There is a certain left-ish strain of argument that:
(1) Hillary Clinton represents elites.
(2) Donald Trump represents rage against elites.
(3) Donald Trump is getting support because of this rage against elites.
(4) Hillary Clinton and other “elites” should support particular policies or communicate with or to attract Donald Trump’s voters (generally economic populism and opposition to free trade, which should be emphasized in contrast to “identity politics”) (see Thomas Frank). We should also avoid calling Trump supporters “racists.” (Michael Tracey, Glen Greenwald)
While I am no fan of elitism, it makes me wonder who leftists think is going to be in this anti-elite, social democratic coalition. If we assume that this new anti-elite coalition will be built on the ideas of Bernie Sanders’ social democracy, the core of this movement will be non-white voters. This is because non-white voters are already favorable to the general ideas of social democracy, and because it is a growing piece of the electoral pie. However, non-white voters have legitimate concerns about how the government will treat them, given that one party has nominated a racist and the leadership of that party (including the speaker of the house) refuses to see racism as a disqualifying attribute for a president. It is therefore incumbent on the supporters of the proposed social democratic order to demonstrate credibly that the new order will effectively protect their rights.
Black and Latino Voters are the Logical Core of the Social Democratic Order
The argument that “identity politics” and economic distributional issues are in conflict doesn’t really make sense when you look at who supports expanded social programs. Hispanics and blacks are both more more likely to support Obamacare and to support increasing the minimum wage. While issue polling is difficult to locate across the entire ideological spectrum, I strongly suspect you’d find higher support for more robust social programs and a larger government role in American life across issues. It seems 100% logical that a political movement built around social democracy would have at its heart the people who tend to already support its goals.
For those wishing to implement a Bernie Sanders-like agenda, starting the coalition around non-white voters makes sense for another reason: this a voter bloc that is growing in the future and has potential for mobilization in the present. The U.S. will cease to be majority white in 2043. Non-whites are also poorer than average and have lower wealth than whites. Any movement to turn U.S. politics away from the interests of the rich will be heavily tied to this demographic shift, and could actually be supercharged by working strongly with non-white voters. Additionally, while strong community organization has ensured black turnout nearly matches whites in recent elections, Hispanics have lagged behind in turnout. That means an ideological movement that appeals to Hispanics could gain an immediate boost by organizing those voters, then sustained growth for years based on the relatively quicker growth of the Hispanic population compared to whites. This isn’t to say it would be easy to do. Democrats of course are highly interested in mobilizing Hispanic voters but have had little success in closing the gap. But the opportunity is there.
Thinking of this another way, what is the coalition for a Bernie Sanders style agenda without non-white voters? Thomas Frank argues that if you tack left on economic issues or maybe just use more rabble rousing rhetoric, you’ll draw poorer white voters. I don’t really see any evidence to support this theory. People are frustrated with the system at the moment, but if a mere tack to the left on economic issues would solve the problem why did half the anger flow toward Trump in the primaries. Some of it is obviously non-ideological outrage at elites, which elites certainly deserve based on their performance running things over the past 30 years.
Minorities have real concerns about how life would be in a world governed by anti-elites
While many of the leftists quoted in the intro have good points about how the media and the elite class have screwed things up and refused to be held accountable, they are making a grave mistake in trying to pretend that elites are doing something wrong in calling out racism from the opposing party’s nominee for president and mobilization of white nationalist sentiment.
The civil rights of blacks and Latinos is still very much being litigated in this country. At the moment, explicitly racist policies are predominantly the domain of certain rather radical state and local governments. A primary example of this are North Carolina’s voting rights law. The North Carolina legislature requested voter data by race, then targeted the methods of voting used most by African Americans with “almost surgical precision.” In Arizona, the state mandated-not-mandated racial profiling. The Republicans are no longer committed to robust While these are a few of the most egregious assaults on minority rights, they demonstrate that minority rights are still a live issue being litigated in this country.
The reason terrible and discriminatory policies have not gained more traction is that (1) the Democratic party counts minorities as key supporters of its agenda and (2) there is an elite consensus that openly racist language and legislation is inappropriate in the popular political discourse. This situation has been static since Nixon won with a dog-whistle “law and order campaign.” This set the stage for an ultimate realignment of the parties where Democrats contain social liberals and minority voters, while the Republican party contains business interests and anti-pluralist whites. This alignment is stable, because the elite consensus prevents anything truly abhorrent from happening to black and brown people, while dog whistle politics allows the Republicans to maintain electoral viability despite highly unpopular economic ideals.
The problem with this alignment is it places the wealthiest people in an extremely advantageous position, since the potential constituency for stronger redistribution is split between the two parties but cannot control either one. Therefore, they continue to consolidate power and wealth, further alienating the rest of the people. This is the primary complaint of the Bernie Sanders supporters, who correctly view the rise of CEOs and highly paid financiers as an existential threat to democracy.
But what absolute anti-establishmentarians forget to note is that these elites are providing a firewall against a very real and very ugly possibility of retrenchment on many civil rights gains of the last 50 years. The Civil Rights laws are not ancient history, and are not guaranteed from abrogation by any principle of decency or democracy. The only thing that is keeping them there is the lack of a current political coalition for more stringent attacks on this (beyond the aforementioned attack on the Voting Rights Act).
Frank and others envision racial politics as broadly peripheral issues in our current national politics. There are two potential reasons I can see for this determination.
1. Important issues of racial equality have already been litigated, and it is therefore time to generally shelve these issues in favor of pressing issues of economic inequality and the amount of power held by the richest.
2. Racial issues are just not as important as economic issues.
On the merits, I don’t agree with either position. But what I would say to the people who do hold Frank’s position is that it doesn’t matter. Based on the level of support for Republicans, minorities clearly still think these are going to be big issues. Black voters have been around 90% Democratic since Goldwater vs. Johnson. Hispanics went from 40% support for Bush to sub 30% for McCain and Romney partially as a result of increased polarization on immigration as an issue. Black and Hispanic voters believe that Democrats will protect their interests better than Republicans. But there’s no reason things have to stay this way.
If Democrats start conspicuously demoting issues of racial equality in a ploy to win over Trump voters, minority voters are going to notice. Without constant vigilance from at least one party, there are plenty of draconian and abhorrent racially charged laws that could be passed in various localities. Additionally, the Justice Department has done yeoman’s work suing racist police departments and getting illegal laws stayed (such as the North Carolina voter law). While I don’t expect DOJ would stop enforcing the laws, a less aggressive enforcement policy would be notable and really, really bad.
In addition to being morally wrong, these changes would drive black and Hispanic voters away from the Democratic Party just as it is trying to reach for more economic populism. And its not at all clear to me that Trump voters or downscale whites would have any particular interest in moving to the Thomas Frank Party. White voters without a college degree made a big shift toward the Republicans during Obama’s first term, and Mitt Romney was not exactly running for the Andrew Jackson vote. It would be a major tactical mistake to ignore a loyal constituency which already holds economic views aligned with the Left in order to chase people who haven’t shown they are persuadable by economic appeals.
Instead of pushing for an abandonment of morally important and politically salient economic issues, economic leftists should try to understand why black and Latino voters went for Clinton, and why they tend to vote more pragmatically in general. After these discussions they will hopefully be positioned to understand that elite consensus in favor of at least some modicum of racial equality and opposed to overt racism in the public dialogue helpful. Hopefully then we can move to maintain parts of this decent elite consensus while attacking the aspects that maintain enormous wealth and power in the hands of just a few people, a status quo which harms the country as as whole.
I think the Democratic establishment could do a better job appealing to economic populism. That said, racial justice and economic populism are complementary. Commitment to racial justice is also a precondition for gaining support from a large number of people who are amenable to economic populism. Leftists do the cause of economic populism no favors when they fail to call out the racist tendencies within the Trump movement, or suggest that Democrats should downplay racial issues which are morally imperative and popular with economic liberals.
The blame for the Democratic Party is misplaced.