Ever since Hillary Clinton’s loss to President-elect Donald J. Trump, Sen. Bernie Sanders and his progressive followers have been calling on the Democratic Party to adopt a more robust economic platform that addresses the concerns of labor.
“Facts are facts,” the Vermont Senator told reporters last week. “When you lose the White House to the least popular candidate in the history of America, when you lose the senate, when you lose the House, and when two-thirds of the governors in this country are Republicans, it is time for a new direction.”
Sensible as this may seem, given it was the white working class in the Rust Belt that ultimately cost the party the election, not everyone is welcoming a course correction.
In a recent column for New York Magazine titled, “Blaming Clinton’s Base for Her Loss is the Ultimate Insult,” Rebecca Traister, a writer who has castigated both “Obama boys” and “Bernie Bros” (in essentially the same article, written twice eight years apart), took aim once again, at the left arguing that addressing the economic concerns of working class white voters would lead to the abandonment of minority groups. Dismissing the role disenfranchised groups play in Sanders’ vision for the future, Traister framed progressivism as a privileged, white ideology.
“It is unconscionable,” she wrote. “[T]his know-better recrimination, directed at the very people who just put the most work and energy into defeating Trumpism, coming from those who will be made least vulnerable by Trump’s ascension.”
Clinton’s erstwhile primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, seemed to amplify Lilla’s message on his book tour this week by recommending that Democrats embrace the working class and “Ditch Identity Politics,” according to one headline. In fact, the headline was overblown: Sanders did not say we should dump identity politics, and affirmatively noted that “we should bring more and more women into the political process” and that “we need 50 women in the Senate!”
But Sanders did say something telling. Asked by a young woman who described herself as wanting to become “the second Latina senator in U.S. history” for tips, Sanders offered not advice, or even acknowledgment of the particular roadblocks — sexism, racism, fundraising, party support — she might encounter. What he offered instead was an insulting reaction to what he assumed must motivate her ambition: an argument based purely on identity. Noting that she “would not like” what he was about to say, he scolded her that it was “not enough” to say, “Hey, I’m a Latina, vote for me”; that it was “not good enough for somebody to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’ No, that’s not good enough.” Never mind that nobody has ever made that argument for a female or minority candidate except in the fevered imaginations of Hillary haters. It is clear that this is what Sanders hears when someone describes a desire to overcome representational inequality in politics: an infantile, politically unsophisticated, feather-brained appeal to narcissistic self-advancement.
Traister is not alone in her sentiments. Other writers have been weighing in on the need for a new direction.
One is Sady Doyle, a blogger who was exposed by Wikileaks for coordinating with Clinton’s campaign during the primary:
Another is Wonkette's Rebecca Schoenkopf:
Here's Mehdi Hasan of Al Jazeera:
And MSNBC national correspondent and Daily Beast contributor Joy-Ann Reid, in a piece titled, “President-Elect Donald Trump Gets to Work Betraying His Backers,” also attacked progressives calling for a more economically-focused Democratic Party:
Democrats continue to practice “identity politics” at their peril, they say; demanding that issues around rape culture, Black Lives Matter and merciful immigration policy be scotched in favor of bucking up men, dialing back blunt talk on race, policing and DREAMers, and emphasizing things like border security. In other words, Democrats must learn to talk more like Republicans and marginalized groups must learn to be quiet. The party has been here before, and ironically, that kind of thinking is what produced Bill Clinton, whose surname, and wife, the very people hawking this prescription loathe.
These hyperbolic remarks shed light on a divide that has existed under the surface of left wing politics for generations, between social liberalism and labor (economic progressivism).
In the 1970’s as antiwar congressional Democrats ousted the old establishment by eliminating seniority rules, the party began moving away from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal liberalism (labor), opening its doors to big business while maintaining its push for civil rights (social liberalism). Over the next decade, however, Reagan Revolution’s changed the political landscape and people recoiled from the Democrats’ and “big government.”
This was when the Clintons and their New Democrats rose to power abandoning social liberals and appealing to white working class voters, as Reid pointed out, but with a serious caveat. While President Clinton did abandon Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition, he also abandoned economic progressivism, favoring lax regulation, free trade, and an incremental approach to change. This approach was only successful given the legacy of the Democratic Party, and it soon faded, and social liberals took control.
As columnist Emmett Rensin explained in a prescient piece for Vox from April, titled, “The smug style in American liberalism,” which dissected and documented the Democratic Party’s problem with working class voters, this was the point when liberalism changed.
A movement once fleshed out in union halls and little magazines shifted into universities and major press, from the center of the country to its cities and elite enclaves. Minority voters remained, but bereft of the material and social capital required to dominate elite decision-making, they were largely excluded from an agenda driven by the new Democratic core: the educated, the coastal, and the professional.
It is not that these forces captured the party so much as it fell to them. When the laborer left, they remained.
After social liberalism became the prevailing ideology within the party, the economic populism of the New Deal Era remained abandoned. Democrats assured the progressive left of commonality of purpose, but recoiled from the white working class and the poor.
However, following decades of uneven growth and economic uncertainty culminating in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, the political landscape changed. In its wake, more and more, people started demanding government solutions to ease their struggling. To date, no administration has adequately done that.
Keith O’Brien noted in an article from June in Politico titled, “Uprising in the Rust Belt,” Donald’s Trump’s “road to the White House” began in Cambria County, Pennsylvania.
Hillary Clinton and the social liberal Democratic establishment were caught off guard by the new landscape, and openly hostile to it. Just as the party had been doing for years, Clinton’s Democrats wrote off all opposition as attributable to irreparably flawed people—the bigots, the stupid, the naive, the uneducated, the “bros,” the “deplorables.”
It was the same mistake Mitt Romney made in 2012 with his “47 percent” remark, repeated over and over again.
Republican strategy guru Lee Atwater recognized this toxic dismissiveness on the left years ago, and “dumb” Republicans have been exploiting it ever since, outfoxing “more qualified” liberals by caricaturing them as elitists. Unsurprisingly, 2016 was yet another year that hubris cost Democrats the election, vindicating Rensin’s April prediction:
Faced with the prospect of an election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the smug will reach a fever pitch: six straight months of a sure thing, an opportunity to mock and scoff and ask, How could anybody vote for this guy? until a morning in November when they ask, What the fuck happened?
Not only did the white working class abandon them, but poor minority voters were not convinced enough that Democrats were going to solve their problems, many of which are economic.
Since the What the fuck happened? moment arrived, many Clinton diehards have reacted badly, building straw men to explain their defeat, the burning of which will provide little warmth to those most vulnerable in Trump’s America, or petulantly insisting on a symbolic victory.
Traister’s column, for example, contains the following passage:
All of these people are facing very dark and scary days, and instead of blaming them, I want to thank them. I’ll also thank Clinton herself, now an old woman, who worked her ass off for decades to do something no woman has ever done before; and President Barack Obama, who for eight years showed us a different picture of what leadership could look like in America. Neither of their careers would have been possible without the struggles of generations of “identity politics” activists that came before them.
In other words: It is totally fine that Clinton, who had secured the nomination through a skewed primary contest, lost to the least popular candidate in generations, ensuring hard times ahead for struggling Americans and minority groups. At least we made history with the first female major party nominee!
Such a response reveals both the deep cynicism and deep disconnect of social liberalism that has not embraced economic progressivism. Clinton’s achievement, muddied by the reality of the skewed primary that handed her the nomination, is, at best, cold comfort for those who now fear for their safety.
That is why, as Michael Moore told Paste earlier this month, no longer can Clinton Democrats call the shots for the party. The only option is for the left to rethink liberalism. It can no longer ignore or exclude small towns and the financial distress of white voters. It can no longer sit back and lob insults rather than engage, as Traister did in her piece, unleashing on the hosts of the progressive podcast Chapo Trap House:
The world has never lacked for young, spoiled white people (perhaps mostly men), who grumble ungratefully at their parents (perhaps mostly moms), who’ve done the work of putting food on a Thanksgiving table, and instead return to their onanistic gaming aeries with loaves of bread (no roses) and an absolute assuredness that they know better than everyone else and that one of the great injustices of the world is the ban on them saying whatever vulgar thing they’d like to.
Enough is enough. This is so clearly not how the left should deal with dissent.
Donald Trump is president, and already he’s filling his government with terrifying fringe people like Senator Jeff Sessions, Steve Bannon, and Betsy DeVos.
The reality is economic issues have eclipsed social issues in the minds of ordinary American voters, so those who profess to prioritize social justice have a responsibility to adapt; to make sure Bernie Sanders’ progressive populism is the future of the Democratic Party. Only with this transformation can Trumpism be defeated.
The stakes are high. If the Democrats fail to win a majority of state legislatures by 2020, the GOP will again be able to redistrict the House of Representatives, allowing Republicans to foil reform for the next decade. If Democrats do not prevent a Republican supermajority in the Senate, there is no telling what Trump will do.
Follow Walker Bragman on Twitter.