I Don’t Want to Hear It

In a bizarre turn of events, it has now become a source of controversy within the Democratic Party to advocate for using a message of economic populism to reach out to the white working class. Some argue that doing so must necessarily involve retreating from strong progressive positions on racial, gender, and LGBT equality (an odd claim, since the champions of these causes throughout American history have been almost uniformly economic progressives). Still others worry that the purity of the Democratic Party’s essence will be tainted if too many white people are included in the Democratic coalition, leading to reduced influence by people of color. This segment of the party has become quite a bit smaller, but as a result louder, since it became clear that we cannot take demographically-induced victory as a given. Yet others claim (despite the example of Barack Obama) that no inroads can be made into the white working class beyond Hillary Clinton’s 2016 performance without relying on racist, sexist, and nativist appeals.

What I find strange about these claim is that the people making them are mainly devoted Hillary Clinton supporters who had not a single bad word to say about her efforts throughout the campaign to court white Republican voters. With the negative ads about Trump’s treatment of women, she cast her net widely, aiming to flip conservative women as well as liberal. The weeks she spent hyping her endorsements by such Republican deplorables as foreign policy neocons and corporate titans were aimed at a white, Republican-friendly, wealthy demographic.

So here’s the rule: if you can’t show me your record of denouncing that outreach to actual Republicans as an unacceptable dismissal of the interests of workers and people overseas and other common Republican targets; and if you can’t show me your insistence that we dare not risk having our pure wine watered by the presence of those voters, then I don’t want to hear your argument about why an actually-progressive outreach strategy like a message of left-populism is a betrayal.

If you only start howling about outreach across the aisle when it targets people down the income scale, but were comfortable with much more conservative appeals aimed at a wealthier, no less white demographic, I am going to conclude that your problem is with economic progressivism itself. Because it sure isn’t outreach to white swing-voters per se.

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4 Comments

  1. Hmmm.

    Your point about the classist “logic” here (outreach to white wealthy people who are often racists is good, outreach to white working-class people who are often racists is bad) is really good.

    That said, I think part of the (often unstated) assumption here is that reaching out to the white working-class means reaching out in a targeted fashion to *Trump voters.* I think this is a false assumption. We need to reach out to the disturbing number of non-voters, of all races, by giving them a material reason to vote. Most of these people are poor or working-class. By appealing to them, we may peel off a sliver of the less-racist and more-duped Trump voters (which might give us the needed edge in key states), but I don’t think our efforts need be targeted at Trump voters in particular. But it’s often assumed that they do need to be.

    And I think that’s what at least some of the argument you’re responding to is kicking against. There’s no denying (by reasonable people) that Trump’s vocal racism is a huge part of why people voted for him. There’s a suspicion, which I share, that a strongly anti-racist populism simply *will not attract* Trump supporters in any large numbers, because racism is part of the deal for them. I’m not sure the Obama/Trump voters (to the extent that they exist; I suspect the Obama/stay-at-homers are larger in number, but haven’t seen polling on this) are evidence against this, because Obama was not IMO running a strongly anti-racist *campaign* and he was also not running against an overt white supremacist. He ran a ‘post-racial’ campaign against two bland white guys who did not throw raw white supremacist pseudo-populist meat at the base (I mean, Sarah Palin did her best, but she wasn’t top of the ticket). Is his candidacy evidence that the Obama/Trump voters would go for an anti-racist populist running against a racist pseudo-populist? I don’t think so. Ergo, there’s a suspicion that it will be all-too-tempting for outreach efforts targeted to his supporters to compromise on anti-racism in some way, because his supporters won’t go for the strongly anti-racist populism. Hillary Clinton’s outreach to white wealthy voters by touting neocon endorsements did involve such compromise (her emphasis on Donald’s misogyny did not, but was unhappily ineffective among conservative women). I didn’t like seeing Kissinger whitewashed, and I don’t want to see Trump or Bannon whitewashed (so to speak) in our outreach efforts either.

    In any case, I think anti-racist populist appeals to the working-class, including the white working-class, are the way to go. I just don’t expect it to make major inroads into *Trump voters*, so much as to draw non-voters into the process. I do worry about what appeals to Trump voters specifically might end up looking like.

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    • I agree, it is a false assumption to equate the use of progressive populism to win more of the white working class with outreach to the median Trump voter. The average Trump voter is comfortably middle class, ideologically opposed to progressive economics, and a committed Republican voter. That isn not who anyone on the left is saying we need to reach out to. As you say, it is working-class people of color, not white people in the upper middle class and above, who could also be reached by this message.

      I do not agree, though, that “it is often assumed” by those arguing for a strong progressive message on the economy are looking to reach out to core Trump voters and not working class people of color. Quite the opposite, these are the same people who were calling for such a message in order to turn out the millennials – the most diverse generation in our nation’s history. It is often assumed by those who are opposed to that progressive, populist economic message that this message is aimed at the core Trump voters, but that is their error.

      I find that the entire debate that is happening is plagued by this confusion between the core and the fringe of Trump voters. People think they’re having a mutually-intelligible conversation when they are talking about two different groups, causing people with similar viewpoints to find each other’s arguments appalling.

      Something everyone should keep in mind when discussing making inroads into the white working class: we don’t need to win them, we just need to lose them by Obama-like numbers instead of those of Hillary Clinton. There is no question that an effort to actually win overall among white working class voters would involved some ugly appeals, or at least some muting of the core Democratic message, and that is wholly unacceptable. No one wants to go back to the Clinton messaging of the early 1990s, least of all those progressives who spent the campaign denouncing it and being appalled by those who defended it. That those defenders are now turning around and accusing progressives of wanting to adopt a similar message makes me question their good faith.

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    • I am thrilled that the contest is coming down to a great progressive champion of labor and civil rights vs. the Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

      I am a big fan of Tom Perez, but I’d rather see him run for Governor of Maryland next year. I hope this belated, probably quixotic run for DNC Chair won’t rule that out. Hopefully, like Tim Ryan’s challenge to Nancy Pelosi, Perez is playing a longer game and using the visibility of this contest to boost his profile for a campaign for public office soon.

      Either Perez or Ellison would represent a major advance for the progressive takeover of the party, but Ellison’s deeper resume in electoral politics makes me think he’d be better at the day job of running the DNC – the organizing and message-crafting and coalition building.

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