Until Nov. 8, everyone talked as if the presidential election would hinge on smallest incident: a killer ad, a fatal gaffe, an October surprise. But now, in the emerging conventional wisdom, tactics are suddenly deemed unimportant, as we rush to propound big theories about What It All Means. We now hear that Donald Trump’s victory — which he is calling, preposterously, a landslide — was the result of the grand tide of history, a thundering declaration of Vox Populi: Identity politics is dead. Populism is ascendant. #WhiteWorkersMatter. The people want change.
The Democratic Party, without question, has lessons to learn and adjustments to make to win next time. But to interpret Hillary Clinton’s loss as a wipe-out by an inexorable tide instead of what it actually was — a contingent loss that could easily have gone the other way — risks prescribing a cure for the party that would be worse than the disease.
Trump’s gains among the white working class have convinced many Democratic leaders and pundits that the party now has to run hard to the populist left if it is ever to win again. Signs are everywhere. Rep. Keith Ellison — one of the party’s most left-wing members in Congress, one of a handful to endorse Sen. Bernie Sanders for president — remains the favorite for Democratic National Committee chair. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, nobody’s idea of a centrist, had to withstand a challenge for her post by Tim Ryan, a minor congressman from Ohio, who pushed his flyover cred and jobs, jobs, jobs. Reflecting the new anti-establishment consensus, Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan declared, “Every single person in our caucus agrees the system is rigged”— employing an unfortunate cliché of insurrectionist demagoguery favored by Trump and Sanders to impugn Clinton’s credentials.
The new concern for struggling white voters isn’t wholly without merit. In hindsight, it’s clear that Clinton’s campaign should have emphasized her progressive economic policies more than it did (even though, according to exit polls, voters who named the economy as their chief concern preferred her to Trump). It also might have helped her to campaign in Wisconsin and Michigan (though repeated trips to Pennsylvania, Florida and North Carolina didn’t deliver victories there). And perhaps Clinton should have attacked Trump as a con man and phony populist rather than as a racist, groper and mocker of the disabled (though polling recommended the latter line of attack).
Yet all of these ex post facto insights only underscore the provisional nature of the Democrats’ defeat; none of them invalidates the party’s core liberal message, which — most pundits seem to forget — has always included a central commitment to economic fairness along with social inclusion and equal rights. In their quest to win back swing voters, party leaders must not jettison a philosophy that has been politically and economically effective.
The election of 2016 was not a repudiation of the Democrats. The mere fact that Clinton won the popular vote — by a larger margin than anyone else ever denied the presidency — shows that her message and the party’s doctrines still command a vast and potentially winning following. That a shift of less than 90,000 votes in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania would have made her president suggests that something other than an ideological revolution was at work. A party that wins the popular majority in six of the last seven presidential elections doesn’t need a gut-job renovation.
Compare today’s situation to that of the period from 1972 to 1988. Back then, the Democrats lost four of five presidential races — three of them in true landslides. They barely eked out a victory in 1976 when the Republican Party was reeling from Watergate.
The Democrats’ liberalism in those years really was out of step with the country when it came to managing the economy, conducting foreign policy and coping with social unrest. Only after extended soul-searching and policy innovation did a new generation of leaders such as Bill Clinton and Al Gore find ways to reclaim the so-called Reagan Democrats — the white working class by another name — and reunite them with the Democratic liberal base into a winning coalition.
What the Democrats need today, in contrast, is an adjustment not an overhaul. Clinton, Obama and other Democrats in recent decades have pushed for (and often secured) more progressive taxation, higher wages, a stronger social safety net (including college savings programs and healthcare coverage), and stricter regulation of business and finance. Left-wingers would have you believe the party abandoned such goals, when in reality it was Republicans who thwarted more expansive healthcare reform, an increased estate tax and paid sick leave for workers.
Moreover, the Democratic Party today, unlike earlier incarnations, has also gotten behind policies to promote growth (such as investment in infrastructure), the high-tech sector and, yes, free trade. During both the Clinton and Obama administrations, GDP climbed, unemployment fell and deficits shrank. Contrary to popular belief, government data show these policies helped even those in the bottom quintile. And Democrats combined all this with new freedoms for women, racial minorities, and gays and lesbians.
The calls for Democrats to become more “populist” seem to amount to a matter of tone — marshaling an emotionally satisfying us-against-them rhetoric that blasts banks, big business and the 1%. Democrats shouldn’t be shy about injecting their message with righteous indignation, but they shouldn’t ignorantly imply the whole system is rotten. Theirs is the reality-based party — respecting expert knowledge, balancing growth and social needs and putting practicality over purity.
To get much more “populist” would require compromising core liberal values. A more Trump-like immigration policy might create a tighter domestic labor market in some sectors and drive up wages, but at the expense of betraying the party’s historical openness to people seeking a better life. Trump’s jobs program rests heavily on expanding fracking, which is anathema to environmentalists. A move toward Sanders-style socialism — such as making all public colleges and universities free — would likely alienate moderate voters.
Democrats possess one important advantage in our partisan, 50/50 nation: As the Republican Party has hurtled farther rightward the Democrats’ leftward drift has been more restrained. They must not now mimic the GOP and turn into a party of ideological purists, abandoning the political center and with it their best hope of becoming again a catholic, tolerant, pragmatic party that can win and govern.
David Greenberg is a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University. His latest book is “Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.”
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