderate-income Americans alienated from politics back into the political system.
Only by prioritizing the working class as a whole, in all of its diversity, can the Democratic Party craft the policies and messages that will create a durable electoral majority.
From Working-Class Whites to Business-Class Suburbanites
Beginning in the Jacksonian Era and for more than a century after, the Democratic Party was, wholly or partly, a white supremacist institution. As a result, the cloud of racism hung over the party’s claim to represent the interests of workers and what Franklin Roosevelt would call the “forgotten man.”
Yet despite the Democratic Party’s alignment with segregationist whites, the Great Depression and Roosevelt’s New Deal inaugurated a decades-long process of pulling African Americans away from the party of Lincoln and into the Democratic coalition. The economic progressivism of New Deal Democrats attracted many black voters, as political scientist Eric Schickler has explained, even as Southern Democrats’ continued influence meant that many New Deal programs initially excluded large numbers of African Americans.
Contrary to recent suggestions by liberal pundits, the New Deal didn’t succeed because of Dixiecrat racism. It succeeded in spite of it. As Schickler argues, racial and economic liberalism grew increasingly intertwined during the New Deal era, thanks to the efforts of black freedom activists, the desire of Democratic politicians to win the votes of African Americans migrating to the North, and the interracial organizing of industrial unions. The “Double Victory” campaign against discrimination and a tight wartime labor market helped make World War II a time of economic gains for African Americans, and the dream of a united working class seemed more in reach than ever.
Meanwhile, many Southern Democratic senators and representatives began siding with right-wing Republicans against both civil rights and labor measures during the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. Southern Democrats were instrumental in helping Ohio Republican Robert Taft, an archconservative, deal a death blow to unions with the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act (which allowed states to pass anti-union “right-to-work” statutes).
Yet World War II and its aftermath changed how many left-liberals viewed the white working class. Looking at Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, the Jim Crow South, and, later, McCarthyism, many American intellectuals began to ask how such “authoritarian” ideologies took root.
They concluded that the answer, as sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset phrased it in an influential 1959 article, lay in the white working class, whose members exhibited “greater suggestibility” and an “inability to take a complex view,” among other character flaws. Sometimes it was unclear exactly who Lipset was referring to. Manual laborers? People with low levels of education? People with low incomes? Such specifics hardly seemed to matter, though, given the seductive nature of Lipset’s thesis (which would, in time, come under scrutiny, though without much effect on its influence).
The idea of “working-class authoritarianism” had profound implications for how liberals thought about the Democratic Party’s base. “The gradual realization that extremist and intolerant movements in modern society are more likely to be based on the lower classes than on the middle and upper classes,” Lipset noted, “has posed a tragic dilemma for those intellectuals of the democratic left who once believed the proletariat necessarily to be a force for liberty, racial equality, and social progress.” David Riesman and Nathan Glazer went even farther: liberal intellectuals, the sociologists argued, now had more in common with Wall Street traders than with workers, especially on issues like “civil rights and civil liberties.”
For a time, the question of “working-class authoritarianism” seemed irrelevant to anyone beyond a small subset of academics and pundits. The Democratic Party captured the White House in 1960 and 1964 — the latter by landslide margins — with working-class whites at the core of its coalition. But Democrats’ 1966 midterm losses and Hubert Humphrey’s defeat in the 1968 presidential contest thrust the white working class into the center of the political discussion.
When signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Lyndon Johnson supposedly proclaimed that the Democrats would lose the South for a generation. The 1966 and 1968 elections seemed to prove Johnson’s apocryphal prediction correct. Southern whites with bigoted views on race fled the Democratic Party, creating a corresponding drop in Democrats’ overall share of working-class whites. But as Schickler and other scholars have noted, the Civil Rights Act was less a sudden disjuncture than the culmination of a slow-moving realignment that had begun during the New Deal.
In fact, focusing on the Civil Rights Act’s role in transforming the Democratic coalition obscures deeper, decades-long political and economic trends in the South. Long before the 1960s, GOP leaders had begun to water down the party’s Reconstruction-era commitment to racial equality by assuring Southerners that the party would not, in the words of President William Howard Taft, “interfere with the regulation by the Southern States of their domestic affairs” — a shift that helped the GOP win elections in the region beginning in the 1920s and start drawing Southern whites away from Democrats in national presidential elections following FDR’s landslide 1932 victory. The Republican Party’s growing attention to the South continued through the 1950s, when President Dwight Eisenhower invested heavily in the GOP’s party infrastructure in Southern states, fostering increasing competitiveness in a once-solidly-Democratic region.
Paradoxically, the New Deal’s fiscal largesse had also fueled economic conservatism’s slow ascent in the South. FDR’s conscious efforts to develop the region catalyzed the South’s economic shift from “Cotton Belt to Sunbelt,” and the bipartisan commitment to Cold War defense spending further stoked the South’s economy throughout the post–World War II era.
With the Southern economy humming along, its political leaders worked to create a low-tax, union-free, pro-business environment — enabling states to poach businesses from the Northeast and Midwest and setting off an economic race to the bottom that ultimately resulted in outsourcing and offshoring.
For postwar “New South” politicos, the goal was to replace the South’s image as a racist backwater with a Sunbelt branding that stressed the region’s dynamic, high-tech economy. The middle- and upper-middle-class whites that inhabited the region’s fast-growing suburbs — many of them transplants from other regions — likewise rejected the overt racism associated with the old South. They instead embraced, historian Matt Lassiter writes, a “discourse of suburban innocence that depicted residential segregating as the class-based outcome of meritocratic individualism.”
While Southern whites had slowly been moving to the GOP for decades, the party’s biggest advances in the region frequently came in Sunbelt suburbs — not the Deep South — during the 1960s and ’70s. In addition, as numerous studies have found, well-off whites’ shift away from the Democratic Party in the South was more pronounced than their working-class counterparts.
Unfortunately, the most influential contemporary analysis of the GOP’s Southern inroads directed its attention elsewhere. Republican strategist Kevin Phillips’s The Emerging Republican Majority, published in 1969, argued that the white working class could be united with the existing GOP base to form a durable Republican coalition.
Formerly Democratic white workers, Phillips wrote, had been “elevated by prosperity to middle-class status and conservatism.” As a result of this supposed embourgeoisement, Phillips argued, the GOP no longer needed to worry that Democrats could win working-class whites with populist economic appeals. “In the future,” he predicted, “the liberal-conservative division will come on social issues.” The GOP could create a robust majority simply by fomenting racial and cultural backlash.
While The Emerging Republican Majority was less novel than it seemed — liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger had written two years earlier that “[t]he issues are no longer social or economic so much as they are cultural and moral” — the Nixon White House “devoured and relished” the book, according to reporters Rowland Evans and Robert Novak. Phillips’s blueprint came to be known as the “Southern Strategy” (one of the most widely used, and widely misunderstood, concepts in American history, which has been elevated to a catchall explanation for the Democratic Party’s post-1960s electoral downfall).
Taken in by the simplicity of Phillips’s ideas — which, interestingly enough, had originated in case studies of elections in Northern cities — the Nixon administration put them into full effect in the 1970 midterms.
With “the most vigorous ideological campaign of any President of this century,” the columnist James Reston wrote, the White House enthusiastically backed hard-right candidates in congressional and gubernatorial races across the country. Stumping for favored GOP hopefuls, Nixon spotlighted the racially tinged issues of rising crime, high taxes, and welfare, while Vice President Spiro Agnew — the closest thing the GOP had to the arch-segregationist George Wallace — denounced Democrats’ “pusillanimous pussyfooting on the critical issue of law and order” at every opportunity.
Though he didn’t say so publicly, Nixon had his doubts about Philips’s thesis. He understood that the GOP’s economic program had little to offer voters in “blue collar suburbs.” The GOP needed to “get above the material things,” Nixon explained. “If they’re thinking economics, we lose.”
Unfortunately for Nixon, white working-class voters were “thinking economics” in 1970. Inflation was running at more than 5 percent. Unemployment was rising. And the GOP did lose them. The white working class broke for the Democrats, often in higher margins than in 1966 or 1968. Though Nixon bristled publicly at the press’s portrayal of the midterms as a loss for the GOP and a failure for the Phillips strategy, privately he agreed.
Within weeks of the election, Nixon embraced a new understanding of what moved working-class voters. Back in the summer of 1970, Jerome Rosow, an assistant secretary of labor, had delivered him a fifteen-page report on “The Problem of the Blue-Collar Worker.” Rosow’s ideas had received little attention in the run-up to the midterms, largely because they almost wholly contradicted Phillips’s thesis. Now Nixon was ready to listen.
Rosow placed the concrete economic and social concerns of all workers, not just white workers, at the heart of his analysis. The working class was not comfortable and prosperous, as the “working-class authoritarianism” thesis claimed. The 40 percent of families making between $5,000 and $10,000 per year — which included not only blue-collar workers, but also those in low-paying white-collar service jobs — were facing an “economic squeeze . . . related to wage, tax and government benefit structure for the nonpoor.”
While Rosow agreed that white workers harbored racial hostility, he attributed it to low levels of education and competition within the working class for scarce economic resources. Rather than foment these bigotries in order to divide workers along racial lines, Rosow recommended that Nixon pursue an array of government spending measures directed at the entire working class, including subsidized child care and housing, expanded disability insurance, educational assistance, and federal relief for rising state and local taxes.
Conservatives fumed. They slammed Rosow’s proposals and encouraged Nixon to double down on the race-baiting the administration had deployed in the midterms. But Nixon dissented, instead proposing a plan to build a “New Majority” that would unite the traditionally Democratic urban white working class and the traditionally Republican suburban white middle class.
In order to court suburban moderates, Nixon re-embraced the “color-blind conservatism” that he had deployed in the 1968 campaign, when Wallace’s segregationist candidacy had made capturing the right flank impossible. Nixon now understood that while suburbanites may have opposed policies like busing for integration, they also rejected the hard-right rhetoric of the 1970 midterms.
To win the working-class whites who’d been “thinking economics” in the 1970 midterms, Nixon pushed his tax and spending policies to the left. He pursued substantial fiscal and monetary stimulus. He signed not one but two significant expansions of Social Security, including disability insurance, into law. He enacted Revenue Sharing, which he pitched as a way to reduce regressive state and local taxes, and promised direct federal relief from property taxes, which he denounced for levying an “unfair and heavy burden on the poor, the elderly, the wage earner, the farmer, and those on fixed incomes.”
As Nixon’s top domestic adviser, John Ehrlichman, admitted to the press, “The essence of this is redistribution.” Nixon also shocked the country by instituting wage and price controls, an anti-inflation tool favored by liberal Democrats and staunchly opposed by Republicans.
While Nixon was busy burnishing his reelection credentials, the battle for the 1972 Democratic nomination was exposing fault lines in the party’s approach to the white working class and, relatedly, Democrats’ understanding of their party’s ideal electoral coalition.
George McGovern’s successful long-shot campaign drew press attention for its appeals to antiwar youth. To many observers, McGovern’s campaign resembled Eugene McCarthy’s ill-fated 1968 primary challenge to Lyndon Johnson. McCarthy had little use for the white working class — and, in many cases, poor and working-class African Americans — instead drawing most of his support from white upper-middle-class professional and college students.
Events like 1970’s “hard hat riot,” though not representative of all white workers, seemed to confirm for many liberals both the wisdom of McCarthy’s political calculation and the validity of the “working-class authoritarianism” thesis. New Left radicals also largely abandoned the working class as a “revolutionary subject,” elevating in its place college students and people of color.
Undoubtedly, McGovern’s antiwar stance and social liberalism attracted not only legions of college students but also many of the middle-class white liberals who had turned out for McCarthy. One of McGovern’s advisers, Frederick Dutton, even advanced a Democratic version of the embourgeoisement thesis, predicting that expanding prosperity would soon raise the enlightened lifestyle concerns of college students and well-off suburban whites above the material concerns — and supposed social backwardness — of the white working class. (Contrary to Dutton’s predictions, McGovern’s overall performance in the general election among college-educated whites would be identical to Humphrey’s in 1968.)
But despite the attention paid to McGovern’s educated supporters, the South Dakota senator’s campaign was more reminiscent of Robert F. Kennedy’s attempt in the 1968 primaries to unite people of color with working-class whites than to McCarthy’s quixotic campaign. Indeed, McGovern’s approach to the white working class was crucial to his success — a fact not lost on the Nixon campaign.
“Only two smart campaigns emerge, Wallace and McGovern,” a Committee to Reelect the President memo analyzing the Democratic primary field noted. Yet whereas Wallace encouraged white workers to direct their anger at (presumably black) “welfare loafers,” McGovern sought to channel the ire of the broader working class at “the richer, corporations, and Republicans in power.”
This “class appeal,” the Nixon campaign memo concluded, was “bad for Republicans.” It proposed higher taxes on the rich, tax relief for the poor and working class, and generous universal social provisions, including a universal basic income and single-payer health insurance.
McGovern’s fellow Democratic candidates were more likely to follow Wallace’s lead in appealing to the white working class, however. Even liberal stalwart and erstwhile civil rights champion Hubert Humphrey resorted to race-baiting in the 1972 primaries, with one of his radio ads declaring, in Wallace-esque terms, “Humphrey will stop the flow of your tax dollars to lazy welfare chiselers.” The party mainstream, in other words, saw Wallace’s racist pandering, not McGovern’s interracial populism, as the key to winning the white working class.
By November, the economy was booming and the Vietnam War was winding down. No Democratic candidate — moderate, liberal, leftist — stood a chance of defeating Nixon, as econometric political science models made clear. McGovern lost in a landslide.
But however inevitable, McGovern’s loss would be taken up as a cudgel, and profoundly reshape the Democratic Party’s relationship with the working class.
The Birth of the Neoliberal Southern Strategy
McGovern’s defeat created an opening for conservatives and moderates in the Democratic Party. Philosophically opposed to both McGovern’s social liberalism and economic populism, these neoliberal “New Democrats” used the South Dakota senator’s crushing loss as an opportunity to try to banish both from the party.
The neoliberals called for a complete reorientation of the party’s relationship to the white working class and people of color. Since the Roosevelt era, liberal Democrats had pieced together their coalition by pairing soft social-democratic economics, which appealed to workers across the board, with support for civil rights, which solidified blacks’ loyalty to the party. But the neoliberals saw this “New Deal ethic” as an albatross.
Rather than targeting working-class whites, they insisted, the party should cater to well-off white professionals. Their prescription: adopt a program of economic and social moderation, not redistribution, as the solution to inequality — be it economic, racial, gender, or sexual.
This strategy had little to offer most African Americans. But the neoliberals assumed that Democrats could ignore blacks’ substantive concerns and still win their votes in large numbers simply by virtue of not being the GOP. Blacks were, in political scientist Paul Frymer’s phrase, “electorally captured.”
The pitch to pivot toward well-off whites came just as the working class needed even greater assistance. While poor and working-class people had seen great economic gains in the decades after World War II, more than half of American families in the late 1960s and early 1970s still fell below what the Bureau of Labor Statistics considered an “intermediate budget” for a family of four, while nearly one-third fell below its “lower budget.” The rising tide of prosperity had not lifted most Americans’ boats, despite liberals’ declarations to the contrary.
As the United Auto Workers noted acerbically, even the “intermediate” BLS budget assumed that a family’s toaster would last for thirty-three years and its vacuum cleaner fourteen years, that the parents in the four-person family would go to the movies once every three months, and that they would have no money for savings.
Not only had the working class not become bourgeois during the post–World War II years, the income growth they’d generally seen between the New Deal and the Nixon administration was coming to an end. Income inequality once again began to march upward in the late 1960s, before eventually exploding in the 1980s. The early 1970s would also usher in decades of nearly stagnant wages for most Americans. For the more than seven in ten Americans without a college degree, the effect was particularly dramatic: incomes for high school–educated workers began falling in real terms.
Escalating inequality unfolded against the backdrop of a larger crisis for the “growth liberalism” that had dominated economic policymaking. The 1970s would be an era of “stagflation,” a combination of high unemployment and high inflation that policymakers had previously thought impossible. More Americans found themselves out of work in the mid-1970s than at any time since the end of World War II, while inflation eroded the incomes of poor and working-class Americans at greater rates than those of the rich.
Government fiscal policy exacerbated this growing pocketbook squeeze. Between the mid-1950s and mid-1970s, taxes rose much more for lower- and middle-income Americans than for the well-off, who actually saw their tax burden fall.
Some on the Left understood that the promises of postwar liberalism hadn’t translated into economic security for most Americans. In a 1972 issue of Dissent dedicated to blue-collar workers, socialist intellectual Michael Harrington dispelled the myth that the working class “no longer exists in America.” Many politicians and commentators, Harrington wrote, had been misled by the relative shift from blue-collar to white-collar work in the US economy. Most of these new white-collar jobs, he argued, were no guarantee of prosperity. Blue-collar or white-collar, this working class was bound together by one common experience: “it does not have enough money.”
Harrington wasn’t alone in challenging the emerging consensus. In 1974’s The Working Class Majority, Andrew Levison argued that the white working class was at once less prosperous and less reactionary than many pundits believed. But if it lacked resources, the working class was also becoming more diverse — necessitating a renewed attention to workers of all races.
Left-liberal activists like Saul Alinsky and George Wiley and progressive organizations like Public Citizen and ACORN joined the cause in turning to the needs of the multiracial working and middle classes. But their calls for more robust solutions to poverty and inequality fell on deaf ears in a rightward-moving Democratic Party.
The proto-“supply side” austerity of Jimmy Carter’s one-term presidency struck many of the chords that would soon compose the neoliberals’ siren song. Carter resisted calls from the reenergized grassroots labor-left to focus on unemployment and inequality, rather than inflation, and rejected both FDR’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society liberalism.
“Government cannot solve our problems, it can’t set our goals, it cannot define our vision,” Carter declared in his 1978 State of the Union address. “Government cannot eliminate poverty or provide a bountiful economy or reduce inflation or save our cities or cure illiteracy or provide energy.”
Carter’s economic conservatism had a corrosive effect on the Democratic Party’s base. In four short years, support from working-class whites dropped yet again. According to a team of sociologists led by Lane Kenworthy, the impetus was economic stagnation — a “growing share of working-class whites lost confidence in the Democrats’ ability to deliver the goods on key material issues.” Their declining prospects created an opening for “Ronald Reagan’s simple and sharply contrasting strategy for managing the economy.” (The importance of economic rather than cultural or racial issues in Democrats’ falling support in recent decades is echoed in the work of other scholars, who’ve found that upper-income whites attach greater significance to cultural issues than their working-class counterparts.)
Even worse, once Democrats lost their advantage on the economy with these voters, they never regained it: younger generations of white workers with no loyalty to the party replaced older ones for whom the image of the Democratic Party as the party of working-class prosperity was a living memory.
But neoliberal Democrats were in denial. Despite Carter’s support for inflation-fighting austerity, a supply-side tax cut, and business–friendly fiscal responsibility, they cast Carter’s loss to Reagan as a loss for the Left, just as they would whenever a Democrat, no matter how centrist, was beaten in the years to come.
The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) played a particularly important role in disseminating this kind of spin. Founded in 1985, the DLC used money from corporations like Morgan Stanley, Dow Chemical, Citigroup, and Koch Industries to swing the party decisively to the right.
The DLC’s most coveted voters were upscale, suburban white moderates. In order to woo this demographic, the DLC urged the party to dedicate itself to “consensual” rather than “conflictual” values, which largely meant shifting to the right on both economic and racial issues and trading a commitment to equality for a commitment to “opportunity.” Virginia governor Chuck Robb, one of the DLC’s founders, said the DLC’s goal was to make the Democrats the “party of change, the party of economic opportunity and growth, the party of strength and resolve and willingness to defend basic American values and freedom, and hopefully . . . the party of fiscal responsibility.”
In 1988, the DLC helped engineer a “Super Tuesday” of Southern states, hoping it would boost New Democrat Al Gore. Instead, it aided civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, a bête noire of neoliberal Democrats. “I would say this to Jesse Jackson,” Gary Hart told the Atlantic Monthly in 1988. “’Jesse, what are your policies? More of the same? More maintenance? More handouts?’” What the party needed, Hart explained, wasn’t Jackson’s “Rainbow Coalition,” but to become “more market-oriented in economics” and to ignore the demands of “special interests” like labor, African Americans, feminists, and the poor.
The New Democrats rallied around Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, a moderate technocrat who embodied the party’s post-McGovern shift, as the responsible alternative to Jackson. Dukakis’s pitch to the nation at the Democratic National Convention emphasized “competence” and eschewed “ideology.” It specifically avoided discussions of racism or class and instead stressed “old-fashioned values like accountability and responsibility.” Only after Dukakis’s loss to George H. W. Bush did the centrists who had championed him label Dukakis a lefty.
Though it didn’t prevent the Democrats from losing three consecutive presidential races, the New Democrats’ targeting of upscale whites did begin to pay off. Throughout the 1980s, Democratic presidential candidates performed almost equally well among college and non-college whites, a key first step in what Ronald Brownstein has dubbed a “class inversion” of the parties among white voters.
Doubling down on this inversion, the New Democrats believed, was the path to victory — no matter the costs to unions, the poor, or African Americans.
After Dukakis’s drubbing in 1988, the neoliberals called for Democrats to move even further to the right.
In the DLC’s post-1988 report, strategists William Galston and Elaine Kamarck insisted that the Democrats should distance themselves from the language of New Deal liberalism and embrace “middle-class values” like “individual responsibility, hard work, [and] equal opportunity.”
The DLC’s leaders increasingly pinned their electoral hopes on Arkansas governor Bill Clinton, who became the Council’s chair in 1990. Clinton’s takeaway from Dukakis’s loss was as misguided as it was DLC friendly: “If we lead with class warfare, we lose.”
In 1992, Clinton carried the pro-business centrism that had suffused his governorship onto the presidential campaign trail. Traditional left-liberal concerns — such as economic inequality, poverty, and racial segregation — received short shrift. He explained issues of inequality in terms of individual skills and education, not policy or political power.
“[W]hat you earn depends on what you learn,” Clinton and his vice presidential nominee, Al Gore, proclaimed in their campaign book. The solution to stagnant incomes, they argued, wasn’t robust government intervention, but creating “the best educated, best-trained workforce in the world.” They had little use for unions and eagerly supported “free trade” agreements. “We believe in free enterprise and the power of market forces,” they wrote.
According to Clinton, there was little that stoking the growth of the postindustrial “New Economy” couldn’t solve. As he proclaimed in his 1992 DNC acceptance speech, “The most important family policy, urban policy, labor policy, minority policy, and foreign policy America can have is an expanding, entrepreneurial economy of high-skill, high-wage jobs.”
With his deep-rooted faith in high-tech entrepreneurialism, Clinton differed little from Dukakis. But Clinton added a crucial element: a rightward turn on race. Years later, DLC acolytes would deny and downplay the role of racism in Clinton’s 1992 campaign. But its centrality to Clinton and the New Democrats was undeniable. As Franklin Foer admitted in a sympathetic account, “More than any issue, race defined the rise of the New Democrats in the 1980s.”
Clinton didn’t just take black voters for granted. He pointedly used African Americans as a foil to demonstrate that Democrats had abandoned racial liberalism. He snubbed Jesse Jackson, denounced Sister Souljah, executed Ricky Ray Rector, and adopted punitive, racialized stances on welfare and criminal justice.
In part, Clinton’s racial posturing was aimed at winning back working-class whites. After all, if non-college whites were to the left of the party on economic issues and to the right of the party on social issues, the New Democrats knew which way they preferred to move. But the lurch to the right on race was also designed to help Clinton win over “white, mainly suburban, mostly middle-class voters,” who were intolerant of anything beyond an empty commitment to “equal opportunity” for African Americans.
In some ways, Clinton’s gambit succeeded. The Arkansas governor equaled Dukakis’s percentages among every group of white voters except whites with some college (among whom Clinton ran six points ahead of Dukakis). But because 1992 was a three-way race (with Texas billionaire Ross Perot finishing in a strong third behind George H. W. Bush), Clinton performed better than Dukakis as a share of the two-party vote.
Still, Clinton’s ostensibly resounding win overshadowed some troubling trends. “Clinton’s ratings are about as high among affluent, educated, managers as among less-educated blue collar Americans,” Los Angeles Times pollster John Brennan noted. “Younger blue-collar males — a particularly pessimistic lot these days — remain doubtful about Clinton.” Nor were blue-collar whites the only group uncertain about Clinton.
Despite New Democrats’ conviction that they could tack right on racial issues without losing African-American voters, the 1992 Democratic primaries saw “the smallest black voter turnout for a presidential primary in a decade.” In many key states, Clinton won less than half the number of African-American votes that Jesse Jackson had received during his losing campaign four years earlier. Lack of black enthusiasm for Clinton continued into the general election, both in terms of turnout and vote share.
But the New Democrats claimed that Clinton’s victory proved that economic and cultural centrism worked. (In truth, the force that propelled Clinton over the finish line in 1992 was Americans’ skittishness about the economy.)
Once in office, Clinton did little to reassure Americans uneasy about their material standing. In fact, to many members of the party’s traditional voting base, his actions had the opposite effect. Brushing aside the objections of unions and many congressional Democrats, Clinton successfully advanced Bush’s North American Free Trade Agreement.
“Few issues in American life have produced a class schism like NAFTA,” Hart Research’s Guy Molyneux observed in early 1994. “People in blue-collar households, with moderate incomes, and without a college degree were all strongly opposed to the treaty. On the other side were those earning over $50,000 and four year college graduates.” In a prescient aside, Molyneux warned that blue-collar workers would hold Democrats accountable in the decades to come if it became clear that trade had cost them their jobs.
By the end of his first term, Clinton was declaring that “the era of big government is over,” and that Americans were entering “the era of balanced budgets and smaller government.” Welfare was also on the chopping block.
Since the program’s inception, conservatives had yearned to eliminate cash assistance to the needy (officially called Aid to Families with Dependent Children). Neither Reagan nor Bush had been able to achieve that goal. But Clinton made it a priority. Early in his reelection year, Clinton sided with Republicans against most congressional Democrats (and a few members of his own administration) to “end welfare as we know it,” a policy shift that increased deep poverty and left many of the most marginalized with nowhere to turn.
This didn’t much trouble Clinton, however. Neither the blue-collar workers opposed to NAFTA nor the poor Americans hurt by welfare reform were in his targeted demographic. Instead, Clinton’s reelection campaign focused on a group of upscale white women dubbed “soccer moms.”
While Clinton had lost white married suburban women to Bush by nearly a two-to-one margin in 1992, polls in 1996 showed Clinton edging Dole among this group. Suddenly, the “soccer mom” vote assumed an outsized role in the imagination of Clinton strategists. The problem was, they weren’t really Democratic voters.
“What makes the soccer moms so key this time is that they are voting Republican for Congress and Democratic for President,” Democratic pollster Celinda Lake explained. Clinton’s strategy, in other words, revolved around courting voters that would help him secure reelection, but wouldn’t provide him with the Democratic congressional majority necessary (if insufficient) to enact progressive policies. (Lake, for her part, believed Clinton should target “waitress moms” — blue-collar women who were a more traditional Democratic constituency.)
On Election Day, Clinton defeated Bob Dole with huge gains in the suburbs and among college-educated women. Yet, as Lake predicted, “soccer moms” tended to split their tickets, pulling the lever for Clinton for president and Republicans for Congress.
Not that many Clinton allies minded. New Democrats, one report noted, could “hardly hide their glee” that the Democrats failed to retake the House, because it meant that Clinton would have cover to reach across the aisle and make a deal on entitlement programs.
After Clinton’s reelection, the DLC pushed him, in From’s words, to pursue a “fundamental restructuring of our biggest systems for delivering public benefits — Medicare, Social Security, and public education, for openers.” For New Democrats, that meant “marketplace” solutions and a “grand bargain” with Republicans that traded higher minimum Social Security benefits for partial privatization, “promot[ing] individual wealth creation and broader ownership.”
“The grand bargain sketched here . . . would convert Social Security from an entitlement based on the false promise that everyone can consume more than they produce to a system that promotes savings, investment, and greater economic self-reliance,” Will Marshall, the then-president of the DLC-affiliated Progressive Policy Institute, wrote. “And it would embody a new approach to governing based on a key New Democrat insight: That in the Information Age, government’s role is not to take care of us, but to give us the tools we need to take care of ourselves and each other.”
In late 1997, Clinton met secretly with House GOP leader Newt Gingrich and Ways and Means chair Bill Archer to hammer out a plan to partially privatize Social Security. “I’m prepared to take the political heat to provide political cover for the Republicans,” Clinton assured Archer. The outlines of the deal included a hike in the retirement age and the diversion of a portion of payroll tax dollars into private accounts.
In exchange for dismantling the greatest Democratic policy achievement of the twentieth century, virtually all Clinton wanted was a promise that the GOP wouldn’t try to use the projected budget surplus for tax cuts.
Clinton and Gingrich planned to announce their Social Security privatization deal in 1998. Then the two would turn to overhauling Medicare. The president’s strategy was to ignore the protests of more progressive Democrats and assemble a coalition of Republicans and conservative New Democrats and Blue Dog Democrats to pass entitlement reform.
Only the Monica Lewinsky scandal saved what remained of the American welfare state from Clinton and Gingrich’s clutches.
The White-Collar Strategy Gains Steam — and Runs Aground
Reflecting on the results of the 1996 campaign, Democratic strategists couldn’t agree why Clinton had prevailed.
The DLC claimed that Clinton’s centrist stances on the budget, welfare, and crime had garnered him the votes of upscale, college-educated whites. But former Clinton pollster Stanley Greenberg argued that Clinton won because working- and middle-class voters believed (incorrectly, as it turned out) that he would pursue traditional Democratic domestic priorities, including defending Medicare and Social Security.
In some sense, the debate was academic. The dot-com boom lifted the economy, making Clinton a shoo-in for reelection, even if he didn’t exactly inspire enthusiasm. (Turnout in 1996 was the lowest since 1924, with less than half of eligible Americans casting a ballot.) But the discussion was of enormous importance for charting the party’s path forward.
Clinton’s success emboldened New Democrats in their declarations that the party’s future lay with well-off whites. “Just as industrial workers formed the backbone of the New Deal coalition, the party needs to attract the knowledge workers who are emerging as the dominant force in the information economy,” Marshall wrote in 1997. “Liberal elites,” he claimed, were the only ones who supported “economic populism.”
Likewise, Clinton pollster Mark Penn argued that the president’s reelection proved that blue-collar whites were now irrelevant to the Democratic Party. Attempts to appeal to the working class, he claimed, would pull the Democrats back into making a “losing class-warfare argument.”
More progressive Democratic strategists pointed to warning signs obscured by Clinton’s victory. “Noncollege-educated voters in particular are deeply concerned about their ability to afford education for their children, to pay for health care, and to provide for their retirement,” Greenberg wrote. “They strongly support measures designed to hold corporations accountable and are markedly skeptical of the value of free trade agreements.” The DLC’s “elite centrist agenda” of balanced budgets and entitlement cuts, he warned, held little appeal for these voters.
Clinton’s policies not only disproportionately harmed the poor and people of color — they didn’t even secure the loyalties of working-class whites. Democrats experienced another drop in support among white workers during the mid-1990s, likely as result of NAFTA and other Clinton economic policies as well as the cultural conservatism of working-class white men.
Ultimately, Clinton’s sole claim to lionization by the New Democrats came from his electoral victories and the relatively rapid economic growth of the late 1990s. However, as FiveThirtyEight’s Ben Casselman has argued, most of the things that boosted the economy, from the rise of the Internet to the entry of the Baby Boomers into their peak earning years, had little to do with Clinton’s policies. And in gutting welfare, signing NAFTA, cutting capital gains taxes, and deregulating Wall Street, Clinton’s policies did tremendous harm to the poor and working class while helping set the stage for the financial crisis that gave us the Great Recession.
“The president might not be able to conjure GDP growth out of thin air,” the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson has written. “But he (or she) can shape how the winnings are distributed.” Under Clinton, that distribution was upward. The Gini coefficient grew throughout the 1990s as the incomes of the very richest shot up.
The New Democrats parried criticisms that they had abandoned the poor and working class or stoked inequality by formulating a 1990s version of the embourgeoisement thesis. In the inaugural issue of the DLC’s Blueprint Magazine, Galston and Kamarck painted a sunny picture of an American economy where “millions of Americans are surging into the ranks of the upper middle class and wealthy.”
“We can discern the rise of a new learning class of workers who will dominate at least the first half of the 21st century,” Galston and Kamarck wrote. “They will be better educated, more affluent, more mobile, and more self-reliant. . . . Their political outlook and behavior will increasingly defy the class-based divisions of the old economy, and they will be increasingly skeptical of centralized, one-size-fits-all solutions.”
The DLC’s founder, Al From, echoed this diagnosis. “The sharp class differences of the Industrial Age are becoming less distinct as more and more Americans move into the middle and upper-middle classes,” he argued. The Democrats should therefore give up targeting either people of color or the white working class — to say nothing of the poor — and instead go after the “affluent, educated, diverse, suburban, ‘wired,’ and moderate” members of the “rising learning class” (who also happened to be overwhelmingly white).
The DLC encouraged Democrats to distance themselves from “special interests” and “intermediaries”: unions and organizations that represented “identity group politics,” which they equated with “separatist claims based on race, ethnicity or gender.” Anything that distracted from the New Democrats’ favored audience of well-off, fiscally conservative whites was verboten.
The DLC also dismissed claims that income inequality was “the fly in the New Economy ointment.” Inequality, economists at the DLC’s think tank insisted, had been overblown by their left critics and would “begin shrinking” soon. The only answer to inequality, they concluded, was a continued fidelity to “fiscal discipline, global competition, flexible labor markets, transparent capital markets, deregulated businesses, rapid communications, and limited government interference in markets.”
A triumphalist — and, like much of his work, artfully misleading — 1998 report by Penn claimed that Americans were fundamentally optimistic about the “New Economy.” Penn’s survey showed that those he dubbed “wired workers” were particularly enthusiastic, while lower-income workers, blue-collar workers, younger workers, and black workers were the most pessimistic.
That those most concerned about the “New Economy” represented the Democrats’ traditional voting base didn’t temper Penn’s enthusiasm — nor did the fact (omitted from Penn’s write-up) that the most common response to the open-ended question “What does the term ‘New Economy’ mean to you?” was that it was a meaningless “buzzword.”
By 2000, “socially liberal and fiscally conservative” “wired workers” were Democrats’ hot new demographic target. “Everything that a strategist does — everything that I do as a strategist — is focused on suburban voters,” Democratic pollster Doug Schoen told the New York Times.
The strategy of the Republican nominee that year, Texas governor George W. Bush, was based on running against Clinton’s personal foibles and blurring the lines between Democratic nominee Al Gore’s Clintonesque centrism and Bush’s own “compassionate conservatism.” It was an argument that voters could be forgiven for believing, considering Clinton had spent the 1990s attempting to elide the differences between his party and the GOP. With seemingly few major policy distinctions, many voters viewed the race as little more than a personality contest, and Gore trailed Bush throughout the summer.
In a desperate attempt to avert defeat, Gore made a late-campaign foray into “mild–mannered” economic populism, beginning with his convention speech. The goal, Gore’s pollster explained, was to make Bush the “candidate of the wealthy and most privileged, who would potentially endanger Social Security, [and] oppose a woman’s right to choose.” The populist turn worked, bringing Gore within striking distance of Bush.
But New Democrats were apoplectic.
“A redistributionist appeal doesn’t work anymore,” From fumed. “This is a different country. Attacking oil companies and pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies will not win elections, I guarantee you.” Gore’s populism, the DLCers warned, risked alienating the well-off whites that they had worked so hard to attract. “Once you have a class warfare message, you can’t appeal to the upper middle class,” an unnamed Clinton White House strategist told the Daily News. “Democrats have to be the party of the new economy.” Neoliberal journalists like Mickey Kaus, Michael Kinsley, Mort Zuckerman, and Joe Klein joined conservative pundits like George Will and Peggy Noonan in panning Gore’s populist turn.
When Gore lost the Electoral College vote, DLC acolytes blamed Gore’s populism, however tepid, for his defeat. “Gore chose a populist rather than a New Democrat message,” From maintained. “As a result, voters viewed him as too liberal and identified him as an advocate of big government. Those perceptions, whether fair or not, hurt him with male voters in general and with key New Economy swing voters in particular. By emphasizing class warfare he seemed to be talking to Industrial Age America, not Information Age America.”
However, contra From, the polls made clear that Gore’s eleventh-hour populism had staved off defeat in the popular vote by energizing the Democratic base and winning back some downscale whites — all without performing worse than Clinton had among the DLC’s prized upscale demographic. In fact, many Bush voters preferred Gore’s economic message, but voted against him because they disliked him personally or associated him with Clinton’s scandals. (The number one reason Bush voters cited for their choice: “restoring honor and dignity to the White House.”)
Gore’s Electoral College loss wasn’t the only bad news for Democrats. After eight years of Clintonism, Democrats had fallen to fifty-year lows in both the US House and Senate, dropped below twenty governorships for the first time since 1970, and controlled the fewest number of state legislatures in fifty years. “The Clinton years have, in effect, equalized the strength of the two parties,” Bill Schneider noted in the Atlantic in early 2001. “Under Clinton the Republicans made gains unmatched even during the Reagan era — and they held on to them.”
Yet, thanks to the influence of the DLC, the neoliberals’ view of Gore’s loss as a loss for populism largely carried the day.
In 2004, the New Democrats got what they wanted. The party nominated John Kerry. Al From predicted that the Massachusetts senator’s military service and message of fiscal responsibility would both energize Democrats and win over the DLC’s coveted “moderate Republicans” and “swing voters.”
“By choosing Kerry in the primaries, Democrats made an affirmative decision to continue that change and to build on the New Democrat foundation of Clintonism,” From wrote in July. Kerry, he continued, “stands for economic growth and opportunity, not redistribution; for expanding the middle class, not the middle-class tax burden; for national strength, not national weakness; for work, not welfare; for tackling big challenges with reforms; and for an ethic of duty and responsibility.”
“Democrats are on the cusp of becoming a majority party today,” From gushed, “because New Democrats like Bill Clinton and John Kerry rescued the party in the 1990s.”
From couldn’t have been more wrong. Bush increased his margin of victory from 2000 across virtually every demographic, including women, college-educated voters, moderates, and independents. And Democrats lost four Senate seats and three House seats, giving the GOP a majority in both chambers.
How had the GOP topped a DLC-approved Democrat once again? By executing a game plan that bore little resemblance to the DLC’s.
Republican strategist and Bush adviser Karl Rove expected 2004 to be a close race. But rather than encourage Bush and GOP candidates to tack to the center, he applied insights from a 2001 article by conservative pundit Michael Barone, who argued that America was essentially a 50-50 country, with few truly persuadable voters. Following Barone’s thesis, Rove focused on turning out the Republican base, not only by having Bush play to dedicated GOP voters, but also by ensuring anti–gay marriage referenda would appear on the ballot in key states.
“While John Kerry’s campaign has made an extraordinary effort to gather moderate voters to his liberal base by stressing its candidate’s decorated war record and centrist views,” the Atlantic explained, “Rove . . . has returned to his traditional strength: motivating the base of conservative voters.”
The DLC’s analysis of Kerry’s loss, meanwhile, was utterly predictable. In direct contradiction to From’s previous writings, the DLC now blamed the party’s 2004 defeats on Democrats’ failure to “build on Clintonism.” In a series of articles in the DLC’s Blueprint Magazine, the organization called for the party to further distance itself from cultural liberalism, military dovishness, and economic populism. The path forward on cultural issues, according to Marshall, was “values centrism,” which seemed to amount to little more than a further rightward tack on “family values” issues like abortion and another attempt to trim Social Security.
So shopworn and unpersuasive were the DLC’s arguments that even many mainstream pundits were beginning to question the New Democrats’ fundamental theses.
Following Democrats’ 2004 losses, Chuck Todd argued it was time for Democrats to retire “Clinton’s strategy of centrist triangulation.” While Clinton may have won in 1992, he noted, the Clintonite strategy had proven “disastrous” for the Democratic Party as a whole. “Clinton worried mainly about his own political fortunes, to the detriment of his party,” Todd wrote, adding that “perhaps the most remarkable statistic from the 2004 election is the record of those candidates for whom Clinton campaigned: all eight lost.”
After back-to-back defeats at the presidential level, some Democrats began taking their first, tentative steps away from tepid centrism. With the Iraq War (which the DLC supported) a quagmire, incomes stagnating, and inequality soaring, Democrats struck a populist tone in the 2006 midterms.
And it paid off.
They won the House, the Senate, and a majority of governorships in a “rout once considered almost inconceivable,” as the Washington Post put it. The Democrats made dramatic gains among working-class whites, cutting their deficit among the group in half from 2004, and substantially increased their margins among Latinos and Asian Americans.
By 2008, it seemed that neoliberal centrism was finally reaching its race-baiting end. The DLC had been positioning Hillary Clinton for a White House bid since before the 2006 midterms. Now she was its preferred candidate, tapping the DLC-approved Penn as her campaign strategist. But the candidacy of Barack Obama, who had prominently shunned the DLC, torpedoed both her campaign’s attempts to make her nomination appear inevitable and the DLC’s coveted coalition of well-off whites.
Almost immediately, Obama began pulling college-educated voters from Clinton, and he easily captured the youth vote, too. Despite pundit handwringing about whether Obama was “black enough” to peel off African-American votes from the well-known Clinton, he gained ground quickly, and endorsements from prominent black Democrats like John Lewis accelerated African Americans’ exodus from Clinton.
Clinton’s only hope of besting Obama lay with working-class whites. But she was ill-equipped to make a convincing pocketbook appeal. The Bush years had revealed 1990s-style New Economy utopianism for the cruel joke it always was. Now Clinton was stuck trying to awkwardly and dishonestly distance herself from NAFTA and other unpopular polices from her husband’s White House. Her initial lead over Obama on economic issues shrank as the primary wore on.
With Clinton hemorrhaging support among African Americans and little in the way of a positive economic message to sell working-class whites, the Clinton campaign decided, as political scientist Thomas F. Schaller noted, “that if they were going to lose the black vote, they might as well turn it into an advantage with other elements in the Democratic coalition, notably white working-class voters.”
That meant race-baiting on a scale that would rival her husband’s performance in 1992. Earlier in the campaign, Penn had argued in a memo that Obama’s “lack of American roots” was a “strong weakness.”
“I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and values,” Penn wrote, in proto-“birther” language. “Every speech [by Clinton] should contain the line that you were born in the middle of America to the middle class in the middle of the last century.” With Clinton down in the polls, the racial subtext in Penn’s argument became the text.
Playing upon rumors that Obama was a secret Muslim, the Clinton campaign circulated a photo of Obama wearing traditional Somali clothing. Obama’s campaign manager denounced the campaign literature as “shameful offensive fear-mongering.” But more racist appeals followed. “Won’t a single tape of [Reverend Jeremiah] Wright going off on America with Obama sitting there be a game ender?” Penn speculated in a March memo. Sure enough, tapes of Wright’s sermons found their way into the press’s hands, and Clinton loudly criticized Obama’s attendance at Wright’s church.
Most significantly, the Clinton campaign argued that her strength among working-class whites made her a safer bet to beat the Republican nominee in the fall. Stumping for Clinton, Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell warned that downscale whites in his home state wouldn’t vote for a black candidate, putting a key swing state in play for the GOP. And Clinton, dispensing with any campaign trail euphemisms, bragged that she ran better than Obama “among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans.”
Obama’s Campaign Successes and Governing Failures
Obama’s identity meant that, almost by necessity, his 2008 campaign couldn’t replicate the neoliberalism of a Gore or Kerry. While the 2004 DNC speech that put Obama on the political map was a pastiche of the worst centrist bromides, his past as a community organizer and his race meant that the GOP would spend the entire 2008 campaign portraying Obama as a socialist Muslim black nationalist who was “palling around with terrorists.” These were the kinds of attacks that DLC types had feared most, but Obama couldn’t escape them.
As a result, the Obama campaign put its efforts less into winning over the mythical “soccer moms” or other moderate suburban whites and more into turning out former nonvoters and first-time voters, many of whom were people of color or Millennials.
Two strategy stories emerged from Obama’s campaign, and, in time, the perceived importance of each would shape future Democratic campaigns — including Clinton’s ill-fated 2016 run. One gave priority to the door-to-door people power of Obama’s ground game. The other credited the role of big data.
The campaign’s door-to-door organizing philosophy sprung from the Alinsky-inspired theories of sociologist and activist Marshall Ganz, who was known for his work with the United Farmworkers. It involved a massive network of organizers knocking on doors and making personal connections with voters in order to tap into their hopes and their values and, ideally, turn them into Obama supporters.
The big data portion of the campaign drew upon the information collected from door-to-door organizing and combined it with information culled from social media and other sources. Crucially, the number-crunching wasn’t a substitute for organizing. The organizing both provided the big-data operation with indispensible information and gave the campaign the bodies needed to put the data-derived insights into action.
The onset of the Great Recession meant that the incumbent party had a steep uphill climb in 2008, and the Obama campaign’s relatively populist economic message and stellar get-out-the-vote efforts eliminated any lingering worries that the country’s first black nominee might lose to a popular Republican. Obama defeated John McCain by seven points in the popular vote, improving upon John Kerry’s 2004 margins among virtually every demographic, including white workers.
Once in office, the biggest issue facing Obama was the Great Recession. Many pundits predicted that he would pursue a New Deal for the twenty-first century. Before Obama was even inaugurated, Time depicted him as FDR on its cover, and liberal writer Peter Beinart speculated, “If [Obama] can do what F.D.R. did — make American capitalism stabler and less savage — he will establish a Democratic majority that dominates U.S. politics for a generation. And despite the daunting problems he inherits, he’s got an excellent chance.”
But little in Obama’s background suggested he’d be another FDR (much less the socialist of conservatives’ paranoid dreams). Obama lacked a coherent economic philosophy, and insofar as he had one, it was that of a market-friendly “University of Chicago Democrat.” When the time came to select economic advisers, he reached back to the Clinton administration.
One of the few fresh faces in Obama’s cabinet was Council of Economic Advisers chair Christina Romer. In December 2008, the Berkeley economist calculated that to fill the hole caused by the Great Recession, the economy needed nearly $1.8 trillion in stimulus. As the economy continued to deteriorate, it became clear that Romer’s estimate was, if anything, too small.
But Peter Orszag, Rahm Emanuel, and Larry Summers — all Clinton White House veterans — insisted that $1.8 trillion, or anything close to it, was too large. Substantively, they knew it wasn’t. But politically they felt it was unreasonable. Why? Because it could “spook markets,” in Summers’s words, and would quash any hope of Republican support, which Obama believed was politically desirable. In the end, the stimulus Obama signed into law was less than half the size Romer initially calculated, and nearly one-third of it was tax cuts. Yet it still garnered zero GOP votes in the House.
On top of that, the technocratic bent of Obama’s advisers undercut what should’ve been the most popular parts of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Instead of doling out the tax cuts in eye-catching lump-sum checks — as Bush had done with his stimulus — Obama’s law simply had the government withhold slightly less from each American’s paycheck, on the assumption that it would make them more likely to spend it.
It was a political disaster. While it helped slow some of the economic bleeding, the stimulus was at once too small and too opaque to usher in a twenty-first century New Deal. (It also might have unwittingly fueled antigovernment sentiment: as many scholars have argued, relying on hidden “tax expenditures” tends to make recipients see their benefits as a natural outcome of the market, rather than a government program.)
Unlike the stimulus, Obama didn’t need Congress’s approval to attack the foreclosure crisis. The Wall Street bailout bill signed by George W. Bush had given the executive branch the authority to “prevent avoidable foreclosures.” And Obama had public opinion behind him: a majority of Americans wanted the administration to step in and stop foreclosures. But doing so would mean forcing the banks — one of Obama’s biggest donors — to swallow losses.
The administration’s solution to the foreclosure crisis proved even more disastrous than the ARRA.
As journalist David Dayen has documented, Obama initially promised to pursue “cramdown” measures to provide relief to underwater homeowners. But Tim Geithner’s Treasury Department not only recanted on Obama’s cramdown promise, it passed over opportunities to provide direct financial assistance to homeowners or to create a Home Owner’s Loan Corporation–type program to buy up and renegotiate mortgages.
Between September 2008 and the end of 2015, more than six million Americans lost their homes. Most homeowners who applied for the administration’s program, the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) were turned down. Often servicers replicated the shady tactics that had triggered the financial crisis in the first place, “losing” applicants’ paperwork and giving them the runaround.
Ultimately, as Dayen has argued, HAMP simply intensified struggling homeowners’ cynicism about the Obama administration and government action more generally. Areas where homeowners saw their wealth evaporate during the financial crisis (an outcome the Obama administration could’ve prevented) went for Trump in 2016. “Obama’s handling of the mortgage crisis,” Dayen writes, “may have cost Hillary Clinton the election.”
If the little-known HAMP acted as a political ticking time bomb for the Democrats, the political effects of the Affordable Care Act’s shortcomings were almost immediate.
During his run for the White House, Obama promised to make health care reform negotiations transparent, pledging to televise them on C-SPAN. But once in office, Obama turned to closed-door meetings. Out of public view, the White House constructed the Affordable Care Act to win the support of insurance companies and the conservative Democrats doing their bidding. This meant dropping the public option, which was not only the plan’s most progressive element, but also the most popular with the public.
Legislatively, the administration treaded softly, eschewing calls from progressive Democrats to pass the ACA (or even the public option alone) using budget reconciliation — a process that would have required only fifty votes, thereby eliminating the need for support from centrist Democrats — and declining to put public pressure on wavering Democrats.
For his part, Obama failed to effectively explain the bill to the public or get voters involved in pressing for a better one. Coming off a campaign that mobilized millions of grassroots supporters, Obama could’ve used his formidable campaign organization, Organizing for America (OFA), to make Democratic holdouts feel the political heat. Instead, the Obama team demobilized OFA by rolling it into the DNC and forbade OFA from pushing moderate Democrats to support the health care bill. When other progressive organizations attempted to run ads against Democratic holdouts, Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, called them “fucking retards” and told them to drop the campaign.
The only pressure campaigns the White House allowed OFA and other progressive groups to engage in were those against Republicans. And when it was all said and done, Obama still didn’t garner any GOP votes.
The recalcitrance shouldn’t have come as a surprise. On Inauguration Day 2009, Republican leaders had met with conservative activists to map out a strategy of total opposition to Obama’s agenda. Their goal was to keep the economy weak, which would not only facilitate Republican victories in the midterms but also, as Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell would later state, help make Obama a one-term president. Part of the GOP’s plan was to thwart any economic recovery by imposing a gridlock-driven austerity.
Out of naiveté or stubbornness, Obama continued trying to work with a Republican Party that had little interest in anything other than sabotaging his presidency.
When his approval rating declined in 2009, Obama attributed it to his failure to achieve bipartisan consensus, not the economy’s continued sluggishness. As Ryan Lizza reported, Obama “became intent on responding to critics of government spending and, as White House memos show, he settled into the role of a more transactional and less transformational leader.”
Instead of pursuing a second round of stimulus, as Romer recommended, Obama took a page out of the DLC playbook and turned his attention to budget-cutting, creating what would become known as the “Simpson-Bowles” commission — little more than a platform for efforts to cut taxes for the well-off and slash Social Security.
More fatefully, Obama attempted to strike a deficit-cutting “grand bargain” with the GOP following the 2010 midterms. Many Republicans had campaigned in the midterms vowing to use the debt ceiling to force budget cuts. Rather than drawing a line in the sand and refusing to negotiate, Obama followed the advice of Chief of Staff Bill Daley — a former bank executive who believed deficit reduction would be politically popular — and David Plouffe, his new political adviser. As one administration official told the New Republic, “Plouffe specifically said, ‘We’re going to need a period of ugliness’ — he meant with the left — so that people in the center understand that we’re not wasting their tax dollars.”
In reality, the federal budget deficit ranked far behind jobs and the general state of the economy in Americans’ minds in both 2010 and 2011. But — in keeping with the New Democrats’ fixation on the views of Wall Street insiders and well-off whites — the Obama administration elevated the deficit and investor “confidence” to its top priority.
After several abortive attempts to reach a “grand bargain,” the White House and congressional Republicans struck a deal to raise the debt ceiling that called for automatic across-the-board budget cuts (“sequestration”) beginning in 2013 if a different “grand bargain” wasn’t reached. It wasn’t, and the sequester took effect, to the glee of right-wingers like Grover Norquist, who enthused, “Sequester is the big win. It defines the decade.”
Though its effects wouldn’t be felt until 2013, there was good reason for Norquist to gloat. A variety of estimates — ranging from the Congressional Budget Office, the International Monetary Fund, and the conservative Tax Foundation to the labor-liberal Economic Policy Institute — suggested that the sequester would knock between one half and one and a half points off GDP growth and cost the economy more than a half a million jobs. Given the centrality of the economy to election prospects, the sequester would’ve made victory harder for any Democratic presidential candidate come 2016.
Obama’s first term ended up looking a lot less like FDR’s and a lot more like Jimmy Carter’s.
The Populist Pivot
By late 2011, Obama’s approval ratings were at their first-term nadir. The public’s economic concerns had mushroomed since Obama’s inauguration, and Americans were more pessimistic about their economic situation than they had been in 2010, when Tea Party Republicans swept the midterm elections. The president needed a new message.
Obama found it in December 2011, delivering a widely covered speech in Osawatomie, Kansas in which he called income inequality “the defining issue of our time.” Obama distanced himself from the Wall Street bailout, admitted the recovery wasn’t reaching the lower rungs of the economic ladder, chastised the rich for distorting American democracy, and committed himself, at least rhetorically, to fighting the inequality that lay at the root of America’s problems.
While Obama left unmentioned Democrats’ role in constructing the unequal economy he decried, the address — inspired both by the Occupy Wall Street movement and Vice President Joe Biden’s insistence that Obama strike a more populist tone — was the strongest anti-inequality speech delivered by a president since LBJ.
When the general election rolled around, many pundits argued that Obama should focus on GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s “flip-flops,” a relatively non-ideological strategy. The president’s reelection campaign strategists considered the “flip-flop” approach, but ultimately took a different tack.
In a marked rebuke to DLC-style, pro-business platitudes, Obama ran a campaign designed to frame Romney as the human embodiment of the forces that had fueled inequality and sparked the financial crisis, all while casting Obama as a populist defender of the working and middle classes. “The onetime campaign of hope and change soon began a sustained advertising assault that cast Romney as a heartless executive, a man who willingly fires people and is disconnected from how average Americans live their lives,” the Washington Post wrote.
Predictably, neoliberal Democrats promised electoral disaster if Obama continued to dance with the populist devil. The DLC’s Marshall advised Obama to abandon his strategy and instead target moderate swing voters with a “post-partisan” message that favored “GDP growth,” “fiscal responsibility,” and “creating a climate conducive to entrepreneurship and business success.”
“However much liberals may yearn to run against ‘vulture capitalism’ or growing disparities of wealth and income, for example, the need to win big among moderates will likely temper Democrats’ appetite for unbridled populism,” he wrote. “And base mobilization, while always important, cannot be the centerpiece of Obama’s 2012 campaign.”
The centrist Third Way think tank produced a study identifying “Swing Independents” as the key to Obama’s reelection. This group, Third Way insisted, saw themselves as “haves” rather than “have nots,” believed the economic system was fair, and worried more about the budget deficit than income inequality.
Though Third Way didn’t specify the race or class of “Swing Independents,” their data revealed them to be overwhelmingly white and well-educated. In addition, as critics noted, Third Way’s poll questions employed Mark Penn–esque creative phrasing to elicit favorable answers. More neutral polls compiled by the Nation’s Ari Berman found that Obama’s populist rhetoric scored high marks. Nonetheless, pundits like Bill Keller of the New York Times seized on the Third Way study and urged Obama to stop “trying out for the role of Robin Hood.”
Obama faced pushback from some of his fellow Democrats, too. Then–Newark mayor Cory Booker called Obama’s attacks on Romney’s Bain Capital “nauseating.” “If you look at the totality of Bain Capital’s record,” Booker said on NBC’s Meet the Press, “they’ve done a lot to support businesses [and] to grow businesses.” Former president Bill Clinton also popped up to criticize Obama’s assaults on Romney’s “sterling business career.”
But despite naysaying from Clinton, Booker, and other Third Way types, the Obama campaign stayed the course.
For good measure, the campaign upped its ground game, too. The Obama team’s internal review of its 2008 campaign had “concluded that the single most effective medium in reaching a potential Obama voter was not TV ads or glossy mail but contact from an enthusiastic human being.” One academic analysis found that Obama’s local field office advantage had secured him three states in 2008 — Florida, Indiana, and North Carolina — that otherwise would’ve gone for McCain.
In 2012, the Obama campaign increased its field offices and expanded its volunteer base by 80 percent. (The Democrats’ ground game also received a boost from the AFL-CIO, who contacted eight hundred thousand voters in Ohio in the final four days of the campaign alone.)
Despite the Romney campaign’s conviction that the polls were “skewed” against the GOP ticket and that Romney’s tech-centric get-out-the-vote effort would overtake Obama’s ground game, Obama triumphed by four points in the popular vote.
A Democracy Corps poll conducted the night of and the night after the election found that the Obama campaign successfully tapped into the country’s “populist mood” by making Romney synonymous with Wall Street and the rich.
Not only had Obama largely maintained the support of the diverse Millennial generation that had helped propel him to victory in 2008, he’d also held onto the support of a significant number of non-college-educated white voters, who — despite disagreeing with Obama on some social issues — turned against Romney because he opposed funding for Planned Parenthood and was seen as “rich and out of touch with average people.”
So broad was Obama’s backing that even if black turnout in 2008 and 2012 had remained the same as in 2004, he still would’ve won. He “would have won re-election even if he hadn’t won the Hispanic vote at all,” the New York Times’ Nate Cohn wrote. “He would have won even if the electorate had been as old and as white as it had been in 2004.”
That’s because Obama did startlingly well among whites in the North, including non-college-educated whites. “Overall, 34 percent of Mr. Obama’s voters [in 2012] were whites without a college degree — larger in number than black voters, Hispanic voters or well-educated whites,” Cohn noted. Obama picked up key Rust Belt states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, pulling a larger share of non-college whites than in other states.
In an inversion of the ideal DLC pattern, Obama lost more ground among college-educated whites between 2008 and 2012 than among non-college whites. He cleaned up in cities and inner-ring suburbs en route to his win, while Romney racked up his votes in rural areas and the New Democrats’ coveted exurbs and “emerging suburbs.”
With Republicans in control of Congress, whatever lessons Obama learned about the vices of moderation and the virtues of populism wouldn’t be reflected in policy. But it seemed that his reelection strategy, along with the success of candidates running on a populist anti–Wall Street message in the 2014 midterms, pointed the way forward for Democrats in 2016.
The holdover New Democrats had other ideas.
The Return of Clintonism
Writing in late 2013, former DLCers William Galston and Elaine Kamarck painted a sunny picture of the Democrats’ chances in 2016. Favorable demographics, they argued, made Democratic dominance almost inevitable — no policy or strategy changes necessary.
Galston and Kamarck weren’t alone.
Variously dubbed the “coalition of the ascendant,” the “emerging Democratic majority,” and the “rising American electorate,” the new coalition supposedly rendered inevitable by demographic changes bore a striking resemblance to the one that the DLC had been pushing the party to assemble for decades. As Politico explained, it would be comprised of “relatively upscale whites with racial and ethnic minorities,” allowing Democrats to ignore both working-class whites (whom the party now ceded to the GOP) and people of color (who had nowhere else to go besides the Democratic Party).
In political terms, then, the Democrats’ new coalition would be defined by appeals to well-off whites. This necessitated, as Third Way and other New Democrats repeatedly declared, steering clear of economic populism and embracing a positive, pro-market message.
The new common sense about a burgeoning Democratic majority would underpin the campaign of Hillary Clinton, who Democratic Party leaders had viewed as the presumptive 2016 nominee since her loss to Obama in 2008.
While both Bernie Sanders’s surprisingly strong showing in the Democratic primary and the econometric models predicting a tossup in the general should’ve been a warning to party leaders, the Clinton campaign pressed onward with its strategy. And it couldn’t have asked for a better opponent than Donald Trump — or a better candidate than Hillary Clinton.
In the eyes of Democratic elites and most pundits, Trump’s right-wing populism was tailor-made to alienate educated suburban whites, while Clinton’s business-friendly technocratic moderation was perfectly suited to their tastes. Geoff Garin, the pollster for Clinton’s super PAC, predicted that Clinton would make huge inroads among educated white suburbanites (even college-educated Republican men), because they were “turned off by Trump, both stylistically and by his economic approach.”
In the view of Democratic Party insiders, losses among white working-class voters repelled by Clinton’s business-friendly record and attracted to Trump’s populism would be more than offset by gains among well-off whites.
“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 told the Washington Post, in a variant of the mantra he’d repeat throughout the campaign. “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.”
Following this logic, the Clinton campaign went out of its way to charm moderate Republicans. It overruled the DNC’s campaign strategy, which called for boosting both Clinton and down-ballot Democrats by portraying Trump and the GOP as two sides of the same extremist coin. Instead, as DNC communications director Luis Miranda wrote in an email, the Clinton campaign wanted to “disaggregate Trump from down ballot Republicans” in the belief that doing so would make it easier for moderate Republican voters to cast ballots for Clinton.
Rather than slamming Trump for his record as a rapacious businessman — as Obama had done to Romney — Clinton stressed Trump’s noxious personality. She touted every endorsement she received from Republicans, and gave billionaires like Meg Whitman and Michael Bloomberg starring roles in her campaign.
The result, as Buzzfeed’s Ruby Cramer summarized, was a campaign that didn’t “talk about Republican extremism or Republican rhetoric or Republican ideology” and instead focused “almost exclusively about Donald Trump, his temperament, his qualifications, his character, and his fitness to serve, leaving the rest of the Democratic Party to adjust to a general election that has little to do with traditional partisan policy or politics.”
More than three-quarters of Clinton’s campaign advertisements foregrounded Trump’s character. No candidate had ever devoted such a large share of ads to a single issue. Less than 10 percent of Clinton’s ads addressed the economy, whereas 34 percent of Trump’s did. In fact, Clinton’s advertisements contained the least amount of policy content for a presidential campaign since at least 2000.
This contrast, as a study by the Wesleyan Media Project noted, was especially pronounced in Wisconsin and Michigan, where voters received “policy-based (and specifically economically-focused) messaging from Trump” and attacks on Trump’s “personality and fitness for office (in a sense, doubling down on the news media’s focus)” from Clinton, a decision that left “very little room for discussion in advertising of the reasons why Clinton herself was the better choice.”
The Clinton campaign departed from Obama’s 2012 game plan in other ways, too. While Obama relied on a massive ground game informed by data, Clinton’s advisers — like many other Democrats — believed that the numbers were by far the more important factor. The Clinton campaign put its faith in an algorithm named Ada, which ran four hundred thousand simulations of the race per day in order to guide “virtually every strategic decision” the campaign made, including where to put field offices, where to campaign, and where to air television ads.
This data-centric strategy not only jettisoned the Obama ground game model, it also ignored mountains of research showing that door-to-door efforts are the “gold standard” of mobilization. The Clinton campaign, Politico reported, “believed that television and limited direct mail and digital efforts were the only way to win over voters” and “dismissed what’s known as in-person ‘persuasion’ — no one was knocking on doors.” In Michigan, for example, Clinton had one-tenth the number of paid canvassers as Kerry had in 2004.
If Clinton’s ground game fell well short of Obama, it also turned out to be downright inept — a shortcoming that numerous Democrats and progressive groups pointed out before the election. According to some estimates, Clinton’s use of data-driven get-out-the-vote efforts, rather than traditional door-to-door ones, may have led her campaign to accidentally turn out a significant number of Trump voters.
Clinton’s partiality toward TV ads — as opposed to door-to-door efforts — might seem irrational in retrospect. But it fit with the campaign’s overall philosophy.
Clinton’s campaign was oriented toward convincing well-off moderate whites — who were already likely to vote — to desert Trump and cast their ballot for Clinton. The remaining pieces of the Democratic coalition, the Clinton campaign believed, would fall in line. As the Huffington Post’s Natalie Jackson explained, the Clinton campaign “didn’t make concerted efforts” to get voters in heavily Democratic, African-American areas to the polls largely because it assumed that those voters “would support the party in large numbers — which they do, when they vote.”
Many liberal pundits who were bullish about Clinton’s chances dismissed polls and on-the-ground reports that predicted lower enthusiasm and turnout among African Americans. Many of those same pundits also predicted that non-college-educated whites wouldn’t vote for Trump in much greater margins than they’d voted for Mitt Romney (a prognostication given grist by Trump’s low approval ratings among this cohort early in the campaign). The same pundits were even more certain that Clinton would clean up among college-educated whites, particularly college-educated white women.
In the final months of the campaign, the Clinton team expected a blowout. They talked of “expanding the map” by making late plays for a handful of red states. The wonk press, whose election models predicted certain victory for Clinton, echoed the Clinton team’s confidence.
Then came Election Day.
The Working-Class Authoritarianism Thesis, Redux
Clinton carried out the New Democratic “class inversion” strategy almost perfectly. She performed better among upscale whites than any Democrat in history. Yet not only was it not enough to win the election, it wasn’t even enough to win that demographic. Trump prevailed among suburbanites 49 to 45 and whites with a college education 48 to 45, and the white women Clinton targeted voted for Trump at the same rates that they’d gone for Romney in 2012.
“Among the theories the Clinton campaign held during the election was that college-educated Republicans would be so repulsed by the prospect of a Trump presidency that many would cast a vote to prevent it from happening,” Huffington Post’s Sam Stein wrote shortly after the election. “Yet what caught the Clinton campaign off guard was both how many of these voters would ultimately hold their nose and vote for Trump anyway.”
Had Trump been unable to retain a slim lead among college-educated whites, his gains among college-less whites wouldn’t have been enough to deliver him the White House. But despite the Clinton campaign’s fervent attempts to win well-off whites — who they hoped would vote for her even if they favored down-ballot Republicans — the election saw perhaps the lowest level of split-ticket voting in US history.
The notion that Trump would turn off many affluent, moderate Republicans was naïve. As the Working Families Party’s Joe Dinkin quipped, “being a Republican voter means already having come to terms with voting for disgusting racists and sexists sometimes.”
The narrowness of Trump’s victory in key Midwestern states means that any number of things — FBI director James Comey’s letter, GOP-led voter suppression, etc. — can be said to have cost Clinton the election.
But the real question is why the election was so close in the first place, given that Democrats had the advantage of a popular incumbent president, a historically weak GOP candidate, and an economy that was, at worst, a nonfactor. “She got this gift of this complete idiot who says bizarre things and hates women and she still lost,” one anonymous Clinton fundraiser told Politico. “They lost in a race they obviously should have won.”
Yet in explaining Clinton’s loss, most pundits didn’t point to the flaws in her strategy or the fact that upscale whites weren’t as nauseated by Trump’s bigotry as liberals expected. Instead, they pointed the finger at non-college-educated whites, a group that many pundits dubiously equated with the white working class.
In part, this was because the education gap in voting among whites was immense. Clinton performed ten points better among college-educated whites than Obama had in 2012. But she performed fourteen points worse than Obama had in 2012 among non-college whites.
Clinton’s poor performance among this voting bloc shouldn’t have come as a surprise. After all, the Clinton campaign’s strategy explicitly ignored these voters. The decision not to go after them was an ideological one. She was intent on capturing the New Democrats’ ideal electoral cohort: “socially moderate, fiscally selfish suburbanites” — as New York magazine’s Eric Levitz glibly put it — not blue-collar voters.
“What part of Hillary Clinton’s message was aimed at less educated white voters?” Cohn asked rhetorically. “It just wasn’t at the core of her appeal this year. It was nothing like 2012, when President Obama relentlessly focused on the middle class, Bain Capital, the auto bailout, etc.”
Nonetheless, many Democrats and liberal pundits were incredulous that Clinton had won the support of so few non-college-educated whites. To them, the notion that Clinton’s economic message should’ve connected with downscale whites was self–evident. And because the unemployment rate was below 5 percent, pundit after pundit declared confidently that Trump’s support had nothing to do with the economy, even when some Trump supporters said otherwise.
Instead, pundits put forward an explanation for Clinton’s losses among non-college whites that (sometimes quite literally) harkened back to the “working-class authoritarianism” thesis of the 1950s and ’60s and the subsequent debates about the decline in white workers’ support for Democrats.
Numerous studies throughout the campaign showed that Trump’s supporters were more likely to agree with statements expressing stereotypes about African Americans and other groups. Pundits seized on this finding, and repeatedly argued that racism alone explained Clinton’s failure to connect with non-college-educated whites.
Vox’s Matt Yglesias, for example, called economics a “fake” explanation for Trump’s rise. “While plenty of people, including plenty of Trump fans, certainly have concerns about the economy, it’s racial resentment that drives who does and doesn’t support Trump,” Yglesias wrote last August. “Adding an economic anxiety factor to your account doesn’t actually help to explain anything.” Similarly, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie argued that any suggestion that not all Trump voters were motivated primarily by racism was “perverse, bordering on abhorrent.” It reached the point where ironically tweeting “Economic anxiety!” in response to a Trump supporter’s racist outburst became the joke du jour among pundits.
To be sure, a vote for Trump was a vote that, at a minimum, implied a toleration of overt bigotry. But the prevailing narrative is incomplete. Treating racism as the axiomatic explanation for Trump’s appeal to some non-college-educated whites implies that all ballots cast for Trump were motivated principally by racism, while absolving college-educated Clinton voters of racism and ignoring the real economic crisis facing many Americans.
Indeed, despite the sharp lines pundits drew between the whites who backed Trump and the whites who backed Clinton, many white Clinton supporters (like many Obama voters) shared the racist views of Trump’s “deplorable” supporters. For example, a little over 30 percent of Trump supporters and a little over 20 percent of Clinton supporters told pollsters that blacks are less “intelligent” than whites. (Ironically, given Clinton proponents’ attempts during the primary to portray their candidate’s coalition as the most racially liberal, surveys found that Sanders supporters were consistently the least likely to agree with racist stereotypes.)
What’s more, the survey questions about racial stereotypes tell us more about overt racism than about racism in a broader sense. As early as the 1970s, scholars were questioning the idea that more educated whites were more racially liberal than working-class whites in any meaningful sense. More recent research has confirmed this finding.
While whites with higher education levels are less likely to express explicitly racist sentiments, they’re not more likely to support programs to combat racial disadvantage. Likewise, whites tend to have similar scores on implicit racial bias tests across education levels. This suggests that “social desirability bias” causes more educated whites to avoid voicing overt racism, even if racism shapes both their policy views and their unconscious biases.
In the process of defending Clinton’s economic moderation against criticisms from the left, some pundits unintentionally conceded just as much. According to Clinton’s defenders, Democrats embracing Sanders-style policies — free college, single-payer health care, and the like — would alienate “well-off socially liberal voters.” The clear implication, of course, is that the supposedly socially progressive, well-educated whites of the “rising American electorate” would rather support the racist, sexist, homophobic party than pay a little more in taxes to fund an expanded welfare state.
Moreover, even if the fact that a greater percentage of Trump’s supporters are willing to affirm racist statements tells us something about the motivations of hardcore Trumpers, it doesn’t tell us much about the non-college-educated whites who were turned off by both candidates but ultimately voted for Trump, despite disliking many of his policies and personal traits. These “marginal” Trump voters, as even critics of the “economic anxiety” argument like Yglesias and Bouie have acknowledged, weren’t necessarily motivated by racism in the same way as committed Trump voters.
In fact, a majority of Trump supporters saw their vote as opposed to Clinton, rather than for Trump. He won nearly 30 percent of voters who were “bothered” by his treatment of women, 20 percent of those who didn’t think he was “honest and trustworthy,” and 17 percent of those who didn’t think he was qualified to serve as president. Even more strikingly, more than half of his supporters said they favored a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, rather than mass deportation.
The 2016 election was a contest between two historically unpopular candidates. But a record number of people who disliked both major party options turned out. “[A]n astonishing 18% of the electorate told us they had an unfavorable opinion of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump,” Edison Research reported.
Notably, half of “neither” voters viewed Obama favorably. Nonetheless these voters — including many who liked Obama — broke to Trump by a decisive 49 percent to 29 percent nationally and by even larger margins in some key swing states. “[T]his,” Edison concluded, “is the group that won the election for Trump.” Trump won 19 percent of non-college-educated whites who approved of Obama, 20 percent of those who identified as liberal, and 38 percent of those who wanted policies more liberal than Obama’s.
Trump’s decisive victory among non-college-educated whites came not from self-identified conservatives, who almost always vote for the GOP, but from his doubling of Romney’s margin among non-college whites who identify as neither conservative nor liberal.
Pollster Guy Molyneux surveyed and conducted eight focus groups with these “moderates.” Contrary to the common assumption that social conservatism drove this bloc to Trump, Molyneux found that they were much more socially liberal than the conservative whites who enthusiastically backed Trump. Only 36 percent of white moderates without a college degree, for example, believed that racial and ethnic diversity was bad for the nation.
Non-GOP Trump voters liked very different things about Trump than the GOP base. They placed high priority on his promises not to cut Medicare and Social Security and to bring manufacturing jobs back to the US. Their main worry was that Trump would turn around and cut taxes for the rich. As a group of political scientists found, Trump peeled off a specific portion of whites: “populists” on economic issues who hold conservative views on social issues.
This group had overwhelmingly pulled the lever for Obama in 2012, making up roughly 12 percent of his coalition. “By strategic design or dumb luck,” the political scientists noted, “the Trump candidacy was able to activate a segment of the electorate that has historically not been part of the GOP electoral coalition.”
Earlier this year, the results of a Roosevelt Institute/ Democracy Corps focus group confirmed both the belief that racism has put some of these voters out of reach and the argument that others can be won back with better economic appeals.
Many saw Clinton as a wealthy ally of Wall Street and genuinely believed Trump’s claims that his wealth meant he wouldn’t be beholden to deep-pocketed donors. But they expect him to deliver the jobs and good, cheap health care he promised — promises he’s of course failed to keep.
Two-thirds of the focus group liked Democrats like Sanders, Sherrod Brown, and Elizabeth Warren, “who support American jobs and strongly opposed NAFTA and Obama’s trade deal, support policies to protect consumers from Wall Street and reckless banks, want to get corporations to invest in their own workers and this country, want to end tax breaks for companies sending jobs overseas, and want to bar secret corporate campaign money so our government works for the middle class again.”
The sobering reality for Democrats is that Clinton lost much of this group on economic issues, not “cultural” ones. While college-less white moderates enthusiastically support increased taxation of the rich and a variety of social programs, they’re convinced that most politicians only care about the wealthy and have no real interest in pursuing policies that benefit non-elites.
The result is a kind of desultory fiscal conservatism, born not out of ideology, but cynicism. And the New Democratic strategy of attracting college-educated voters only serves to confirm these workers’ suspicion that Democrats, like society as a whole, “does not value people who work with their hands.”
While the Clinton campaign believed that it was fruitless to reach out to undecided blue-collar whites, they nonetheless expressed confidence that these voters would, in the end, support Clinton and Trump in even numbers.
In reality most late-deciding voters swung to Trump — but not for the reasons many Democrats offered in the wake of the election. Despite the belief that then–FBI director James Comey played spoiler, few white swing voters cited the Comey letter as the deciding factor in their vote.
Diane Hessan, who conducted a longitudinal study of the same white undecided voters throughout 2016 for the Clinton campaign, noted that these voters intensely disliked both candidates. Yet few of the major attack lines — from Clinton’s emails to Trump’s racism — moved these voters, who already thought the worst of both. What did decisively shift them to Trump, according to Hessan, was Clinton’s “deplorables” comment, which made these voters believe that “Clinton was an out-of-touch rich person who didn’t really get it.”
She didn’t, and that’s because she was following the DLC’s decades-old dream of making upscale whites the center of the Democratic coalition.
"Economic Anxiety" and the Multiracial Working Class
“For the past eight years,” the Guardian’s Gary Younge wrote in January, “American liberals have gorged themselves on symbolism. A significant section of the population, including those most likely to support Barack Obama, have felt better about their country even as they have fared worse in it.”
Indeed, near the end of Obama’s presidency, pluralities of Republicans, Independents, and Democrats still said they were “falling behind” financially — with low-income and high school–educated respondents especially likely to say so. Fewer than four in ten Democrats rated the economy as “excellent or good,” and fewer than three in ten Independents and two in ten Republicans did.
Many Americans have good reason to feel anxious about their economic situation. Despite a falling unemployment rate, large swaths of the population haven’t seen the fruits of the recovery, and the Great Recession itself capped decades of diminishing economic prospects.
Most American households have experienced stagnant or, at best, modest income growth for the past forty years. And even this gloomy picture conceals a more depressing reality. The main source of wage growth for most households — partially because of the mass entry of women into the workforce — has been increased working hours, not increased pay. Hourly wages have been flat for most Americans since the late 1970s.
While few groups of workers have fared well in the past four decades, those without college degrees have fared the worst — their median income has fallen. The drop in high school–educated men’s incomes has been particularly dramatic.
The collapse in manufacturing employment has fundamentally changed the job prospects for high school–educated Americans, and reshaped the very landscape of Rust Belt cities. Places like Gary, Flint, Youngstown, and Mansfield are shells of their former selves.
And, as research has shown, voters are right to point the finger at policies implemented by the Clinton administration and continued by Bush and Obama. Workers in “low-skilled” occupations have been systematically exposed to competition, while well-off professionals have been shielded from the same forces — gutting the working-class job market, exacerbating inequality, and stoking alienation and resentment.
Whites in poor Appalachian towns like Nelsonville, Ohio that had voted for Obama expressed frustration with the idea that the economy had turned around since the Great Recession. The same was true of towns in Wisconsin that flipped from Obama to Trump.
The recovery has actually exacerbated the stratification in the job market. A 2016 study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that 11.5 out of the 11.6 million jobs created had gone to workers with at least some college education. Workers with a high school diploma or less, in contrast, “have experienced no job recovery” — they’ve seen just 80,000 jobs generated compared to the 5.6 million lost during the recession, making them the only group to experience net job losses since 2007.
“The human cost of these trends for workers without postsecondary education, their families, and their communities has been immense,” the Georgetown report notes. “As factories and mines have closed and office and administrative support functions have been automated, men and women without a college education . . . found themselves out of a job, often for prolonged periods of time and, in some cases, even detached from the labor force. . . . Those who were lucky enough to find another job after being laid off or displaced often did so at a price — lower wages, which often take decades to rebuild to their pre-displacement levels.”
The bleak landscape for non-college-educated workers has interacted with race in ways that seem almost designed to boost Trump’s chances. As the New York Times’ Eduardo Porter has reported, recent job losses have disproportionately hit white workers, a trend that’s visible in the wages of non-college-educated white men. In line with this observation, polls have found that non-college-educated whites are the most pessimistic group in America.
Not surprisingly, Trump’s support was concentrated in counties that experienced high levels of trade competition and job loss as a result of trade policies, as well as areas with the weakest job growth, lowest earnings, and highest percentage of “routine” jobs. One post-election study by a team of economists found that competition from China had a decisive effect on the election in states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. In many key counties that flipped from Obama to Trump, historian Mike Davis has noted, a “high-profile plant closure or impending move had been on the front page of the local newspaper [during the campaign]: embittering reminders that the ‘Obama boom’ was passing them by.”
Clinton’s campaign made little effort to speak to these workers’ concerns. As the Atlantic’s Molly Ball wrote, “[Clinton’s] ‘America is already great’ message didn’t carry far beyond the degree-rich elites who are indeed doing fine these days, particularly against Trump’s message of right-wing economic populism.” Even when Clinton attempted to make her case to blue-collar whites, she lapsed into DLC speak. “I want to really marry the public and the private sector,” she told George Packer. “I think we haven’t organized ourselves for the twenty-first-century globalization.”
Clinton might have had more substantive plans on her website, but few marginal Trump voters were likely to hear about them. Trump’s message, in contrast, was crystal clear. His television ads resembled nothing so much as a more conservative iteration of Obama’s 2008 pitch.
“In Hillary Clinton’s America, the middle class gets crushed, spending goes up, taxes go up, hundreds of thousands of jobs disappear. It’s more of the same, but worse,” the announcer in one swing-state Trump TV ad intoned. “In Donald Trump’s America, working families get tax relief, millions of new jobs created, wages go up, small businesses thrive. The American dream, achievable. Change that makes America great again.” Clinton, meanwhile, was running narrative-free commercials set to Katy Perry’s “Roar.”
While the dire economic prospects facing non-college whites doesn’t excuse a vote for Trump, it helps explain it. Economic dislocation has stoked the rise of the far right throughout history. The relationship between economic distress and racism is complex. As Sean McElwee and Jason McDaniel found, “economic insecurity tends to increase feelings of racial resentment, and . . . white liberals and marginally attached Democrats are particularly susceptible to increased racial resentment during times of economic crisis.”
Republicans can exploit whites’ economic anxiety because, unlike many people of color, whites have the racial luxury of a choice between parties. But the fact that voters in other groups don’t do the same doesn’t mean that they’re happy with the neoliberal policy consensus embodied by Clinton’s campaign.
In the lead-up to the election, many pundits expressed confidence that ignoring the white working class would allow Democrats to move left on social issues, thereby energizing young people and people of color. Slate’s Bouie laid out a version of this in early October. “A Democratic Party that doesn’t need to win more than a modest minority of working-class white men is one that can lean further toward racial liberalism, to mobilize its black and Latino supporters and to win over those culturally liberal whites,” he wrote. Clinton would defeat Trump, he continued, “with a revamped Obama coalition, comprising nonwhites; young voters; and an unprecedented number of moderate, suburban whites.”
What these predictions missed is that moderate suburban whites are less committed to antiracism than many commentators assume. They’re also actively hostile to the policies needed to make meaningful progress on either economic or social justice. And the other members of the “rising American electorate” need both now more than ever.
The Great Recession hit people of color like a ton of bricks. The housing crisis and rising unemployment disproportionately affected African Americans and Latinos, wiping out half of blacks’ wealth and two-thirds of Latinos’ wealth, thereby widening the existing racial gaps in wealth inequality. Working-class people of color face the same struggles as blue-collar whites, but with the added barrier of discrimination. And the factory closings that pushed some blue-collar whites away from Clinton and toward Trump have decimated the black working class by removing the ladder of opportunity that had allowed many white families to prosper.
Many Millennials have seen their hopes for upward mobility dashed and are facing the possibility that they might do worse than their parents. For kids born in 1940, the chance of making more money than their parents was 92 percent. Those odds have fallen for every generation since, reaching 50 percent for kids born in 1980. Nor has education been a solution. Young college graduates have also seen their wages fall.
While journalists were busy making “economic anxiety” jokes, numerous studies showed that economic worries have increased in recent years, particularly among people of color.
An ongoing survey by NPR’s Marketplace found that 39 percent of Americans lose sleep fretting about their personal finances, a sentiment more common among non-whites than whites. According to another study, the percentage of Americans who have sustained a 25 percent drop in available income, due to things like job loss or medical expenses, has jumped dramatically over the past fifty years. Not surprisingly, black and Latino households are especially likely to have suffered such a decline.
Four in ten Americans live in households with high or moderate levels of economic insecurity, according to a Public Religion Research Institute study, and this insecurity is especially acute among blacks and Latinos. Almost half of Americans would have trouble finding four hundred dollars to pay for an emergency expense. Across a range of measures — finding a good job, owning a home, saving for retirement, affording health care — pluralities or majorities of non-college-educated Americans across races believe things have gotten harder for them in recent years.
This is the dismal economic landscape that formed the backdrop of the November election. And it was clear Clinton’s message simply wasn’t speaking to people’s material realities.
A pre-election focus group with young African-American voters in Cleveland, Ohio and Jacksonville, Florida demonstrated Clinton’s problems with black Millenials. “He’s a racist and she is a liar,” a non-college-educated black woman in Cleveland said in one focus group, “so really what’s the difference in choosing both or choosing neither?” Polls showed Clinton trailing Obama by more than twenty points among African Americans in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. “There is no Democratic majority without these voters,” Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher warned in September. “The danger is that if you don’t get these voters out, you’ve got the 2004 John Kerry electorate again.”
While it wasn’t 2004 redux, it wasn’t 2008 or 2012 either. A large poll by the African American Research Collaborative completed in early November found that black voters’ enthusiasm for the 2016 campaign was less than half of what it was for the 2012 campaign. Notably, only 18 percent of respondents cited the fact that Obama wasn’t running, while 50 percent said they didn’t like either candidate and 27 percent said the campaign was too negative. Post-election interviews with black residents in a low-income Milwaukee neighborhood revealed that many residents who’d voted in 2008 and 2012 hadn’t in 2016, and didn’t regret it, because they disliked both Trump and Clinton.
Some were sounding the alarm months before voters went to the polls. Last June, progressive journalist John Judis argued that the “rage” that fueled Sanders’s candidacy was a reaction to “the failure of New Democrat politics to deliver prosperity or economy security.” “Clinton and the Democrats in Washington don’t understand the level of anxiety that Americans, and particularly the young, feel about their economic prospects,” he wrote. “It can’t be addressed by charts showing the drop in the unemployment rate.”
Historian Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor slammed Democrats’ “delusional happy talk about economic recovery” while the country was still experiencing unconscionable poverty rates, rising inequality, and negligible income growth. “The inattention to growing inequality, racial injustice, and deteriorating quality of life,” she predicted, “will likely result in ordinary people voting with their feet and simply opting out of the coming election.”
And so they did. Clinton was hampered by low turnout in key Democratic geographic areas and among key Democratic groups, especially Millennials and African Americans. A Five Thirty Eight analysis found that Clinton underperformed Obama not just in white areas with low levels of education but also in majority-minority areas with low levels of education.
Obama secured the support of 80 percent of African Americans without a college degree, while Clinton garnered 72 percent of such voters, with the main drop-off coming from those who said they planned to stay home in 2016. In Detroit’s Wayne County, for example, Clinton received nearly eighty thousand fewer votes than Obama in 2012 — more than seven times her loss margin in the entire state — while Trump received only fifteen thousand more than Romney.
The story was the same in Wisconsin’s Milwaukee County, where Clinton picked up forty thousand fewer votes than Obama in 2012, and Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County, where turnout in black precincts was down 11 percent from four years earlier. While GOP voter suppression tactics may have depressed turnout in Ohio and Wisconsin, states like Michigan hadn’t passed any new voting restrictions since 2012. African-American voters didn’t show up in the same numbers there either.
Simply put, Clinton not only lost the votes of many non-college-educated whites — she also failed to energize voters of color and young people.
Zombie New Democrats
Despite Clinton’s shocking and disastrous loss, the message Democrats could take from 2016, if the neoliberals have their way, is that the party should “double down on cosmopolitan appeals to the minority voters and college-educated white voters who were the main target of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.” Indeed, in the aftermath of the election, many pundits called for Democrats to fully write off non-college-educated whites and focus on flipping even more college-educated whites.
The New America Foundation’s Lee Drutman has encouraged Democrats to work on making the party a coalition of “highly educated professional whites, especially women, and minority voters,” which he summarizes as the Obama coalition but with “even more of a role for wealthy cosmopolitans” and an even greater focus on “fiscal responsibility,” “international responsibility,” and “global businesses.” (Of course, this same logic led Drutman to predict last March that Clinton would beat Trump and Democrats would take the Senate, since Clinton’s economic moderation would allow Democrats to “pick up enough moderate Republicans to more than compensate” for any lost “working-class votes.”)
Predictably, DLC retreads have blamed Clinton’s defeat on economic populism and, indirectly, on Bernie Sanders. “The campaign with Bernie Sanders shifted the debate toward statist and redistributive solutions and not enough about how we’re going to make the economy grow and make government work better,” Will Marshall told the New Republic in a post-election interview.
The DLC’s Al From sang the same tune. “Democrats should rededicate ourselves to the core New Democrat principles — opportunity, responsibility, community,” From wrote in the Guardian. “Economic growth,” From stated with the confidence of a man who’s written the same op-ed since the 1980s, not “redistribution,” is the answer.
In January, the Third Way announced that it was dedicating $20 million “to study how the party lost its way and offer a new economic agenda for moving forward.” Of course, the think tank already knew what the study would find. Its goal, Politico noted, “is to steer the Democratic Party away from being led into a populist lurch to the left by leaders like Sen. Bernie Sanders or Sen. Elizabeth Warren.”
Likewise, Marshall’s New Democracy is urging Democrats to strike a tougher, more conservative tone on issues like national defense and immigration and to drop “economic victimhood and business-bashing” in favor of “knowledge economy”-focused “pro-growth tax reform; lowering [of] regulatory obstacles to innovation and entrepreneurship; [and] fiscal policies that favor investment over consumption.”
But Third Way and New Democracy’s preferred strategy is exactly the one Democrats have been pursuing for the past forty years. It’s the strategy that led Democrats to enact many of the policies that Black Lives Matter activists are protesting. It’s the strategy that quickened the collapse of the American labor movement. It’s the strategy that pushed Democrats to pass a welfare reform bill that left millions of impoverished Americans worse off. It’s the strategy that convinced Democrats to wait to back marriage equality until corporate America got on board. It’s the strategy that resulted in the passage of the Affordable Care Act, rather than the extension of Medicare to all Americans. It’s the strategy that caused Democrats to back trade deals that put downward pressure on the wages of blue-collar workers of all races, while exempting white-collar workers from the same competition. It’s the strategy that gave us President Donald Trump. It’s a strategy that hasn’t worked and will never work.
If college-educated whites are attracted to economically moderate, socially liberal candidates and repelled by economically populist, socially conservative candidates, it’s hard to see how the Democrats could ever stage a better matchup than Clinton versus Trump.
Clinton did better among college-educated whites than any past Democrat. But it still wasn’t enough. And had the GOP run a more traditional candidate — a Jeb Bush or a Marco Rubio — it’s likely that Clinton wouldn’t have captured as many votes from college-educated whites.
The reality is, most whites with a college degree are less committed to racial justice — and more wedded to GOP tax cuts — than Democrats and liberal pundits imagine. Most importantly, continuing to follow the New Democrats’ strategy will fail to grow and energize the party’s would-be base of workers and poor people of all races.
In 2016, as in 2000 and 2004, the Democrats followed the advice of New Democrats, nominating a candidate who downplayed conflictual issues like inequality to woo well-off whites; in all three years they lost a presidential contest that most models said was winnable.
The New Democrats’ strategy is even more boneheaded at the congressional level. There are only so many states and districts that contain a critical mass of people of color and well-educated whites. And even at the presidential level, that strategy assumes that simultaneously appealing to both white professionals and Latino workers, for example, will never conflict.
In order to win the White House and, especially, take back Congress, Democrats will need to be competitive in states with large numbers of downscale whites. “Democrats can’t rely on increasing support in already-blue states, and it seems that key red states aren’t ready to flip yet,” the Huffington Post’s Natalie Jackson correctly notes. “The best strategy for 2020 will be to focus on the very narrow losses in the Rust Belt and win those voters back — which probably means convincing them that Democrats are a better option for improving their economy than Republicans.”
“The Democrats’ coalition of the ascendant,” one recent study notes, “is very inefficiently distributed.” So while demographic change might help them win the popular vote, it won’t help them in the Electoral College, Congress, or state legislatures.
In addition to losing the White House, as well as House and Senate majorities, Democrats have given up nearly nine hundred legislative seats at the state level since 2008. In 2016, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee targeted thirty-two House seats, mostly in Midwestern states. The Democrats won only eight.
Unfortunately, the conservatives surrounding Trump understood the failures of neoliberalism better than many Democrats. Back in 2014, GOP pollster (and later Trump adviser) Kellyanne Conway championed “a new open-mindedness to populist approaches, regardless of partisan or ideological preferences” among voters — particularly non-college-educated voters worried about the economic effects of trade.
But most mainstream Republicans, still wedded to traditional business conservatism, didn’t want to listen. The best GOP elites had to offer was Frank Luntz’s idea to rebrand “free trade” as “American trade.” When Trump began talking about workers hurt by free trade and implying that the bipartisan political establishment cared more about Wall Street than average Americans, Republican leaders bristled. “Most people don’t think, ‘John’s success comes at my expense.’ Or, ‘My success comes at your expense,’” Paul Ryan told CNBC’s John Harwood in March. “People don’t think like that. Bernie Sanders talks about that stuff. That’s not who we are.”
But as the success of Trump and Sanders attests, people do “think like that.”
It’s a reality that many liberals still don’t want to accept. Adam Davidson, NPR’s economic reporter, argued that Clinton was struggling among whites without a college education because Clinton avoided Trump’s demagogic promises of a better future and instead stood by the “calm, reasonable, accurate, right answer” to the problem of falling wages, which was: “Your life is going to be worse for the rest of your life.”
“This is part of a bigger problem with American presidential politics selling snake oil to the voters,” Kamarck vented to the New Republic last June. “Everybody from Trump with his stupid fucking wall, to Sanders with, ‘Oh, free college for everybody.’ Of all the dumb things. . . . [P]eople want to believe in Peter Pan. And he’s just not there.”
But people don’t want to “believe in Peter Pan.” They just want to believe that their lives, and their children’s lives, will improve.
Contrary to the New Democratic conventional wisdom, a left populist message like the one Sanders offered had a much better shot at defeating Trump.
Many Clinton backers believe that Sanders couldn’t have bested Trump because Trump would’ve attacked Sanders as, in the words of Kevin Drum, a “wild-eyed communist.” Not only would Sanders have lost, Drum claimed in December, he would’ve been dispatched in a “landslide.” But Drum’s argument, like many others against Sanders, relies on the same vague conventional wisdom that concluded a candidate like Trump had no chance.
Even assuming that more radical candidates get penalized a point or two in the popular vote, Sanders still could’ve won by running slightly better than Clinton in key Midwestern swing states — many of which he took in the primaries. And that assumption itself is questionable. Given that Trump’s ideological extremism didn’t cost him the election, it’s worth reevaluating both the assumption that “extreme” candidates face a penalty and our definition of “extreme.”
Over the past forty years, the combined influence of Republican reaction and New Democratic conservatism has pushed American politics to the right, particularly on economic issues, to the point where most Americans hold more progressive economic views than existing policy reflects. Sanders’s supposedly extreme positions are actually closer to average Americans’ views than those of ostensibly mainstream politicians. If anything, Trump’s win shows that breaking with the “Washington consensus” can actually buoy a candidate.
Instead of Clinton’s content-less economic optimism, Sanders would’ve asserted that “the system had indeed been rigged, but by people like Trump, against Trump’s own supporters.” It’s a counter-argument perfectly suited to the moment. As a Democracy Corps study found, an economic message attacking Trump as the candidate of Wall Street and an adherent of “trickle-down” economics “performed dramatically better in consolidating Millennials, white unmarried women, and white working class women” than a message focused on Trump’s disparaging remarks and unfitness for office.
Hypothetical head-to-head polling data by Reuters showed Sanders outperforming Clinton in a matchup with Trump in almost every demographic group. Contrary to claims that Sanders primarily appealed to whites, he polled four points better among people of color than Clinton.
Among the less educated whites that helped Trump win, Sanders did even better. He ran thirteen points ahead of Clinton among whites without a high school diploma, eight points better among those with a high school diploma or some college, and three points better among college graduates. Sanders also outpolled Clinton among whites in all income groups except those making over $250,000. In both low-education and low-income groups, the biggest disparity in Sanders’s performance and Clinton’s in a hypothetical showdown with Trump came from voters who said they’d stay home or opt for a third-party candidate if the contest was Clinton versus Trump rather than Sanders versus Trump.
Looking at the Rust Belt states Clinton lost by small margins, the contrast is even more striking. For example, in the March to June polls, Clinton trailed Trump 39.5 to 32.6 among whites with some college or less in Michigan; Sanders won those voters 44 to 34. Clinton’s percentage among those same voters stayed virtually the same through Election Day, whereas Trump picked up nearly all of the undecided or uncommitted voters in that category.
Sanders scored particularly high marks among young people. Across every racial category, Americans between eighteen and thirty favored Sanders over Clinton. Sanders not only tapped into the economic frustrations of Millennials, he also pushed their views left on a variety of issues. “He’s not moving a party to the left. He’s moving a generation to the left,” John Della Volpe, the director of a Harvard poll of young adults told the Washington Post last year. “He’s impacting the way in which a generation — the largest generation in the history of America — thinks about politics.”
While it’s certainly possible that Sanders could’ve lost to Trump, it’s difficult to argue that his populism would’ve proven a more ineffective parry than Clinton’s neoliberalism.
Economic Populism or Antiracist Politics: the False Choice
If the 2016 election demonstrated anything, it’s that the type of economic moderation needed to appeal to upscale whites also dampens enthusiasm among the other groups who are supposed to round out the “rising American electorate.”
One union staffer got the prescription and remedy right:
What [Clinton campaign strategists] seem to have missed is that the way to reach blacks, Latinos, and women is the same way you reach the white working class: progressive economics, and knock on their doors. And guess what? The allegedly “racist” and “sexist” white working class is cool with a multicultural coalition as long as you give them the progressive economics. On the other hand, it turns out that downplaying the progressive economics loses everyone except the skilled professionals.
The notion that a neoliberal vision of equality will enthuse Millennials and people of color is New Democrat myth. Simply being slightly to the left of the GOP on social issues isn’t enough.
Advancing economic populism doesn’t mean deemphasizing the fight against racism, homophobia, or any other form of oppression. Movements from Justice for Janitors to the National Welfare Rights Organization have shown that an attention to the particular forms of domination (racism, sexism, etc.) can strengthen a universal class politics, and vice versa.
The New Democrats fashioned “a strain of corporate-friendly liberalism that deploys identity-based critiques of class politics as tools for obscuring the divergent material interests of rich and poor Democrats,” as New York magazine’s Levitz ably summarized. For example, while Hillary Clinton’s campaign had much to say about the value of women in political office and corporate boardrooms, it had little to say about the plight of the poor single mothers that the Clintons’ welfare reform bill pushed further into poverty. Clinton’s feminism was “trickle-down-feminism,” as Dissent’s Sarah Jaffe dubbed it.
In order to move beyond the New Democrats’ failed strategy, the party must combine social justice with economic populism. It must, for example, adopt a left feminist politics focused on “rethinking the length of the workday, socializing child care, decoupling Social Security and health insurance from employment, and returning to the welfare rights movement’s call for a guaranteed minimum income.”
Workers of all colors want a more progressive economic vision. On almost every economic issue, from spending on the poor to labor unions to health insurance, larger percentages of blacks and Latinos than whites hold left-leaning views. What Clinton lacked, Belcher’s focus groups showed, was a message that went beyond slamming Trump as a racist. Many black Millennials were looking for a positive agenda around issues like criminal justice reform and economic justice, not just criticism of Trump. And as political scientists Keith Gaddie and Kirby Goidel found, “working class whites are more supportive of government guaranteeing jobs and income and, in general, of equalitarian values than other whites.”
Large majorities of non-college-educated Americans say that Washington DC doesn’t represent their views and that they have too little influence over politics. They think that the government does too much to help the wealthy — more than say that the government does too much to help the poor or “racial and ethnic minorities” combined.
Government action to attack rising economic inequality, including raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations, is overwhelmingly popular with both Democrats and Independents. The percentage of the public that believes hard work leads to success has fallen nearly 15 percent in the last fifteen years. More than 70 percent of Americans agree that “the American economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful.” A majority regards both prosperity and poverty as the result of forces beyond an individual’s control.
The least financially secure Americans are the most likely to support progressive economic policies. But they also have the least coherent political views, are the least politically engaged, and the least likely to vote. Many see no point in participating in a political system they justifiably dismiss as tilted toward the rich. They’ll continue to sit it out if Democrats don’t change their tune.
A progressive politics that fails to link racism and class is just as doomed to fail. “The progressive movement,” Ian Haney-López and Heather McGhee argue, “should expand from a vision of racism as violence done solely to people of color to include a conception of racism as a political weapon wielded by elites against the 99 percent, nonwhite and white alike . . . [and should] take up the race conversation with white voters, by directly addressing racial anxiety and its role in fueling popular support for policies that hand over the country to plutocrats.”
This connection, they note, does not “equate the harms to whites and to people of color done by racism.” Rather, it makes clear to audiences of all hues what they have at stake in fighting racism. “To enlist many whites in the battle against racism,” Haney-López writes, “requires demonstrating to whites that by voting according to dog whistle appeals, they’re wrecking their own lives — their work conditions and wages, their pensions, their health care, the education and future of their children.”
The most powerful message tested by Greenberg’s polling outfit in 2014 was one that “linked big donations to politicians advancing the interests of wealthy donors who used unlimited, secret money to make sure that billionaires’ and CEOs’ taxes remained artificially low and their loopholes stayed protected.” Most importantly, hearing that argument before proposals for a more activist role in the economy made respondents more receptive to the latter.
“[W]hite working-class and downscale voters,” Greenberg writes, “are acutely conscious of the growing role of big money in politics and of a government that works for the 1 percent, not them.” Despite their support for many progressive policies, they are “only ready to listen when they think that Democrats understand their deeply held belief that politics has been corrupted and government has failed.”
Without offering a positive vision that addresses voters’ substantive concerns, neither the expansion of white-collar work nor an increasing percentage of people of color will give Democrats the majorities they need to win.
Contrary to the implications of both the “working-class authoritarianism” thesis and much New Democratic rhetoric, the rise of the service economy hasn’t led to the embourgeoisement of the working class. Approximately 70 percent of the country lacks a bachelor’s degree, and these Americans are as likely to work in white-college jobs as blue-collar ones. Many white-collar jobs are in the low-wage service sector, and even more professional white-collar workers are experiencing proletarianization of white-collar work.
“[P]rofessionals have increasingly found their work subject to the dictates of insurance companies, entertainment conglomerates and other large institutions that have imposed a bottom-line mentality,” Judis pointed out in 2002. “As a result, professionals have become increasingly inclined to distinguish their priorities from those of the market and of large corporate interests.”
Though they’re supposedly a generation defined by college education and white-collar jobs, a majority of Millennials identify as working class, while only 35 percent identify as middle class — the lowest of any generation. Both young Americans as a whole and young working-class whites, in particular, hold vastly more progressive views on both economic and social issues than their older counterparts.
Within education groups, lower-income whites vote more Democratic, while higher-income whites vote more Republican. This pattern was visible in Clinton’s loss. Her biggest gains among college-educated whites came with those making more than $200,000 per year; she actually won fewer college-educated whites making less than $30,000 than Obama did in 2012.
Likewise, treating non-white racial groups as monoliths in a “rising American electorate” obscures crucial class fault lines.
The same sense of group competition for economic resources and social status that motivated some working-class whites to vote for Trump cuts across racial lines. On measures of support for racial and ethnic diversity, the differences between non-college whites and non-college blacks and Latinos are often more muted than one might expect. For example, 38 percent of non-college whites say diversity is “harmful because some people feel like they no longer belong,” along with 38 percent of non-college blacks and 31 percent of non-college Latinos. Like whites, African Americans worry about competing with Latino immigrants for jobs, and blacks are more likely to believe negative stereotypes about Latinos and oppose extending services to Latinos if they feel that Latinos are surpassing African Americans socially and economically.
While it’s hard to imagine African Americans deserting the Democratic Party anytime in the near future, thanks to the GOP’s overt anti-black racism, the same can’t be said about Latinos.
Many pundits adopted a reductionist caricature of Latino voters, assuming that immigration was the only issue that mattered to them. Despite predictions that Trump’s rhetoric would usher in an era in which Latinos would give Democrats “routine and overwhelming support,” Trump quite possibly did better among Latinos than Romney did in 2012. At the very least, a Trump-induced exodus to the Democratic Party failed to materialize.
What these predictions overlooked is that many Latino Americans, particularly those whose families have been in the US for more than two generations, believe illegal immigration is bad for the country. Research also shows that many Latinos harbor negative stereotypes about African Americans, particularly when they live in the same neighborhoods as blacks.
Even in his most inflammatory statements about Mexican “rapists,” Trump attempted to differentiate “hard-working” Latino citizens from undocumented immigrants, a rhetorical move redolent of longstanding conservative rhetoric separating the “deserving” from the “undeserving” poor.
Just as Irish and Southern and Eastern European immigrants “became white” in the early twentieth century by setting themselves apart from African Americans, more Latinos are now self-identifying as white, and those white-identified Latinos are more likely to support the GOP. It’s possible (if unlikely) that Latinos will “become white” en masse.
More than this, however, socioeconomic and ideological differences among Latinos should not be ignored. In 2012, Obama won Latinos with a high school degree or less by forty points, but those with at least some college education by only ten points.
In part, that’s because well-off Latinos hold many policy views that are remarkably similar to those of well-off whites — that is to say, conservative ones. From the 1940s through the 1980s, few class differences existed when it came to the economic or social policy views of either Latinos or African Americans. But since the 1980s, well-off Latinos and well-off African Americans have pulled away from their poorer counterparts and embraced more conservative views on issues like government spending on the poor.
And the GOP will undoubtedly continue to try to exploit class divisions among Latinos.
Demographics, in other words, won’t save Democrats.
The Path Forward
In the crudest terms, politics is about winning elections, then enacting policies that empower your base and secure your political advantage. For more than forty years, the GOP has followed this model almost flawlessly.
Republican presidential candidates win elections by running as “compassionate conservatives” and downplaying or misrepresenting their unpopular positions (particularly on entitlement programs). Once in office, they enact policies that enrich their donor base and undermine the unions, liberal interest groups, and social programs that empower the Democratic base.
Democrats have taken the opposite route. In order to placate upper-income white moderates and appease their corporate donors, Democrats often capitulate to — or participate in — Republican attacks on their own base.
Since the post-McGovern triumph of neoliberalism, the Democratic Party has offered little to workers and the poor but calls for “opportunity.” Even President Obama, who focused on inequality more than any post-LBJ Democrat, refused to break free from the “opportunity” framework. He spurned a potential economic adviser simply because she’d once used the word “redistribution,” and in his inequality-focused Osawatomie speech, he stopped short of championing equality, instead vowing to make “sure that everyone in America gets a fair shot at success.”
Likewise, the “Great Gatsby Curve,” released in June 2013 to great fanfare by Obama’s CEA chair Alan Krueger, saw inequality only through the prism of opportunity, arguing that heightened inequality made it harder for families to move up the economic ladder across generations. All too often, the Obama White House focused on inequality only as a contributing factor to another problem, be it low social mobility or slow economic growth. But a progressive vision that fails to see all forms of inequality as injustices in and of themselves is no progressive vision at all.
While the Obama administration made some gains in reducing inequality — particularly compared to other post-1960s presidents — most of the redistribution occurred as a result of the ACA’s shifting of income from the top one-tenth of 1 percent of Americans to the bottom 20 percent of Americans. Little of the redistribution reached Americans above the fortieth percentile — meaning that the main policy changes undertaken during Obama’s presidency failed to unite the poor with the working and middle classes.
As the administration itself admitted, Obama’s policies countered only “roughly one-tenth of the increase in the share of after-tax income accruing to the top 1 percent over the last three decades.” The bottom 95 percent of Americans still have a smaller share of after-tax income than they did in 1979.
For decades, Democrats have crafted policies that favor complex “nudges,” “kludges,” and “market-based solutions.” They’ve hoped that funneling progressive programs through the tax code instead of setting up new programs would curb conservative opposition.
Yet not only have such strategies failed to blunt the GOP’s attacks on the welfare state, they’ve also created what political scientist Suzanne Mettler has dubbed the “submerged state.” By shrouding government largesse in layers of complexity, Democrats have made it seem that such benefits are natural, rather than the product of state intervention. As a result, the recipients of this “hidden welfare state” are neither grateful to the politicians or party who enacted the programs nor committed to defending them against conservative attacks.
Take the Affordable Care Act. Fearing cries of “big government” and fights with insurance companies, Democrats embraced a mandate-and-subsidy model with roots in the conservative opposition to Bill Clinton’s market-based health reform plan. The ACA is popular among low-income Americans — including low-income whites — who have benefited from the Medicaid expansion and the most generous subsidies. But the working- and middle-class Americans who benefit from its other, more complex, provisions often fail to realize it.
That’s because the ACA represented an attempt at redistribution within, rather than between, classes, shifting costs from the younger and the healthier to the older and the sicker. The bottom 20 percent of the population benefited significantly, while the rest of the population saw little improvement. Bettering the lives of the poor is of course a laudable goal, but doing so through a maze of market incentives, regulations, and tax subsidies, rather than a universal program, is a recipe for political unpopularity.
As Matt Bruenig has highlighted, the structure of the ACA generates “enormous resentment.” Working-class people just above the Medicaid eligibility cutoff see poor people just below them getting better, cheaper coverage. Indeed, because of the means-tested nature of many tax credits, Medicaid is not the only program that seems designed to stoke working-class resentment at those just barely poorer than them. This dynamic isn’t unique to the ACA. Rather, it’s inherent to all mean-tested programs.
With the ACA, the Democrats took ownership of the country’s failed model of for-profit health insurance. Once the public option went by the wayside, the ACA became something closer to an “Insurance Industry Profit Protection and Enhancement Act,” as former health insurance executive Wendell Potter quipped, than to a universal health care bill. In the minds of many Americans, the ACA’s salient feature is the individual mandate, which forces them to purchase a product from a private company that always seems to be getting more expensive.
While the GOP’s attempts to repeal Obamacare have failed and boosted the law’s popularity, its flaws remain — and Republicans are hell-bent on exacerbating them and sticking Democrats with the blame.
Time and time again, Americans have shown their willingness to defend simple, universal programs even when, as with Social Security, they’re funded by regressive taxes. Democrats must embrace a universal, social-democratic model of social provision, whether in the form of single-payer health care, national child care, or guaranteed jobs. Not only are such programs more popular and politically durable, they’re also harder to tilt toward the well off — which is exactly what the GOP has done with the “submerged state” of tax subsidies.
New universal programs won’t be feasible, however, until Democrats give up the canard of “fiscal responsibility.” For more than thirty years, Republicans have been playing Democrats for budgetary fools. Each time Democrats have pursued austerity, they’ve ended up clearing fiscal space for a subsequent GOP tax cut for the rich. Carter’s “fiscal responsibility” underwrote Reagan’s top-heavy tax cut — and then Clinton and Obama made the same mistake.
Democrats’ priority must be to expand existing entitlements and introduce new ones. If the deficit balloons, the debate will then be whether to solve it with higher taxes on the rich or cuts to popular programs. That’s a debate they can win.
Beyond pursuing universal programs — which will give uncommitted or unenthused workers of all races a reason to go to the polls — Democrats must push policies that will grow their potential base. As studies demonstrate, labor unions are a proven tool for shaping members’ opinions on a wide variety of issues. Unions also provide a key non-corporate source of campaign funding, mobilize their members for broader progressive causes and policies, and, most importantly, shift economic power downward. A meaningful working-class politics without organized labor is a contradiction in terms.
From the CIO unions of the 1930s to the Memphis sanitation workers strike of 1968 to the Las Vegas Culinary Union today, unions at their best have melded the universal with the particular, fighting for economist justice while battling more specific forms of oppression. And the more oppressed the population, the more valuable unions tend to be. A study by sociologists Jake Rosenfeld and Meredith Kleykamp found that unions disproportionately boosted the wages of African Americans and that “black-white weekly wage gaps would be between 13% and 30% lower if union representation remained at [the] high levels [of the 1970s].”
Democrats’ support for left-leaning groups must go beyond unions, too. For decades, the GOP has worked to put one progressive organization after another — from ACORN to Planned Parenthood — on the defensive. Too often, as in the case of ACORN, Democrats have capitulated. But groups like ACORN and Planned Parenthood are central to mobilizing Democratic voters.
A stronger social movement mentality and continued base mobilization is Democrats’ only hope for durable electoral and policy success.
Finally, and relatedly, Democrats must come to understand what the GOP already does: demobilizing your opponents’ base is as important as mobilizing yours.
In their pursuit of well-off whites, neoliberal Democrats have often aided groups that ultimately side with the GOP. Both Carter and Clinton cut taxes on capital gains, Clinton deregulated the financial sector, and Obama famously treated Wall Street with kid gloves after it wrecked the economy. The Democrats’ reward for kowtowing to finance has been to watch Wall Street return to the GOP fold whenever convenient — including following Trump’s victory.
Instead of keeping taxes on the rich low and regulation on business light in a futile attempt to out-GOP the GOP, Democrats should work to curb the economic and political power of corporations and the well-off at every turn. Rather than stoking economic growth and elevating wages, low taxes on upper incomes have only boosted inequality and handed money to the rich that they’ve turned around and used to lobby for even more regressive, capital-friendly policies.
Ultimately, Hillary Clinton’s defeat can’t be attributed to the moral failings of the white working class or the political savvy of Donald Trump, but to the utter failure of neoliberals’ strategy. For too long, Democrats have privileged well-off whites over the needs of the multiracial working class.
If Democrats want to have a chance going forward, they’ll have to throw out the DLC playbook.