The New York Times recently ran a provocatively titled piece. “Are Liberals Helping Trump?” the headline asked.
Invoking the recent wave of protests filling streets and infiltrating town halls across the country, Sabrina Tavernise, based on interviews with “on the fence” Trump voters, wonders whether these protests are counterproductive, and worries backlash against Trump could further alienate tentative Trump supporters who would otherwise be open to joining the other side.
The piece did what it set out to do: for several days it was one of the most-read articles on the Times website, and it spurred impassioned reactions across the political spectrum.
The general thrust of the article, though, appeared to be in the direction of the argument, made most often by centrists and anti-Trump conservatives, that if Democrats want to overcome their current state of powerlessness, they must make an effort to win over Trump voters.
“Dems will need to attract many Trump voters to retake congress,” argued the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who was quoted in the piece. “They should be more welcoming to them.”
In short, Democrats should not move left, as many have advised, but right, in an effort to capture those who are supposedly straddling the center.
The problem, of course, is that this is absolutely nonsensical advice.
Tavernise cites interviews with several Trump voters who should be “natural” allies “for liberals trying to convince the country that Mr. Trump was a bad choice,” arguing that “if political action is meant to persuade people that Mr. Trump is bad for the country, then people on the fence would seem a logical place to start.”
But the waves of protest set off by Trump’s election, she concludes, are repelling “moderate conservatives” and “pushing them closer to Trump.”
This conclusion is hardly original: As one commentator noted, it is essentially the “trope that is always used to attack protest movements of any kind.”
Most interesting, however, is not the article’s arguments—some of which are downright nonsensical, like Tavernise’s insinuation that vocally supporting Trump today is akin to coming out as gay in the 1950s—but its hidden assumption, summarized nicely by Jonathan Haidt above.
Democrats, the narrative goes, need to assuage Trump voters if they are to regain power.
But here’s the thing: they don’t.
Even a cursory examination of the voting data reveals Trump hardly established an unconquerable coalition of deranged right-wingers and sensible moderates.
Trump, to put it in a few words, did not win the election—Hillary Clinton lost it.
To counter this point, many have highlighted the number of white working class voters who cast their ballot for Obama twice, but then chose Trump in 2016. What often goes unmentioned, however, is the fact that, as Konstantin Kilibarda and Daria Roithmayr summarize, “voters who fled the Democrats in the Rust Belt 5 [Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin] were twice as likely either to vote for a third party or to stay at home than to embrace Trump.”
The conclusion reached by Kilibarda and Roithmayr serves as a stark contrast to Tavernise’s.
“This data suggests that if the Democratic Party wants to win the Rust Belt, it should not go chasing after the white working-class men who voted for Trump,” they write. “The party should spend its energy figuring out why Democrats lost millions of voters to some other candidate or to abstention.”
And if we zoom out and take an even broader look at the numbers, this conclusion is, on its face, far more plausible than the alternatives offered by Tavernise and Haidt.
It has been estimated that over 90 million eligible voters chose to sit out the election. “Disproportionately,” noted Sean McElwee in a 2014 report, “non-voting citizens are low-income, young, less educated and people of color.” They also consistently express more progressive views than voters, who tend, on average, to be older and wealthier—and more conservative.
These facts hardly bolster the claim that Democrats must convert Trump backers, however “tentative” they are; actually, they thoroughly undermine it.
Democrats lost not because Trump won over a decisive slice of moderates who could have gone one way or the other. They lost because their candidate so thoroughly failed to offer a positive agenda, choosing instead to rely almost solely on fear of Trump as the primary motivating force, that many who helped form the Obama coalition stayed home on election day.
The task for Democrats going forward, then, is to assemble an agenda that will have broad working class appeal, and to nominate candidates who can credibly push this agenda. As The Week’s Ryan Cooper observed, with this approach “maybe you’ll peel off a few disillusioned Trumpkins, but more importantly you can activate the vastly larger population of nonvoters.”
In closing, here’s some advice for Democrats: Abandon the brainless search for “moderate” Republicans. Conservative intellectuals like David Frum may have voted for Clinton, but most Republicans, however “on the fence” they may be about a particular candidate, reliably walked (and will continue to walk) the party line. What didn’t work during the campaign—remember “Republicans for Hillary”?—isn’t likely to work in the coming months, or years.
Far more fruitful than any attempts at mass persuasion would be an organized effort to cultivate the enthusiasm and anger that has emerged in the wake of Trump’s election and convert it into sustainable political movements.
To achieve this lofty objective, Democrats should turn not to the small slice of so-called moderate Trump backers who are hostile to progressive goals, but to the millions who have taken to the streets to demand solutions to unprecedented wealth inequality, systemic racism, environmental degradation, and ghastly rates of child poverty.
As Jim Newell has written, Democrats don’t need to create a winning message from scratch, as it has “already been made for them—not in hotel ballrooms, but in town halls around the country and quite literally in the streets.”
They just need to listen.
Jake Johnson is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter: @johnsonjakep