In the reemerging “struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party” that was made inevitable by the events of November 8, advocates of economic populism — many of whom are convinced that Bernie Sanders would have beaten Donald Trump like a drum — are riding pretty high. And that’s not surprising: With so very much attention being focused on white working-class voters ravaged by neoliberal economic policies defecting to Trump and the GOP, the persistent case that Democrats need to get back to a purer class-based argument against economic privilege probably makes more sense now than it did when Barack Obama managed to strike both “populist” and centrist notes during his 2012 reelection campaign.
There is, however, a more controversial undertone to the populist argument: that while talking more about economic inequality and blasting Wall Street and corporate power, Democrats ought to talk less about other things, like the cultural or “identity” concerns of women and minorities, on grounds that such commitments alienate the white working-class voters who awarded Trump the presidency (there are echoes here, I cannot help but note, of New Left arguments during the 1960s that student radicals needed to cut their hair and throw away their tie-dyes in order “not to alienate the workers.”) This argument has understandably generated a backlash, particularly from feminists who view it as an attack on Hillary Clinton for, well, being a woman. But lurking just under the surface of the populism-versus-identitarianism fight is the much older and more controversial proposition that Democrats got it backwards when they embraced economic centrism and social liberalism. And you can understand why that idea is persistent: Vast swaths of the white working class, in the Midwest and in the South, were once represented politically by economically “populist” but culturally conservative pols. It was one of the great underpinnings of the New Deal coalition.
Even as liberals and progressives argue about the right mix of messages for Democrats, we are about to see a test of the economic populist/cultural traditionalist message two days from now, in the Senate runoff in Louisiana. And it’s very likely not going to go well for the Donkey Party.
Democrat Foster Campbell has one of those political jobs economic populists crave: He’s a utility regulator, someone given constant opportunities to fight the Man on behalf of the little people. And in his Senate race against Republican John Kennedy, he’s playing the role up to the hilt:
“I don’t wear a thousand-dollar suit to walk down a gravel road. He does,” Campbell says in another [line] that refers to a recent Kennedy campaign ad.
“It’s like you close your eyes, and you’re listening to Huey Long ridicule his opponents with a one-liner that put them in their place,” said Bob Mann, a Louisiana State University professor, referring to the assassinated former governor, one of the most colorful politicians in the history of Louisiana.
Beyond the masses-versus-the-classes rhetoric, Campbell’s supporters are also going after Kennedy, a former Democrat, as a cultural liberal, focusing on his long-past pro-choice politics. Indeed, one group running ads on behalf of Campbell is basically calling his Republican opponent a baby-killer:
The ad alleges that Kennedy supported abortion from 1988 to 2004 and, as viewers hear a beating heart, posts the number 22,581,040 on the screen.
“That’s how many children were aborted during John Kennedy’s career as a pro-choice politician,” the announcer says, citing figures from National Right to Life.
“Foster Campbell worked with us to protect the unborn,” the announcer adds.
The trouble for Campbell — and for other Democrats who think they can thread the needle with white working-class folk with a combo platter of economic and social themes — is that voters motivated by this kind of messaging have already chosen up sides and joined the conservative coalition. Yeah, maybe Kennedy flip-flopped on abortion and Campbell didn’t, but the former belongs to the party that has made recriminalizing abortion a priority and thus has been endorsed by the National Right to Life Committee. Something similar has happened on a more limited front on economic issues, for that matter: Millions of hard-pressed white working-class voters who hate elites and are by most definitions “populist” persistently think Big Government and even labor unions are their nemeses as much as Daddy Warbucks or even snooty neoliberal bicoastal types. Trading in business suits for flannel and waling away at rich people isn’t going to change that overnight.
Or so the polls in Louisiana would suggest. Kennedy is drifting toward a decisive win on Saturday. There hasn’t been a lot of polling on this race, but Kennedy has consistently led Campbell by a very comfortable double-digit margin. Superior runoff turnout by Republicans is another advantage. Louisiana Democrats may rightly complain they aren’t getting much help from the national party. But money does not seem to be Campbell’s problem. The Pelican State is now pretty reliably red, and economic populism — even when combined with a right-to-life position that’s more viable in Louisiana than almost anywhere else — won’t change that.
Yes, Democrat John Bel Edwards won a gubernatorial runoff in Louisiana last year, and that gives Campbell some hope for an upset. But it took Bobby Jindal basically wrecking the state, and a feckless gubernatorial campaign from Senator David Vitter, to make that happen. In normal elections, it’s going to take Democrats a lot of work — and yes, reliance on the “identity politics” issues of minority voters who are a lot thicker on the ground in the South than white voters longing for liberal populism — to make the state truly competitive again.